I'm a little troubled by how quick some people (particularly on the right) are to make Gates' behavior the crux of the issue. Even without videotape, I think it's reasonable to surmise that Gates acted badly (though not illegally). From there, the general consensus on the right seems to be of a piece with this bit of folk wisdom from Tom Maguire:
Back in 1986 I was in Beverly Hills for a friend's wedding. While out jogging at about 9 in the morning I was hassled by a cop for jaywalking and threatened with a trip downtown since I didn't have any ID. A trip "downtown" in shorts and a t-shirt really didn't appeal to me or fit into the wedding schedule, so rather than summon forth the memory of centuries of British oppression of the Irish I employed the power of positive groveling. Don't cop an attitude with the cops - is that rule too complicated?
The general assumption being that if you're rude to a police officer, they then have carte blanche to abuse the law. This seems like an awfully dangerous idea to accept.
Let's leave aside the First Amendment implications for a minute. (Even though they're pretty substantial, haven't a lot of American soldiers died so that you can cop any sort of attitude you want towards the police, so long as you don't break the law?) The problem with Maguire's dictum is that it demotes police officers to the level of private citizens, giving them no greater expectation or accountability.
That simply can't be. Police officers are entrusted with the state-sanctioned use of force. We give them the power to arrest and kill. When police employ any of their powers, they do so not on their own behalf, but on behalf of the whole of society. (Remember that criminal offenses are, properly understood, offenses against society itself. That's why, in a murder trial, it's the state against the defendant, not the victim against the defendant.)
Because police are acting not as private citizens but as agents of the state, they should be expected to enforce the law fairly and dispassionately at all times. Not just during business hours. Not just when they had a good night's sleep. Not just when the citizen in question is especially winsome or accommodating. If an offender breaks the law, groveling and sniveling before an officer should not affect the officer's judgment. By the same token, someone who does not break the law should not be able to change an officer's judgment by being rude and inconsiderate. The law is the law is the law. (And besides, as I said yesterday, the police don't do this stuff out of the kindness of their heart. Cops are paid precisely to endure such abuse in the course of their duties. That's why they're compensated and don't work as volunteers.)
All of that said, the consensus view seems to be that, political theory aside, in the real world one must expect police officers to be incapable making such fair-minded, dispassionate distinctions. Steve Sailer writes,
[Yo]u don't make serious unfounded accusations at a cop if you don't want something bad to happen to you. It's not fair, but that's the way it is.
But is that really true? Are no police officers capable of tolerating a rude civilian, making an even-handed judgment about the law, and concluding an encounter without letting their egos take control the situation (leading to poor applications of the law)? I very much doubt that. And if even one police officer would have been capable of handling the Gates situation better, then we must expect all officers to live up to that standard. The "that's just the way the world works" shrug we're seeing is the worst sort of defining deviancy down. That way lies the police state.
Update: More great moments in policing here.
In the comments, Anonymous Super Trooper, who in the past has claimed to be a cop, begins his argument by asserting, "Gates did break the law." Once again, Anonymous Super Trooper does more to injure his cause than to assist it. Gates did not break the law. Gates is not even alleged to have broken the law. The police arrested him, charged him, and then dropped the charges. With neither a judgment nor a charge against him, there are no grounds to assert that Gates' behavior transgressed the boundaries of the law.
The fact that Anonymous Super Trooper can't make even this basic distinction--and that he feels no compunctions about rendering illiterate legal conclusions--should serve as a broader caution for those who would give cover to the police to handle social (rather than legal) transgressions as they see fit.
Final Update: The great Mark Steyn takes a line similar to most other conservatives:
I certainly sympathize with the general proposition that not all encounters with the constabulary go as agreeably as one might wish. Last year I had a minor interaction with a Vermont state trooper and, 60 seconds into the conversation, he called me a “liar.” I considered my options:
Option a): I could get hot under the collar, yell at him, get tasered into submission, and possibly shot while “resisting arrest”;
Option b): I could politely tell the trooper I object to his characterization, and then write a letter to the commander of his barracks the following morning suggesting that such language is not appropriate to routine encounters with members of the public and betrays a profoundly defective understanding of the relationship between law-enforcement officials and the citizenry in civilized societies.
