Naomi (naomikritzer) wrote,

What police work can look like

I've been following the Gates story with interest since it broke. There are a lot of things about the commentary I've found depressing -- first, the number of white people in utter denial that Gates' race could have made any significant difference in the interaction, but also, the number of people who have the attitude, "hey, if you yell at a police officer, of COURSE you're going to get arrested." When did we decide that this was a reasonable expectation, as a society? When did we decide that we were going to expect police officers -- people we hand guns to, and pay out of the public purse! -- to be a bunch of power-tripping, violent loose cannons that can't be trusted to act with even the most marginal common sense?

I'm not saying that this is not a realistic assessment, unfortunately, but why do so many people seem to consider it OK?

I had the cops walk in on me investigating a possible-burglary-in-progress call, years ago. I was fifteen, and babysitting for the son of one of my father's colleagues. Graham and Gina were going out of town the next day; they'd told the neighbors, and one of them had the dates slightly wrong. She saw the back door open and a light on, and called the police, who entered without knocking, scaring the crap out of me when they suddenly appeared in the doorway of the family room, where I was sitting on the couch watching TV.

"Oh," the officer said. "You must be Gina."

"Nooooo," I said, wondering if something awful had happened to the parents. "I'm the babysitter."

There were two police officers; they were extremely polite, with a general attitude of, "we're so glad everything turned out to be okay!" They did ask for my ID, I think, but did so in a deferential way; they took a quick look at my high school ID and left immediately. I didn't get mad at them, but they did nothing to make me mad; moreover, I was a scruffy teenager in a house that really was NOT hers. The kid was in bed. Most burglars do not kick back and watch TV mid-burglary, but some do.

When Graham and Gina came home and heard the story, their immediate concern was whether the police had mistreated me. I reassured them that it had been no big deal, and I think they resolved to be clearer about dates with their neighbors in the future.

I'm white, in case you didn't know. Also female. Oh, and this was in Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison's police department in the late 1980s was run by a guy named David Couper. He was a big fan of community-based policing; he also held a black belt in Judo, and applied a lot of the Judo philosophy to police work. In my later high school years I was a rebellious teenager with a chip on her shoulder and lots of troublemaking friends; I definitely did not appreciate our police force. (And of my high school friends reading this, some may still hold grudges, for good reason even. No police force will ever be 100% asshole-free, even with good leadership. But the philosophy of the leadership really does matter.)

During my senior year of high school, the students at the school got seriously disgruntled about police harrassment of students. Madison was expanding community-based policing, which in the Regent neighborhood meant they were responding to the concerns of the neighborhood about the behavior of the students, and the students were feeling persecuted. There was more to it than that, but my explanation was boring so I deleted it. It doesn't matter all that much.

Anyway, some of my friends decided to plan a protest -- a walk-out. This was probably in early October of 1990.

I will note a couple of things.

1. Everyone involved had been to protests before (when you're a teenager in Madison, protests are a major social outlet) (or at least this was true in the 1980s) but no one had ever organized one before.

2. So they forgot about some stuff. Like, in order to talk to a crowd of people and be heard, you need some sort of amplification. Yelling isn't going to cut it.

3. Publicity, though. They were AWESOME at that part.

There was a radio show on the classic rock station called "Sly in the Morning." Sly was a Madisonian shock-jock -- sort of a much (much) tamer (and more liberal) Howard Stern. He'd always have a topic for his morning show, and run calls in between songs. If he liked what you had to say, he'd let you talk; if he didn't, he'd insult you. Teenagers loved it because he talked much like a teenager with poor impulse control, only he had a much wider audience than your average 14-year-old. He started his shift by taking suggestions for topics, so one of the kids involved got up very, very early and called in to suggest the topic of, "the police are harrassing West High students. What should be done?" The plan was that someone ELSE would call in later -- right around the time everyone at West was getting up and listening to the radio while getting ready for school -- and talk about the walk-out. It worked.

It worked really really really well.


(Oh, and another one of my friends -- who can identify himself if he wants ::waves enthusiastically at fellow miscreant:: -- who I think was not in on this plan, put in a call that resulted in Sly calling up one of our vice principals and calling him an asshole on the air! Which I still think is kind of awesome, because while I've really come to appreciate the Madison police force of the 1980s after living in Minneapolis for 14 years, I still hate the West High vice principals.)

Everyone knew, and EVERYONE CAME. West was a BIG high school; we had about 1800 students, and the front lawn was FILLED when everyone walked out. It was incredibly exciting. Then someone tried to make a speech and no one could hear a word of it. And no one really knew what they were supposed to do, or where they were supposed to go; there was no central communication, so no one could really direct things. It was a genuinely volatile situation, where an idea would sweep through the crowd and people would start moving, but the people in the back wouldn't necessarily know where we were going.

