Monday, August 3, 2009

Are We Becoming A Police State?

Over the past few weeks the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry L. Gates has been all over the news. Many are outraged that it occurred in his own home. It is one of the foundations of this country that in your own home you have a right to say whatever you like. In most States, the "Castle Doctrine" law that you have a right to even kill someone if they enter your home and you fear for your life is allowed. So the arrest of an elderly professor for 'shouting' at a police officer seems especially harsh.

If you are reading this post months from now, or have been hiding on a desert island somewhere, this is what happened.

Professor Gates returned home after a trip to China. His front door was stuck, he and his driver tried opening it by pushing with their shoulders. A woman witnessed this and called the police thinking it might be an attempted robbery. Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge police department arrived first. Professor Gates was already on the phone with Harvard Security. Crowley was there for six minutes. What exactly happened in that period is still somewhat disputed. Basically, from the moment he arrived at the door Professor Gates told him that it was his home. Crowley asked to see I.D.. Apparently the tone of the exchange or the demeanor of the parties to each other was less than friendly. Whatever the case, this elderly professor who had just been traveling for nineteen hours did not speak to the police officer in a tone that the officer liked. It would certainly seem that Gates had a right to shout at the police officer when he was standing in his own home. That is hardly a threat to anyone. Crowley called for backup. Gates was asking for Crowley's name and badge number. Crowley told him to step outside. The minute Gates stepped out of his home, Crowley arrested him for 'disorderly conduct'. If you want to know more, including how President Obama became involved---just Google it.

Others believe that it was racial. Gates is black, the arresting officer (Sgt. Crowley) is white. Many believe that had Gates been white, no arrest would have occurred.

In addition, there is the charge itself. "Disorderly conduct" has become a catch-all charge for police officers to use when nothing else applies. The definition of disorderly conduct varies, but in essence most communities expect it to be an issue of someone truly causing a public disturbance and perhaps inciting others to do the same. Gates was yelling at the police officer in his house. When the officer asked him to step outside, then slapped the handcuffs on him, naturally Gates yelled even louder. It seems a real stretch to call that disorderly conduct.

The entire incident opened a public debate about police being over-zealous. Story after story appears in the news of officers tazing people at the drop of a hat. Countless news reports document SWAT teams bursting into the wrong homes in the middle of the night--and terrorizing the residents.

All these instances should be taken to court. When cities, counties and states have to pay out big bucks for these kinds of actions over and over again, perhaps changes will take place. Yet it is not fair that these citizens have to hire lawyers and go to court in the first place.

I understand the cops are bursting with adrenaline, and that they are concerned for their own safety. But there is no justification for this kind of behavior. It is starting to seem like there is a certain type of cop that needs to be screened before they are given a badge.

Since the advent of the 'Taser' cops seem to be way too quick to use it. The heart is an electrical pump, and any time you zap in low levels of electricity you risk damage. Maybe there should be a 'new rule'. Every time a cop USES a taser, if they can't prove (with witnesses) that it was justified; they have to have one used on them within 48 hours. That might make them think a little before using one.

These behaviors reflect a much larger problem. I come from a long line of Police Officers. I have worked with the police and count many officers as personal friends. I have also seen and met far too many men and women who never should have been given a badge or a gun. I do believe the selection and the training of our future police forces needs to be changed. Otherwise, I do fear for the future of our citizens, and for the good cops who are lumped in with the bad.

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