Friday, July 24, 2009

More Skip Gates--Updated--Final Update--Final Final Update (Bumped)

It's bad enough that I have to side with Gates, but now I'm siding with Obama, too. Ugh.

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. . . .

[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.

Case closed.


Tordesque said...

I started off with you on this, but am parting ways. The more I learn about this situation the more I side with the officer.

In discussing this with my wife, she asked if the officer had escalated the situation. Most accounts indicate that it was escalated just by the officer showing up.

I also think that this kind of behavior on Gates part cannot be allowed to stand, as he is trying to coerce and cow the officer into submission. Police officers should not have to be masochists to be considered responsible public servants. That leaves the officer with no choice but to see this through with an arrest and the resulting report so that a public record is created of the event. With the arrest report out there, Gates is not nearly as free to use this event to defame the officer as he would otherwise be.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so if a cop makes a reasonable request of you in the course of following up on a call, it's okay to say something like, "I'll step outside with your momma"?

Or is it okay for Gates to say it because of who he is? But Joe Blow in Cicero gets a nightstick upside his head or an evening in lock up?

Law enforcement officers, who never know what to expect when they respond to a call, cannot tolerate this kind of resistance, hostility, and contempt. There are plenty of circumstances in which conduct like Gates's could have started a riot or escalated into some other form of violence. Any officer who wants to live to collect his pension, or at least be able to do his job, is going to have to show who's the boss right away to prevent a situation like that from escalating. This isn't a Ms Manners type situation; bad things happen to police when they allow citizens to make them look like Barney Fife.

And as a political matter, do you really think it's prudent for the president to, in effect, encourage resistance to arrest and obstruction of justice?

Anonymous said...

You said:
"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?)"

That's the point! Gates did break the law. You can cop an attitude towards the police. People do it to us every day. You can't go outside of your home, stand on the porch, and scream and yell like a total jackhole, causing your neighbors undue annoyance and alarm. If you do that, you commit a violation of law in every jurisdiction of the country.

It's called "Disorderly Conduct," or "Disturbing the Peace," or any number of other things. It all boils down to the same thing: You can't be a jackhole to the point that you bug your neighbors. Even on your own property.

Why? Because duly elected representatives in every state of the union have passed laws against it. Police have the authority to enforce those laws. Don't like the laws? Get 'em repealed. I personally think that the vast majority of your fellow citizens will accept the full legalization of meth before they repeal all the laws against jackholery in thi country, so good luck with that.

One last thing and this is totally inside baseball, so I don't expect you to understand it. Union or no union, the chief of police in a liberal ass town like Cambridge would not stand behind a white subordinate over a black "somebody" as prominent in the community as Gates unless he had ironclad proof that the officer was in the right. The average police chief is a political hump who would sell any of his troops down the river to save his own hide.

So why are the Cambridge PD admin weenies backing Crowley? Three words for you: Digital audio recorder. Sooner or later, it will come out. And Gates will be toast.

-Anonymous Super Trooper

Anonymous said...

Well, I (a white man) have been hassled by cops a number of times too. I don't think that's ok, but the point is that there's no need to think race played any part in the incident. Cops are punks and don't like to take lip.

I also think that not cooperating with the police should be a crime, and making a scene or in other ways undermining their authority should be a crime. As I noted above, I think the police abuse their authority all the time, but that is just a different issue.

Given the available evidence I would say that Gates had more of an attitude than I have ever had, and I hate cops. (And I like them too, of course. But I hope the pigs that abuse their power rot in hell.) So I really think this is a non-story. I mean really, is it news that people who cop an attitude with cops get messed with?

But one last time: this doesn't excuse the cops behavior. I'm just saying it isn't racial and might be about the best we can reasonably expect. No one likes lip, and I certainly never take it if I don't have to. Cops are held to a higher standard, but unfortunately they are not higher beings, so...

Antonius said...

I have to take the part of Anonymous Super Trooper and disagree with you Mr. Last.

You write, "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."

Are you making this arguement purely from a technical standpoint? If that is the case, then I guess you are right, because there are no charges against Henry Gates. But every indication is that this was a political decision and not based on the rule of law. Do you really believe that with all of the political pressure brought to bear in this case (including from the Governor and the Mayor) that the decision to drop charges was based on facts alone? There is no evidence that Sgt. Crowley chose to drop the charges.

As Super Trooper states, you CAN act like a "jackhole" in the privacy of your own home, but when you take it out in public, you are guilty of disorderly conduct.

I think that dropping the charges was a terrible act of cowardice or abuse of power. A courtroom is exactly where this incident belongs. Lets hear the facts.

Jim Treacher said...

Is the question whether Gates broke the law, or whether it was within reason for Crowley to believe he did? I'm not sure how the charges being dropped is proof that Crowley was out of line.

Unknown said...

Why do you assume that the arrest must have been made in bad faith on the part of Sgt. Crowley? Why not assume that the District Attorney acted in bad faith by dropping the charges against a black VIP in the community?

The fact is that you have no reason to assume one over the other based upon the information provided to all of us through media reports.

Actually, given all of the information we have learned about Sgt. Crowley (his teaching of the racial profiling course, the testimony regarding his temperament from his co- workers) I think that a stronger speculative case could be made that the DA did act in bad faith to try to cover up the misbehavior of a politically connected ally. After all, District Attorneys by definition are the bastard offspring of the two lowest occupations on the face of the Earth: politicians and lawyers.