During the past week, I have thought long and hard about whether or not to write this blog post. I decided to write it partly because the Gates-Crowley event occurred close to home (I live in Boston about 4 miles from Cambridge where the event happened), and also because some citizens have been mistaken for criminals by police due to identity theft.
Yes, Professor Gates and I are both African-American men aged 50-plus. Yes, I used to work at Harvard during the 1990's. I do not know him, nor the officer. Regardless, this post is not about what you're probably guessing it's about.
The President, Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates are arranging a meeting in Washington during the next few days, and many pundits and citizens advocates have debated whether or not the incident and arrest was racial profiling, Some people are quick to blame the professor. Others are quick to blame the officer. I see a far more complicated situation. It’s about how we communicate with each other.
A police stop can be a very tense and scary event for everyone; for both the officer and the citizen. I'm not talking about police stops for speeding or traffic violations while driving, but stops where a crime may be involved. A police stop is a highly charged event where everyone involved doesn't know what they will get from the other person. To me, the appropriate question to ask is: what is proper decorum during a police stop?
In her column, Maureen Dowd tackled part of the problem in a column titled "Bite Your Tongue:"
"Gates told me Crowley was so “gruff” and unsolicitous “the hair on my neck stood up.” Crowley says Gates acted “put off” and “agitated... A police officer who’s proud of his reputation for getting along with black officers, and for teaching cadets to avoid racial profiling, feels maligned to be cast as a racist white Boston cop. A famous professor who studies identity and summers in Martha’s Vineyard feels maligned to be cast as a black burglar with backpack and crowbar."
Could it be that Crowley and Gates are both right? I think so.
Part of the problem starts with the nature of a police stop. It's a tense situation for all involved. I know because I have been stopped by the police. I am not discussing police stops for speeding or violating a traffic law. I'm discussing police stops where the police are investigating a possible serious crime and the person stopped is considered a possible suspect.
You just don't know how tense and scary a police stop is until it happens to you. So, I am not quick to judge anybody involved in a police stop. In the heat of the moment, it's easy for anything said or any movement to be interpreted in a way different from the way intended.
In 1978, I was stopped by two plain-clothed detectives while I was walking down a Chicago street with my girlfriend's hairdryer -- one of those old, heavy bulky kind. (The photo on the right will give you an idea, but it was an older model before the hand-held hairdryers became popular.) We were both graduate students at the University of Chicago, and were house-sitting during a school break in Hyde park for a friend who was away on vacation.
My girlfriend left her hairdryer in her dorm room and asked me to retrieve it. While walking from the campus back to the apartment with the hairdryer, the two plain-clothed detectives stopped their car on the sidewalk in front of me, exited their car, drew their guns, and yelled at me to, "Freeze."
Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to stay calm with guns pointed at me. I froze and responded politely with, “Hello officers. How can I help?” This response helped diffused a tense situation and let them know I was cooperative. The officers asked me for identification, reviewed my school I.D., made a general statement about there being burglaries in the area, and then waved me on.
My point is this: even when you are innocent a police stop can be a harrowing event. Some of you might say that was 30 years ago, so get over it, George. Well maybe, but that was the only time in my life that I have had guns pointed at me. I could have twitched with fear and easily been shot. Some memories fade more slowly than others.
Maybe, that was how Chicago police officers felt that they had to respond to situations. I don't know. I've never been a police officer. Police officers work in a profession where their lives are at risk at times, so maybe this is how they feel they must act to stay safe. I didn't know if they were responding to a 9-1-1 call or not. Maybe I was wearing similar clothes as a thief they may have been pursuing. I don't know and they didn't say.
My point is: until it happens, you don't know how scary and tense a police stop can be. And until it happens, you don't know how you'll respond. My impression is that most Americans have not been stopped besides a speeding or traffic violation. The police have definite expectations about how you should act: remain calm. That means speaking only when directed to, and moving only when directed to. It means that your questions probably won't be answered, too.
To remain calm, when you know you are innocent while others treat you like a criminal, can feel frustrating, humiliating and insulting. When you try to comply and don't get your questions answered, that can intensify those feelings. Some people might call being calm in such a situation being docile. Many people probably have the opinion that it should be easy to be calm if you are innocent, and obey the police no matter what. Yes, we all want the same thing... for the police to protect us. Having been stopped, I can tell you that it's a difficult situation -- a situation I think most Americans don't really know and don't pause to consider how tough it can be.
I learned about the expectations police have for police stops while growing up in Harlem. When I was a youth, there wasn't an Internet or online search sites to find out the proper decorum during a police stop. You learned it from whomever you trusted: your parents, a teacher or a relative. My dad told me.
While in college, in 1974 I had a summer job selling students dictionaries and home repair manuals door-to-door in Oklahoma City. The job was to show residents the books for students, collect deposits, and deliver the book orders at the end of the summer. This was long before Wal-Mart stores were everywhere, long before the Internet and online shopping, and before many supermarkets sold books. While selling books in Oklahoma City, Del City, and Midwest city, the police stopped me several times to check for a selling license, which I made sure to have.
During one stop, the police said that they had received complaints from some neighbors who thought that I was casing the homes to rob people. I was just going about my summer job door-to-door, trying to sell as many books as I could. Along the way, I asked questions about which homes had school-aged children so I could stop at the right homes.
In one incident, the police shuffled me into the backseat of their squad car while the neighbors screamed for the police to arrest me. I showed the police my selling license and explained how I was complying with their local laws. This time, the police drove me to the edge of town where I was released. Before I got out of the car, they tore up my selling license for that town -- a clear signal for me not to sell there anymore.
