Friday, July 24, 2009


The police work for us.

I'm a public servant. I work for the county, and although I mostly deal with students I am paid with tax money and therefore I am the employee of everyone who lives in the county. There are one or two people at my workplace who seem to feel that it is the public's job to make them feel good and to be nice to them.

They are wrong.

Professor Gates:
Tired and offended, but not a criminal

The public is made up of individuals. In our case they are
individuals who need information or services from us. Most of the individuals are pleasant, gracious people who are appreciative of our efforts. A few of the individuals are just plain jerks. In between are people who may be having a bad day. We may be the ninth or tenth person that they have encountered in a short time with an answer or a policy that disappoints them. It does not hurt us any to try and be understanding, even with the jerks. We will not always succeed in making the individual feel better. We very frequently are unable to solve their problems, but it is part of our job to attempt to treat everyone with respect.

We may occasionally have to call for backup from a supervisor, or even from the sheriff's department, when someone's behavior is threatening or disruptive. Sometimes we need to find someone -- preferably a co-worker but even a bystander can help -- to translate for the individual. It does not help to treat a Spanish or Tewa speaking member of the community with contempt.

I thought about all this when I read about the encounter between Professor Henry Louis Gates (I don't know the guy, so I'm not comfortable calling him Skip) and three Cambridge, Massachusetts, police officers. Police are supposed to be trained to stay cool under pressure. It emerges that Gates may have been verbally abusive and therefore the officer was under pressure. He was obviously not in fear for his life or safety, only his ego and sense of authority were in jeopardy.

It does not sound like this police officer is a racist, but I would like to know what was in the call that the neighbor made to the police department. The root of this is with the neighbor, who was worried about something that caused three officers to show up for what should have been a simple ID check. They were there to serve and protect. They may have forgotten that Gates and his driver were entitled to service and protection as well.

The police appear to have overreacted to the excited and insulted behavior of a tired, sensitive man who has been subjected to racism throughout his life. That is not their job. They are his employees, just as much as they are the employees of the neighbor who called them. Gates should not have to pretend that his behavior was perfect in order to prove that the police behaved inappropriately.

They owe him an apology.

Sergeant James Crowley:
Unprofessional, maybe, but not a racist

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