Friday, July 24, 2009

Are Police Racist?

As I'm sure just about everyone is aware of by now, on Monday, July 20th, pre-eminent black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home near Harvard University by Cambridge police officers. There's been a great deal of analysis and opinions being tossed about the media, including those of President Barack Obama, regarding what happened, or what they think happened, that caused Gates to be arrested. The prevailing opinion is that the police officers involved are racists (assuming that they wouldn't have acted similarly if the suspect had been white) and that perhaps all police officers are racists. I don't know any more about the events of Gates's arrest than what I can gather from the media, so my point of view is just as slanted as the rest of America's, including President Obama's point of view (unless he used the authority of his office to gather "inside" information not available to the general public). Let's take a look at what we know. According to the original news report, Gates attempted to force the front door of his house in Cambridge because it had become jammed. At this time, police were notified that there were "two black males with backpacks on the porch" of the house, attempting to force entry. Sounds like an attempted break-in on the surface. Officers were dispatched to investigate. By the time the officers had arrived on the scene, Gates had already gained entry to his house. The officers talked to Gates and asked him to come outside and speak to them, presumably so he could identify himself as the homeowner, or failing that, to explain his forcing the front door open and being inside the house. Again, according to reports, Gates refused to exit his home and began to yell at the officers. Apparently (and this is my opinion), Gates had "jumped from A to Z" and assumed that the officers were trying to question him because (in Gates's own words) "I'm a black man in America". The officer's report states that "Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him". Also according to the news article, Gates asked for the name and badge number of the officer and the officer refused to provide Gates with the information (a mistake on the officer's part, which didn't help). The officer exited the home and Gates supposedly followed the officer onto the front porch, continuing to yell at him and accusing him of racial bias. At this point, Gates was placed under arrest for disorderly conduct and taken to the Cambridge police station where he was booked. He was released later that day on his own recognizance. Gates's attorney, and fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, disputes the official police version of events and says Gates never yelled at the officer. Although Ogletree did not state specifically that he believes the incident was racially motivated, he was quoted as saying, "I think the incident speaks for itself". The overriding question is, would this situation have unfolded exactly the way it did if Gates had been white? There's no way to play out that scenario in absolute terms, but I'll run through an alternate set of events and see what turns up. Let's say the police receive a call of two white men with backpacks attempting to break into an upscale home. At this point, because the suspects are white, do the police ignore the call? Probably not. It's not like white men aren't capable of being thieves, so the police respond to the scene. Upon arriving, they see a white male inside the home. Do the officers assume that the man is the home owner just because he's white? Probably not. They ask the man to step outside and talk with them. This is actually the critical moment in the scenario. What the suspect does next is going to make all the difference in how this turns out. Situation 1: The man starts yelling at the officers, saying they have no right to tell him what to do, that he's the homeowner, and the officers can "go pound sand", or words to that effect. Since the suspect is white, he's unlikely to accuse the officers of racial bias, so the emotional impact of that sort of accusation is missing from this situation. The suspect continues yelling at the officer, asking for the officer's name and badge number. Eventually (as in the actual event), the suspect shows the officer his Harvard ID card but not his drivers license. As in the original event, the officer leaves the home and the suspect follows him onto the front porch, continuing to yell at the officer and generally "getting in his face". Does the officer arrest the suspect for disorderly conduct at this point? Probably. Although the officer is reasonably assured that the man lives there, the man is acting in a highly agitated and aggressive manner. The officer could choose just to walk away, but can reasonably make the arrest based on how the man is behaving. Of course, I can't say that race is or isn't a factor here. Maybe the officer would have let it slide for a white man but not for a black man. I don't know. I don't know the officer personally, and I don't know what he was thinking or feeling at the time of the event. This issue cannot be determined based only on news reports by the media. Situation 2: At the officer's request, the man exits his home and agrees to speak with the officers on the front lawn of the house. The suspect is polite and compliant. Upon request, the suspect produces his drivers license, establishing that he lives at this address. He explains to the officers present that the front door had become jammed and he had to gain entry to his home by forcing the door. The officers comprehend the situation and determine that no crime has occurred. The homeowner thanks the officers for being so diligent in checking on this event. After all, the homeowner would want police to investigate if there was the possibility that his home was actually being broken into. The officers leave and the homeowner goes back inside his house. Case closed. Now the question becomes, would Gates have been arrested if he had behaved as Situation 2 describes? My opinion is probably not. Although it most likely isn't recorded in any law enforcement training or practices manual, there is something called "the attitude test". It is more likely that an encounter with a law enforcement officer will turn out poorly if the person being questioned behaves in an aggressive and hostile manner, than if he or she behaves in a polite and compliant manner. The first thing a law enforcement officer is trained to do when they enter any situation, is to take control and maintain the safety of all parties involved. If a suspect defers to the officer's authority and is polite and compliant with all requests, the officer will understand that he is in control, and that the possibility of danger is minimal to none. If, on the other hand, the suspect challenges the officer's authority, the officer will respond by taking whatever steps are reasonably required to gain and maintain control, up to and including arresting the suspect. Being rude and yelling isn't against the law, although doing so to a police officer may communicate that you are a potential threat and may escalate to physical violence. If Gates had responded as outlined in Situation 2, in all likelihood, he never would have been arrested and this incident would never have come into the realm of public knowledge. It would be a "non-event". Am I saying this is all Gates's fault? No. Anybody who's ever heard of Rodney King knows that police can stop, question, and even brutalize a person due to racial bias. A recent NPR News Story outlines the experiences of black men and their encounters with law enforcement. The information as anecdotal, and I'll reproduce it here:
  • "Erroll McDonald, one of the few prominent blacks in publishing, tells of renting a Jaguar in New Orleans and being stopped by the police — simply 'to show cause why I shouldn't be deemed a problematic Negro in a possibly stolen car.' "
  • "Wynton Marsalis says, '(Expletive), the police slapped me upside the head when I was in high school. I wasn't Wynton Marsalis then. I was just another nigger standing out somewhere on the street whose head could be slapped and did get slapped.'"
