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Police Authority and Arrested Resistance

I’m very pro police for a variety of reasons, the most important being that cops are our last line of defense against barbarism.

I remember my doctoral adviser at the University of Minnesota, the late Sam Popper, saying something like this when we talked decades ago about “Dog Day Afternoon,” a now old (1975) movie in which Al Pacino plays an incompetent and crazed bank robber and hostage taker in the heat of a Brooklyn summer.  Sam was a grand conceptualizer with a strong interest in using the arts, including movies, to better understand how schools in particular and society in general work, making his views about “Dog Day Afternoon” and the humanities compelling in both theory and fact.

My views also have been shaped by the fact I was a police reporter for a short time in the early 1970’s in Binghamton, New York.  But it was long enough for me to realize that police officers see people at their nastiest, most profane, and most violent every day, often several times a day.  This has led me to marvel ever since about the degree to which they successfully control their respective tempers, and yes they do, far more often than not.  More personally, let’s just say I know how hard it can be to maintain one’s cool when contending with an out-of-control person’s lip and spit in his face.

But I also remember one day when Binghamton police got a report of a white teenage girl suspiciously getting into a car driven by a black male.  This was in 1971 or ’72 and assumptions about white cops dealing with black males in discriminatory, sometimes violet ways was not much different than they are now.  Or at least that was the skeptical and often quick-to-accuse case in the university and journalistic worlds in which I lived.

So I spoke to the officer in charge, trying to get a sense of how the “suspect” would be treated if and when he was caught.  “Don’t worry,” the captain tried to assure me, “we treat white boys and (blank) boys all the same.”  I trust you can figure out the word he used in the blank, its seven letters starting with an “n” and finishing off with an “s.”  An exclamation point, though, was mine, as I shouted mutely to myself, “Did he really just say that?!”  Yes, he did.

As it turned out, no one was abducted, as the boy or young man and the girl were boyfriend and girlfriend, with the latter’s father not happy with the situation.  So what was furtive got conveyed by some as criminal until things got straightened out.  As to whether the boy or young man (I don’t recall his age) was treated as a white counterpart would have been, I never found out.

I combine these stories to reinforce obvious points:  Cops are essential.  Some are terrific and fair and can control their tempers virtually all the time.  And some are not and clearly can’t

Which takes us, aided by 24-hour news cycles, to increasingly frequent videos of police officers, who may or may not be overreacting, involved in violent and otherwise tough events, in what may or not be racially indefensible ways.  Without going case by case, at least not here, it’s unsurprising (and bland) to say I’m more certain about police innocence or culpability in some of them than in others.

What is surprising is how little is being said about how frequently people who have died or have been hurt simply haven’t complied with a cop’s lawful order, be it to get out of a chair, get out of car, not run away, not grab at an officer’s gun. More than occasionally resisting arrest would seem to be more than a small piece of explanatory evidence warranting more than rare highlighting.  Respecting lawful authority, more broadly, would seem to be a prerequisite of civilization, ordered liberty, keeping Al Pacino out of your neighborhood bank.  Take your pick.

If you were asked by a cop to do something in keeping with his authority, wouldn’t you?  If you were reasonably asked by a cop not to do something, wouldn’t you comply again?  Pretty basic, isn’t it?

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