Don’t talk back to the cops

While we were away, President Obama was forced to claim that he had the greatest respect for the policeman who arrested Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates after the latter had established that he was in fact the owner of the home he was in. Although I have read the statements, I’m not going to try to look through the statements to try to figure out what really happened. But the situation brings up a very important issue that goes beyond the racial profiling claim and denial.

In fact police routinely arrest people who give them any lip. There is no law on the books that says you can’t talk back to a police officer. But don’t try it. The frequent response is a charge of disorderly conduct or interference with a police officer. They take talking back to them as a challenge to their authority and that they won’t accept.

I represented a mother whose entire family was arrested and charged for protesting when a policeman arrested her. Other policemen I discussed the case with said the arresting officer handled the initial arrest very carelessly by not bothering to check with others around about what had actually happened. Her husband and son objected. Everybody in the squad car. This may be the land of the free but you can’t talk back to a policeman.

I had a judge walk up to me and tell me that he believed in the story a client of mine had told in court. Since it was what we lawyers call a bench trial, before the judge without any jury, I asked the judge, “Then why didn’t you acquit him?” His response, “I couldn’t do that to the police.” This may be the land of the free but you can’t question a cop.

But that’s also why no one should feel satisfied that Obama made nice to the officer. The fact has been that police are out of control and have been for a long time. They resist any real civilian control and for good reason – their practices would not withstand independent judgment and the cops know it. In fact some of them have told me as much.

So the real lesson of the story goes beyond racial profiling. It is that the police insist on unchecked power. There are checks and balances on presidents and virtually everyone else in government – except police.

Some judges have told me they believe the police about half the time – they just don’t know which half – and they’re scared to cross the cops. Think about that. Judges, who ought to know, think the word of a police officer is as good as the flip of a coin.

And that’s why police should not be trusted until and unless we get control over them, independent judgment that can insist on standards. Including not arresting someone because they are upset and found the behavior of the police insulting. That’s not the crime. The crime is the resulting false arrest of a decent, freedom-loving citizen.

Broadcast August 4, 2009 on WAMC Northeast Report

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