Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Not to Run a Police Department

I wouldn't think for a moment of passing judgment on the propriety of the Cambridge police arresting a prominent professor of African-American history for breaking into his own home (roll that sentence off the tongue a few times). But I will offer what I take to be a an instructive anecdote.

Here at Palookaville U, we enjoy the presence and services of one of world's foremost authorities on the butterfly. He's a treasure and a lovely guy to boot. But he looks like a street person--scraggly beard, ducktaped Levis (okay, I made up the ducktape, but you get the idea). In short, he looks like a hobo. And being a butterfly expert he spends a lot of his time hanging out under bridges.

My wise friend Ignoto says: it is the job of a Palookaville cop to know the difference between Dr. Butterfly and a hobo. Even though it is not obvious, it his job.

Jump cut to Cambridge. Let's stipulate from the outset that when a cop sees two guys with backpacks trying to force the front door, it is not unreasonable to inquire. Let's stipulate that if this had been a real burglar and the cop had given him a bye, why then he would have been in trouble for that, too. I would also like to believe (though I am sure this is more contentious) that it is not actionable to address a cop as "Yo' Mama."

But n0ne of this is the point. The point is that if you are a cop, you do not want things like this to happen, period. You don't want to get into a mess where your story is going world wide in every major news outlet. You want things to be orderly, peaceful, and, most of all, quiet. Move along, folks, nothin' to see here.

As a minimum, I would think this means knowing something about your neighborhood. The story says that the professor lived "a few blocks from Harvard Square." My guess is that this is a fairly upscale neighborhood, full of high-prestige famous-all-over-town celebrities with (I suspect) a vast sense of entitlement (not, we are not talkin' race here; we're talkin' Harvard professor). A good cop is going to know who is who, or, more precisely, who expects to be recognized, and who will ring the phone off the wall in the chief's office in the morning if he is not. A good cop at work in his own neighborhood knows the difference between a Harvard professor and a housebreaker.

And again quite aside from the narrow rightness of the matter--I'll bet that's what his shift commander was telling him after it all blew up last night.

Aferthought: One more anecdote which probably doesn't prove anything. I used to have a '65 Mustang --crappy car, dumb mistake. But one night, I left work at the University to make the 90-mile (sic) drive home. I quickly determined that was way too foggy to drive; I turned around with the purpose of dumping my car in a campus parking lot, and then walking over to a motel. I saw the blue light behind me.

I got out of the car and walked back to the cruiser. "I don't know what you stopped me for," I said, "but I probably did it..." and then told him what I just told you now.

The cop was black, a compact little man with sergeant's stripes. Once he saw I was an old white guy, he lost all interest in me. "Okay, professor, have a nice night..."

Review the bidding: an old Mustang creeping around campus at eight miles an hour in the dark. Not a bad call, was it?

Update: Hoo boy, that didn't take long.


Toni said...

This version I'm about to copy and paste is notable for (1) the great spin control by Kelly Downes of the Cambridge Police Department (blaming both parties but at the same time saying their reputations and characters are intact); and (2) the failure of anyone to note a key (but legally irrelevant) fact -- Gates was no doubt suffering from severe jet lag, the incident having taken place at the very moment he was returning to his home from a trip to China only to find his front door jammed:


Jack, your analysis is right on: For G/god's sake, Cambridge Police, know who lives on your beat.

Inspector Clouseau said...

We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.