The Madison police, of course, knew about the planned protest. They knew what people were protesting; they knew that a police presence would be not an incentive to stay peaceful, but a focus of anger. So they didn't provide one. They were a block away, just out of sight.

People started moving, and I followed along; someone had had the idea to block Regent Street, the major street that ran past the high school. We surged out into the street, blocked it, and sat down.

At which point the police appeared -- but well out of our way, a block back on either side -- and routed traffic around us. They made absolutely no effort whatsoever to get us to move. We could sit there all day, if we wanted, was the message their actions sent; it would be a minor inconvenience but, you know, whatever. If you want to sit, sit.

After a while, people got bored, and left Regent Street and moved back to the high school's lawn. Milled around on the lawn for a while, and then the bell rang....and everyone went back to class. Protest over.

Even at the time, even as a snotty teenager, I had to respect the way the police handled this. This is what I'm talking about when I say Couper used Judo principles. This approach will not work in every situation, but running in and cracking heads rarely defuses things either. In Minneapolis, years ago, PETA ran a protest where they sent attractive young women to strip naked and lock themselves to public signs while chanting "I'd rather go naked than wear fur!" In January. Minneapolis dealt with this by sending about two dozen officers to cut the locks, rough up the protestors, and arrest them. I thought, "It's January in the upper midwest. Isn't this likely to be self-limiting behavior?" It would have worked just as well to send a couple of cops to direct traffic and wait until they got bored. And cold. Nudity is not a major public menace, you know? (They may have done just that in Madison. I can't remember for sure.)

One of the times the Madison cops DID really screw up, that I remember, involved an arrest for "disorderly conduct" of a couple of women who were sunbathing topless. This created a major scandal, and there was a big shirtless protest (in February, IIRC, brrrrrr) and everyone was breathlessly planning lots MORE big shirtless protests for spring when, to the disappointment of many, the Police Chief issued an official statement in so many words that his officers had better things to do than chase around a bunch of bare-breasted women and no tickets would be issued for topless sunbathing. Which completely took all the fun out of it and I don't recall seeing any topless women roaming the Madison parks that summer.

One more story.

For years, the Madison police dealt with the Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival in part by ignoring all pot-smoking that took place during the festival. The year I went, the word had come down that they were to enforce the law, and ticket all pot-smokers, so they did. They put the word out, first of all; they made sure everyone, including the organizers, were warned. (The organizers responded by suggesting to everyone that they get stoned and THEN come.) Not only that, they were very explicit about what would happen if you chose to violate the law and got caught; if you had ID on you, you would immediately be issued a ticket. If you didn't have ID, you would be taken in to be booked. So people going could decide up front -- do I want to protest the law by breaking it? If so, how far do I want to take it?

Second, all the police were in groups of four. They were also all dressed in their regular uniforms, not riot gear. So they were in groups that were large enough that you were probably not going to flee, or mess with them, and groups large enough to deal with a passively resistant arrestee. But they were not wearing gear that sent a message that they were expecting real trouble, or that made it hard to see their faces.

Third, every cop had some chemical that allowed them to test immediately to see if something was actually pot or something else, so as to weed out (heh) the smartasses who were rolling pseudo-joints out of legal substances like oregano.

Fourth, there was an overwhelming show of force. There were cops EVERYwhere. So if you smoked pot at the festival, you were going to be caught. I saw almost no one smoking pot at the festival (though plenty of people who'd taken the advice to arrive stoned, and one guy with roll-your-own cigarettes who joked that by late afternoon he could've rolled a joint and smoked it, because all the cops had stopped him, tested his tobacco, and let him go so many times already they were going to ignore him from that point onward no matter WHAT it looked like he was smoking.)

Here's my point. (I have one.)

This is what police work CAN look like.

Police chiefs CAN apply basic common sense to enforcement.

Police officers CAN be expected to be honest, fair, polite, and tolerant of a certain amount of civilian snottiness.

Police departments CAN plan non-violent ways to deal with protests, even potentially volatile protests.

These are not unreasonable expectations. This is what I grew up with. Madison is a small city, but it's not a small town.

I will say that I do not know how the Madison police were with racial issues. My high school was full of white kids who wanted to express their liberalism by wearing buttons with pictures of olive branches with multi-colored leaves as symbols of racial harmony....but were not terribly interested in talking to actual black people because they were loud and scary, and were definitely not interested in examining (or admitting to the existence of) their privilege. Anyway, I do not know to what extent the Madison police force of the 1980s engaged in racial profiling; I doubt they were any worse than anyone else, but they may not have been any better.

But -- having lived in a city with an unpredictable, unreliable, and occasionally really scary police force (that is still vastly less scary than the cops in some OTHER cities!) for many years now....I really appreciate how David Couper ran that department. It was not perfect, but it was better than what I've got now.

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