by Roger Koppl
One comment on Gene’s recent post on the Beer Summit blasts “Obama’s PREjudice, his knee-jerk observationless, evidenceless accusation at Crowley.” I think we need to remember that the police are monopoly representatives of state power.
Many serious people believe 1) that municipal police officers tend to be too eager to arrest people for, essentially, being disrespectful and 2) that black people, especially black men, are disproportionately at risk of inappropriate, arbitrary, or false arrest. There is good evidence to support the view that black men get disproportionately severe punishments when convicted. In particular, it seems that the death penalty is more likely when a black kills a white than when a white kills another person whether black or white. Obama’s experience in Chicago would have put him in touch with both the literature on such themes and personal accounts of black people who felt strongly that they had been mistreated by the police. The scandal regarding torture by the Chicago police bolsters the view that such perceptions may have been correct.
One might also point to the 1994 Mollen Commission Report on NYC police corruption. Let me quote just one bit of testimony (p. 48) that always stuck in my mind.
Question: Did you beat people up who you arrested?
Answer: No. We’d just beat people in general. If they’re on the street, hanging around drug locations. It was a show of force.
Question: Why were these beatings done?
Answer: To show who was in charge. We were in charge, the police.
I think all of us in the (“classical”) liberal tradition of David Hume and Adam Smith must remember that municipal policing is the central point of contact between state power and individual lives. The monopoly position of the police invites abuse and sometimes we get abuse. Radley Balko of the Reason Foundation has done great work on issues such as no-knock warrants, tasering, faulty forensic science, and police shootings of persons and dogs. See his great blog, The Agitator.
In the case of Professor Gates, you had an arrest of someone whose offense was shouting from his porch. As well as I can determine, though I am surely no jurist, that behavior is simply *not* disorderly conduct in Massachusetts or anywhere else. Also, Officer Crowley called him out from the kitchen, where he was shouting, to the porch, where he (Gates) continued to shout. Thus, it seems rather as if the public disturbance (to the extent that such existed) was in part caused by Crowley’s decision to call him out to the porch.
I read one cynic’s opinion on the web that Crowley’s action fits a pattern for creating an opportunity to make an arrest, but I don’t know of any data on that issue. The fact that the charges were dropped is evidence that it was a bad arrest and that Crowley may indeed have acted “stupidly” in this instance, whatever his overall merits as a police officer may be.
The Gates case itself is unimportant. What matters, is what the case represents in terms of police power in general in its racial dimension.