Tuesday, March 31, 2009

There’s probably not a story in recent times that has hit more hot buttons for me than the story of DPD Officer Robert Powell and his treatment of Ryan Moats in a traffic stop outside the hospital where Moats’s mother-in-law was dying upstairs. Obviously, there are very few if any allies in Powell’s corner right now and rightly so, I believe. But it’s made me think about a few things and why this story hit me so hard personally.

First off, it made me realize how differently I think of things as a young white girl. I think about what I would have done if I were Moats or his wife and I found myself in that situation. Would I even be as likely to be in the situation in the first place being a young white girl? That’s pure speculation on my part but I tend to think I wouldn’t. But even if I was, my brain immediately tells me that I would explain hastily (as the Moats indeed tried to do) that my mother was upstairs taking what were going to be her final breaths and that I had to get upstairs. If for some reason the officer wanted to argue with me about that, he would have to do so as he ran to catch up with me because I would simply take off. It’s my mom and you’d have to Taser me into a smoking pile of obscenities before you stop me from getting to her bedside.

But that’s because I am not of an ethnicity which has faced being shot 41 times by a police officer simply for producing a wallet to supply an ID as was requested by the officer. I am not of an ethnicity which just a few months ago faced having a young man being shot in the back at point blank range and killed while other officers held him down in an Oakland BART transit station. Rodney King was not a young white girl. So what would happen to me if I did run? Clearly Ryan Moats could probably run faster than me but between his respect for the law and fear of disobeying an officer, he didn’t get to his mother-in-law’s hospital room in time. And that both earns he and his wife tremendous respect in my book and breaks my heart.

But the other thing it reminds me of is how many bad examples of the kind of people that go into public safety for all the wrong reasons I have seen in my life compared with the depressingly small number of examples of people who are actually in the game to protect and serve I can recall. I need to preface everything with this: I have some personal connections to law enforcement which gave me, from a very early age, a very grim view of how police departments and cops in general operate. In fact, one of the reasons why I can’t sit through The Wire is a credit to its realism. It might be gritty and wonderful and fascinating to watch for an hour each week if you are an adult but it’s terrifying and depressing and dehumanizing to witness that mentality as a child.

But back to the sort of people who go into this line of work. There’s a Pollyanna deep inside of me that wants to believe that the numbers are not the way I see them to be and that my vision is slightly if not terribly askew. The cops that I have met and known in my life who were good cops were doing their job to help people and to keep them safe. They make me happy. But how many of you have had a run in with or know of the cop who is a cop because of the power trip that they get from that position of power? Whether it was just a traffic stop that went on far too long for a broken taillight or it’s that bully from high school who you find out is one of the boys in blue now, it seems to be a job that is incredibly alluring to a certain type of character. Officer Powell seems to fit this profile. I’m sure he will not mind me profiling him as it seems to be a practice he wholeheartedly endorses.

Many cops that I have known have, after a few years, developed what I consider to be an incredibly dangerous mentality especially considering the whole point of their job. They develop an “us and them” mentality. I don’t mean “cops vs. criminals” or “good guys vs. bad guys”. I mean “cops vs. everyone else” and when I mention this to other people who have family members who are police, they immediately know what I am talking about. There is a kind of secret society/fraternal order that is understandable amongst people who risk their lives every day and never know who could be waiting to shoot them behind a door. But when that attitude carries over into everyone behind the wheel of a car, everyone crossing the street, everyone walking their dog it becomes dangerous. When I was a child, I actually heard a cop who was a family friend allude to this and say something along the lines of “we have to keep the public safe because they’re all too fucking stupid to take care of themselves.”

Now, Darwin Award winners aside, that’s the kind of attitude that terrifies me. That’s not Norman Rockwell’s officer helping a freckle faced child find a puppy. Hell, that’s not even the chuckling officer on Cops asking the cracked-out tranny hooker why she’s wearing two different wigs. That is the cop who thinks he’s God. And that’s the kind of cop who thinks he can “screw over” someone who is clearly (with hospital employees and Plano Police officers corroborating his story) in a hurry to get to the bedside of his dying relative.

I respect anyone who puts their lives at risk every day. And like I said, I want to genuinely believe that the bullies, racists and small men getting off on power trips are the exceptions and not the rule. I would not want to be a cop so I’m glad someone does. But this whole incident has made me remember how apprehensive I am about the ego and power that sometimes is packed tightly into that uniform.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Cops, like teachers and social workers, aren't paid according to the importance of their jobs.
Because we need more cops, we've lowered the bar for becoming one. Because the pay is lousy, people who would be good cops choose other career paths.
It's the same issue the military has faced in recent years. Lowering the standards brought us Lynndie England.