I chose the latter . . .
What strikes me here is how analogous this response is to how the left viewed the Danish Mohammed-cartoon crisis. Sure, they said, free speech is nice in theory. But it's rude to purposefully provoke another religion. And when Muslims the world over riot and kill people well--what do you expect? That's just what they do. Better to keep your voice down, make nice, and never offend them.
Substitute "cops" for "Muslims" and you have the conservative position on police misconduct.
In both cases, the sentiment is wrong-headed and pernicious.
Final Final Update: Radley Balko makes the case against Officer Crowley much better than I did, so we'll let him have the final word. I'm going to excerpt heavily, but you should read it all:
By any account of what happened—Gates', Crowleys', or some version in between—Gates should never have been arrested. "Contempt of cop," as it's sometimes called, isn't a crime. Or at least it shouldn't be. It may be impolite, but mouthing off to police is protected speech, all the more so if your anger and insults are related to a perceived violation of your rights. The "disorderly conduct" charge for which Gates was arrested was intended to prevent riots, not to prevent cops from enduring insults. Crowley is owed an apology for being portrayed as a racist, but he ought to be disciplined for making a wrongful arrest.
He won't be, of course. And that's ultimately the scandal that will endure long after the political furor dies down. The power to forcibly detain a citizen is an extraordinary one. It's taken far too lightly, and is too often abused. And that abuse certainly occurs against black people, but not only against black people. American cops seem to have increasingly little tolerance for people who talk back, even merely to inquire about their rights. . . .
If there's a teachable moment to extract from Gates' arrest, it's that arrest powers should be limited to actual crimes. Instead, the emerging lesson seems to be that you should capitulate to police, all the time, right or wrong. That's unfortunate, because there are plenty of instances where you shouldn't.
The most obvious case where deference to authority can be counter-productive—both in practice and in principle—is when police attempt an unlawful search or seizure of your person and property. But there are plenty of other instances as well, particularly with the spread of information technology.
Photographing or videotaping police ought to be a protected form of expression under any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution. Yet at the website Photography Is Not a Crime, photographer Carlos Miller has tracked dozens of cases in which police have unlawfully demanded someone cease photographing on-duty cops. Typically, police demand photographers hand over their cameras, and those who refuse are often arrested. In some of the cases, the preserved video or photographs have vindicated a defendant, or revealed police misconduct. Miller started the site after he himself was wrongly arrested for photographing police officers in Miami. . . .
Just days before Gates was arrested, Philadelphia newspapers reported on a local cop who was captured by a convenience store's security video brutally assaulting a woman who had been in a car accident with his son. He then arrested her and charged her with assaulting him. The officer then demanded the store clerk turn over surveillance video of his attack. The clerk says other officers made subsequent demands to turn over or destroy the video. To his credit, the clerk refused. The video vindicated the woman. The officer has since been suspended. . . .
This [conservative] deference to police at the expense of the policed is misplaced. Put a government worker behind a desk and give him the power to regulate, and conservatives will wax at length about public choice theory, bureaucratic pettiness, and the trappings of power. And rightly so. But put a government worker behind a badge, strap a gun to his waist, and give him the power to detain, use force, and kill, and those lessons somehow no longer apply. . . .
Verbally disrespecting a cop may well be rude, but in a free society we can't allow it to become a crime, any more than we can criminalize criticism of the president, a senator, or the city council. There's no excuse for the harassment or arrest of those who merely inquire about their rights, who ask for an explanation of what laws they're breaking, or who photograph or otherwise document police officers on the job.
What we owe law enforcement is vigilant oversight and accountability, not mindless deference and capitulation.