After practicing law, it’s hard to stick to stereotypes about people, whether the police, the looters, whites or anyone else. Lawyers see the best and the worst, Mother Teresa and Jack the Ripper. The good and bad aren’t predictable. I and many in this area knew the brother and sister-in-law of the Unabomber – they couldn’t have been finer people, and the bomber himself was incredibly well educated and could have passed for an industry exec – except that he bombed, maimed and killed people over nearly twenty years. If you saw him, he wouldn’t fit any of our stereotypes.
We have lots of stereotypes about African-Americans. I’ve worked in and for the Black community but I’ve never met the stereotype. Instead I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful people at all levels of American society.
Police? Actually I think the police are like people in all other walks of life, comprised of all kinds of people from the best to the worst. We have lots of stereotypes about the police. Mostly, since they are assumed to be brave, they must be good people. Americans don’t like to call people they despise brave, but if risking death is brave, the cops share that honor with lots of the people they pursue – gangsters, gang members and terrorists. So it’s pretty obvious that I don’t see the connection between bravery and decency. And to get to the facts, one could fill volumes both with police who heroically track down dangerous people and rescue the innocent and with police convicted of everything from fraud to the murder of women and children as well as unarmed and peaceful African-Americans.
I’ve had judges tell me they believe the police half the time. Actually, what upset me even more, was a judge, a Black judge, who stopped me in the hall of a courthouse in another city, and told me that he believed my client. So of course I asked him why he hadn’t acquitted him. The judge’s response: “I couldn’t do that to the police.” That zeroes in on the problem – everybody’s afraid to take on the police even when they do serious harm or kill.
When I was asked to speak to a class of officers in another state, I brought a problem to ask them about. And actually they agreed with me that the family I brought up had been mistreated. But they interrupted my presentation to get some lies off their chest and one of the big ones was that they fabricated stories of African-Americans with concealed weapons. It wasn’t a crime to have a hunting weapon; just to conceal it. So they got African-Americans convicted of crimes they hadn’t committed. The officers felt some guilt but did it anyway and I don’t think our conversation in that class changed anything. I also had a federal marshal tell me that yes, he did know the facts of a police theft, but wouldn’t say anything if I subpoenaed him.
To put it another way, there are some officers, I emphasize some, who are intoxicated by the power of their weapons, corrupted by their stereotypes of African-Americans, and protected by a culture of silence and solidarity.
So my cure for police misbehavior? Though firearms are not always used, to change the culture, to motivate people to use their heads, I’d put an unarmed force in between the police and the public and call for arms only when necessary. Guns and ammunition can do a lot of harm – even if only by intoxicating the officers with a sense of power.
— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on June 2, 2020.