  • "The crime novelist Walter Mosley recalls, 'When I was a kid in Los Angeles, they used to spot me all the time, beat on me, follow me around, tell me that I was stealing things.' "
  • "William Julius Wilson ... was stopped near a small New England town by a policeman who wanted to know what he was doing in those parts."
A number of years ago, when I lived in Orange County, CA, I spoke with an African-American man who was an attorney. He drove a very nice Mercedes. He told me that he was stopped on a fairly regular basis by different city police agencies and the Sheriff's Department, because he was a black man driving a very nice Mercedes. He had not been arrested on those occasions, presumably because he was polite, provided his drivers license, registration, and proof of insurance, and did what he was supposed to in order to pass "the attitude test". We live in a racist country. The American awareness of racial issues has gotten better over the past several decades, but racism continues to exist. I used to investigate child abuse for Orange County (California) social services back in the 1990s, and worked with many officers in a number of law enforcement jurisdictions. Most of the officers I worked with seemed professional and generally friendly. I did work with a few that could have used an attitude adjustment or a personality transplant but, at least in my case, my encounters with these types of officers were few. Also, I'm white so I lack the ability to trigger a racist response from a white officer, thus I can't speak from that perspective. Was the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. racially motivated? I have no idea. I can spin scenarios to explain how Gates could have been arrested, either including or removing the variable of racial bias. I can say that based on my analysis, it is possible for Gates to have been arrested just as he was, and the officers not be motivated by racial bias. Asking to question Gates under the circumstances reported is not racism. The officer would have been irresponsible to not investigate the report, regardless of the race of the suspect. That said, it is completely understandable why Gates would "go off" on the officer and automatically assume that racism was involved, based on the disproportionate amount of suspicion black men encounter from law enforcement in this country. This also probably accounts for Barack Obama's opinion that the officer in question acted stupidly when he arrested Gates. It is likely that Obama is projecting himself into the situation (at least at a point in his life when he was not the President), imagining how he'd feel under similar circumstances. Of course, involving himself in this news story as President may be a case of "overkill", but even the President has a right to his own opinion. Could this situation have been avoided? Sure. Gates could have held his temper, passed the attitude test, and the whole thing would have been over in 10 minutes. Also, the officer could have chosen to ignore Gates verbal tirade (I'm assuming the official report is correct that Gates did yell at the officer), determined that Gates was upset at being questioned because of his assumptions, and just walked away. Actually, the officer attempted to walk away when he exited the home, but Gates followed him. While Gates's emotional state is somewhat obvious based on reports of his behavior, we don't know what the officer was feeling. I know from being yelled at, that it's really unpleasant, and the tendency is for me to want to yell back or otherwise retaliate. A police officer ideally doesn't let his emotional state dictate his professional behavior, but not all officers always behave according to the ideal. If the officer made a mistake, it would have been in letting his emotions take control (I'm making another assumption) of his behavior, resulting in the arrest. What can we (society, America, law enforcement, other) learn from this? Regardless of the amount of press this incident acquires, I doubt it will represent a pivotal moment in our nation's history. This is just one of many such encounters between a person of color and law enforcement where racial bias might have or did change the outcome of events. It is a signpost of where we are as a people, and how far we have to go. Everyone just about flipped out with joy when the United States of America elected its first African-American President. "Look how far we've come!", declared our country. We may not see lynchings of black men in Mississippi anymore, or civil rights demonstrations down the main street in Selma, Alabama, but we don't have complete equality, either. African-American President aside, racism in American has not gone away. Are police racists? No, not all police officers or all police organizations are universally racist. I don't doubt that some police officers have personal racial biases. I don't doubt that certain police organizations promote, or at least ignore, the occurrence of racial bias among its officers. This incident is a reminder of what exists in the world, and while we've gotten better as a nation, we need to continue to pursue justice for all of our citizens, regardless of race. Is the officer who arrested Gates a racist? There's no way to tell. As far as I can see from the information publicly available, both Gates and the police officer made some bad decisions, and the result is what we see on the news channels. In that sense, the situation seems less racially caused and more the result of the people involved being human and having feelings.