Too Big A Taboo?

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You might remember that bizarre story of the Democratic fundraiser out in the San Diego suburbs where an out of control Sheriff’s Deputy ended up pepper spraying and throwing to the ground a group of harmless middle aged Dems and taking a couple of them into custody. This Gates story, while it adds the potent addition of race, in many ways gets at a similar issue. Police officers don’t get fancy wages. But they put themselves in harm’s way for us everyday. And they deserve our respect and our appreciation. But they also work for us. And you do have these cases where people get arrested or knocked around for basically nothing, or at worst mouthing off a bit or not being deferential enough.

Along those lines, TPM Reader NL has this to say …

I was taken a little aback when Obama used the word “stupidly” last night to describe the actions of the Cambridge Police. Even if his statement could have been worded more carefully, I think the whole controversy brings up an issue that needs to be discussed and is very rarely discussed in a public policy sense. I am not referring to racism. I am referring to the power of the police. With good reason, we praise our police officers on a local, state, and national level. They put their lives on the line for us everyday. No one can doubt the nobility and honor of the profession. It is seldom publicly acknowledged or debated that the police wield great power in the lives of everyday citizens. A decade ago, I worked as an attorney in a fairly large Public Defender’s Office. My clients were indigent and many of them were people of color. So, I know a little about police power as well as how persons of low income and color are treated in our criminal justice system. For me, though, the issue is not about race only. It is about the power the police have to arrest someone whether or not a crime took place. Sure, mistakes will happen, and most officers will try not to make an arrest if it is unnecessary. We all know (maybe not Prof. Gates) not to anger a police officer. I had so many cases in which someone cursed at an officer or made a gesture to an officer and ended up spending the night in jail. Prof. Gates spent four hours in jail. Even though his charge was dropped, I’m sure that time in jail for a law-abiding citizen was utterly horrendous. There simply is no reason to arrest someone for hurting your feelings or making an ugly gesture at you. It is not against the law in most contexts. In addition, I can assure you that most people who walk into a court room in a case in which it is the officer’s word against him or her (a law-abiding citizen) is at a superior disadvantage. An overwhelming majority of judges simply will not believe the law-abiding citizen over the police officer. So, along with the rightful adoration we reserve for our police officers, our society needs to acknowledge that their power is awesome and must be wielded in a cautious and prudent manner. Not only can a police officer throw you in jail or hold a judge’s trust on the witness stand, he or she can use deadly force. It is an awesome power that is almost unparalleled in our society. It is important that this kind of power have a check and balance. This discussion is important. As for Obama digging in on his statement, he worded it better the second time. Cooler heads should’ve prevailed indeed.

Race can’t be separated from what happened in Cambridge. But even taking race out of the equation, there are cops out there, and I fear sometimes that it’s crept into the culture of policing in some jurisdictions, who think that a citizen treating them in a disrespectful way amounts to a crime.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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