Saturday, 25 July 2009

Teachable Moments: The Hard Work of Cops

So maybe you've been following the hullabaloo over Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested last week in his own home, and President Obama's straightforward comment that the officers acted "stupidly". You can watch the President's original statements at the end of his press conference on health care reform (remember that?) here:

Now predictably there was hue and cry over this - how could the President call a police officer stupid? How could he be sure there was a racial element, as he implied? What was he doing weighing in on a local matter anyway.

Obama, to his credit, seems to have thought the matter through and decided he could have handled it better on the whole, therefore on Friday he held a follow up brief press availability to address the matter one more time.

He was speaking shortly after getting off the phone with the police officer involved, who he described as an outstanding officer. He also said, "My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities. And that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective about what we can do to contribute to more unity."

Wise words and good advice.

So I thought I would take this opportunity to put down on paper my somewhat complex thoughts about the role of the police in society. Please bear with me as I try to get this right - it may take me a few paragraphs here to hit my groove.

First of all, there's a certain conventional wisdom - perhaps a conventional wisdom specific to the kind of white, reasonably affluent community I grew up, that says the police should get the benefit of the doubt.

"The police do incredibly difficult jobs, they face down bad people every day on our behalf. If they occassionally screw up, go too far, behave badly, the community should have their back. They should get special prviledges because they put their lives at risk for us."

On the other hand, in a lot of minority communities, the police are seen very differently. The blogger Ta Nehisi Coates (read him, if you don't already) recently shared another way of thinking about the police.

"My basic perspective is that cops are men (or women) with guns and the legal right to shoot you, without the usual repercussions. I tend to use a lot of discretion when it comes to introducing that kind of element into a situation. It's just no way to tell how things will go down."

I don't know about you, but I find those words both completely understandable (Coates had a friend who was shot dead by a police officer, without cause) and utterly chilling.

Chilling because I'm fortunate enough - sheltered enough, maybe - that I call the police to feel safer. Something bad is happening, or might be happening, and I always know that if things get really stressful there are trained and armed men ready to step in.

It takes my breath away to think how awful it would be to not have that as a recourse. To believe, for rational reasons, that calling the cops is likely to make the situation worse, not better. Or to believe that calling the police wouldn't achieve anything at all - because they won't come to your neighborhood.

So here's my own thinking.

The police do, in fact, do an incredibly difficult and necessary job. We hire them to go places we wouldn't go and deal with people we are afraid to deal with. In fact, it's one of those jobs where I think it's reasonable to say that anyone who does it reasonably well is genuinely heroic.

But I do NOT agree with the theory that because their work is hard, even heroic, in some way that we should cut police officers some slack when, as happened here, they make a very bad error of judgement.

In the particular case in question, my suspicion is that Gates didn't behave very well. My understanding is that he had just returned from a trip to China - what's that, a 20 hour flight? - after which he discovered that he didn't have his keys and wound up having to break into his own home. Shortly afterwards, he's confronted by a police officer who accuses him of breaking into the house.

OK, now in this circumstance I'm pretty sure what I would have done. I've locked myself out of the house a few times myself, and inevitably I get very jumpy and nervous because I KNOW I look suspicious. I tend to over-explain, telling any stranger who looks at me funny what's going on. I'm pretty sure that if confronted by a police officer I'd be super-quick to fish out some ID (Gates did so eventually, but belatedly and grumblingly).

So Gates could probably have behaved better, sure.

But the role of the police isn't to protect citizens who behave impeccably, who aren't tired and grouchy, and who cooperate fully. The role of the cops is to be at their best at the moments when we are at our worst. That's the job. That's why it's herioc.

Yes, there's a whole history around failed relations between minority communities and the police. There's also, by the way, a certain tension in Cambridge, MA between the "townies" and the Harvard people. And sometimes, too, there are just flat out personality clashes.

A cop's job is to get over it. The citizen is allowed to be grouchy. The police officer is required to be above the fray. Why?

Because he's too powerful. We gave him a gun, a badge, and powers of arrest. Even a license to kill in certain situations. The cop is a human being, but he is required to behave in a manner beyond human grudges and grievances - because he's not acting on his own behalf. He's acting on mine. And yours.

So I do agree with President Obama that the cop acted "stupidly." Not evilly, not cruelly, just stupidly. He responded as a human being, angry to have been spoken to disrespectfully - which is understandable. But he used the powers of his office - the powers we invested in him - to assuage that frusstration. Which is not acceptable.

I know that the standard that I am setting out for the police is almost insanely high. I know that asking them to be equally capable of storming into a gunfight and sensitively defusing racial tension is a lot to ask.

But I do ask a lot of these people. That's why I say that doing the job reasonably well is almost inevitably heroic.

So what do we do when police officers fail to live up to this almost impossibly high standard?

I think we have to give them a chance to improve, encourage them to think through honestly where they might have gone wrong, get them talking to the members of the community, not just their fellow officers (a wider perspective on Obama's "let's have a beer together" strategy), they should go in for more training, and also I think that if ultimately they decide police work is not for them, I think we should commend their self-knowledge rather than stigmatising it. There should be an opportunity for a highly honourable discharge - rather than the current situation where leaving before retirement puts police officers at a massive social and economic disadvantage.

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Health Care: We Pay More, Die Sooner!

Have a quick look at this chart. (Via Matthew Yglesias.)

Now explain to me why paying massively more on healthcare per capita than ANY other country in the world, while not achieving greater life expectancy equates to the "best healthcare system in the world."

Some Americans get the best health care in the world. Many get none at all. Most, however have pretty good care at criminally insane prices. This system must be fixed.