Based on my experiences, during a police stop it's easy for mistrust and poor communication to happen.
Was my experience in Oklahoma City in 1974 racism? Or was it because I was different: a sales person, from the North with a different accent, who happened to be Black? Hearing the “N” word was a clue. Having the police tear up a legal seller’s license was another clue. I tried to sell by their rules, and was still being treated harshly. Was it fair? No. I bit my lip, cried in the safety of a local gas station bathroom, and then moved on to sell in the next town.
Are things better today than they were in the 1970's? Of course things are better. That's not the point. My point: nobody likes having their credibility and integrity questioned. Nobody. The police don't like it and neither do citizens. We need to remember that about each other. The Gates-Crowley incident is a clear reminder.
Remaining calm, when you know you are innocent and while others treat you like you are a criminal, can feel frustrating, humiliating and insulting. You want to demand that they treat you with respect since you know you are innocent and are not a criminal, but at the same time they don't know who you are. It's a difficult situation filled with tension and uncertainty -- a situation I think most Americans don't really know or don't pause to consider how tough it can be.
So, what is proper decorum for citizens during a police stop?
This weekend, I did a few Google.com searches and was surprised at how many towns and cities don't publish local law enforcement's expectations of proper decorum for citizens during a police stop. Maybe the police feel like we citizens will learn what their expectations are through police shows on television and cable. To me, this is too important to leave to chance or to fictional television shows. Make it clear: publish your expectations online with sufficient detail for the different types of police stops. And citizens share the responsibility -- attend local civic association meetings, where law enforcement representatives visit and share important information.
Some people can remain calm more easily than others during a tense situation like a police stop. Thankfully, I was able to do so in 1974 and 1978 and not get shot. But I do know this... when you are innocent and the police stop you as a possible suspect in a crime it is very tempting to ask, "What's going on? Why are you stopping me?"
My point: an innocent question like "Why are you stopping me?" can be easily be interpreted during a tense situation as "Why are you stopping me?" or "Why are you stopping me?" It's easy for an innocent question to be interpreted as a confrontation or challenge to authority. It's easy for words and actions to be interpreted in different ways. Everyone involved in a police stop has expectations about how they wish to be treated, and the answers they expect to have answered. A simple question like "Why are you stopping me?" can easily be heard as, "How dare you stop me?"
The news reports have often provided some (but not all) facts about the Gates-Crowley incident. Facts continue to emerge. A wise person once told me that, "an expectation is a planned resentment."
It's easy for me to imagine a scenario where the officer asked professor Gates for identification and the professor would assume that his school I.D. was sufficient, while the officer's I.D. expectations included verification of his residential address. It's easy for me to imagine a scenario where the professor asked the officer for identification and the officer provided his name and precinct; something the officer felt was sufficient while the professor felt was insufficient. If either of these happened, it's easy to see how the situation escalated.
My point: none of us were in the Gates' home to see and hear exactly what was said. Words, tone, and inflection all matter. We only have both individuals' reports after the fact... a he-said versus he-said situation. So, it's difficult to know exactly what happened.
Based on everything I have read, my opinion is that both men probably over-reacted... but that's easy to do in a situation filled with tension, ambiguity, and uncertainty. Words and actions are interpreted, then egos get in the way. So, I'm willing to give both men some slack.
President Obama says he hopes that this can be a teachable moment. I agree. I hope that the teachable moment includes a discussion about law enforcement's expectations of citizen decorum during a police stop. In my opinion, this event is not about racial profiling, but about the decorum and expectations during a police stop.
Hopefully, local law enforcement across the country will make more efforts to make it clearer to citizens what their expectations are during a police stop. Baltimore County, Maryland has a pretty good Web page that clearly explains local law enforcement's expectations of citizens during the different types of police stops: in your car, on the street, and at your home. There are important details between each type of police stop. I wish that more cities and towns published clear statements online like this.
I'd like to see these online pages cover appropriate decorum during a police stop where a citizen is mistaken for a criminal due to identity theft. That's a situation that is ripe for conflict, since the police are pretty sure they know who the suspect is, while the victim is both certain they are innocent and unaware that their identity has been used by others during a crime.
Also, I think that citizens' expectations of local law enforcement are changing. This experience will illustrate what I mean.
After a drive-by shooting on my street, my neighbors and I formed a neighborhood watch group with the assistance of the Boston Police Department. The BPD came to meetings in our homes and taught us how to form a successful neighborhood watch, what is suspicious behavior, and when to call 9-1-1. And, there is a big difference between "suspicious people" and "suspicious behavior."
That was an enlightening process, since like most people I thought that I knew when to call 9-1-1. We learned to call 9-1-1 and to recognize suspicious behavior (not people) that we want investigated. All of this is training that I believe more citizens should get. My point is this: during the training, the local police representatives shared their names and office e-mail addresses, so we could contact them for a variety of follow-up reasons.
I can tell you this: if I invite a police representative into my home, I will expect to know their full name and contact information (not necessarily a badge number). It doesn’t mean there is a problem. It does not mean I question the officer’s authority or integrity. It simply means that I want to know exactly who I am doing business with, in case I need to contact them again for some reason requiring follow-up.
I hope that this incident becomes a teachable moment that includes a discussion about law enforcement's expectations of citizen decorum during a police stop. And since data breaches soared by 47% in 2008, it'd be great if this teachable moment covered the decorum for mistaken identity police stops due to identity theft.