How We Think about the Police

How We Think about the Police
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From Black Lives Matter to the horrific violence in Charlottesville and other places, the police have played a conspicuous role in public life in the past few years. This role has often been perceived as negative by progressives, even when there’s no evidence that the police have done anything wrong. Recently the widespread condemnation seems to have reached a fever pitch. It’s my opinion that this attitude is counterproductive, especially for the American left.

It’s not my intention to whitewash police misconduct, a grievous breach of public trust that should not be tolerated in any civilized nation. Police misconduct exists, especially with respect to African Americans. After the tragedy in Dallas last year, in which five police officers were murdered and many more wounded by a lone gunman, Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) made a stunning speech to the senate. Scott, a Tea Party favorite and the only Black Republican in Congress, acknowledged the rift between police and the African American community. Then he noted that he had been pulled over by the police seven times in the previous year. By his own reckoning, five of these times he’d been stopped solely for “driving while Black.” As a Republican, Sen. Scott wasn’t pandering to an interest group or grubbing for votes. He was acknowledging a real problem, one that has sometimes had fatal consequences.

The good news is that police misconduct appears to be statistically infrequent in America. Data compiled by the libertarian Cato Institute suggest that in 2010 there was fewer than one incidence of misbehavior for every 100 police officers in America. And this doesn’t mean that one out of a 100 police officers is a bad cop. The Christopher Commission, convened after the Rodney King riots, showed that a small number of police officers are responsible for multiple instances of misconduct, most frequently excessive force. The upshot of these studies is clear: the vast majority of cops don’t break the rules.

Be that as it may, a series of viral videos have left many of us jittery about law enforcement. America seems ready to pass judgment first and ask questions later, if at all. Perhaps this mistrust reached its nadir several weeks ago with the video of University of California, Berkeley police officer Sean Aranas. During a football game Officer Aranas was videotaped writing a citation to a hotdog vender, alternately identified as “Beto” or “Juan,” for not having a permit. Consistent with department policy, the officer confiscated the vender’s hotdog proceeds, about $60. In police-speak, that money constituted the “fruits of the crime,” evidence that the law had indeed been broken.

Two days later, over a million people had seen video of Officer Aranas “robbing” the hotdog vender (or perhaps robbing a company that employs multiple sausage salesmen) . It was filmed by a UC Berkeley alum and hotdog aficionado named Martin Flores. On it he’s heard haranguing Aranas for taking the vender’s money. Mr. Aranas remained composed and professional throughout the minute long video. But that didn’t matter: scores of people have described Officer Aranas as a thug, fascist, or criminal. Over 56,000 people have signed a petition calling for Aranas to be fired. Even the conservative webzine got in on the action, referring to the $60 confiscation as “outrageous.”

I don’t dispute that asset forfeiture is sometimes little more than a legal shakedown, but $60 taken as evidence of an admittedly very minor crime doesn’t quite rise to a fever pitch of outrage. I also question whether the UC Berkeley police department policy of confiscation in cases like this is genuinely serving the public good. But it certainly didn’t result in much hardship to the hotdog vender, whose GoFundMe page has now received north of $70,000 (if you’re counting, that’s more than a 100,000% return on the $60 he lost).

And let’s also consider the crime. Having read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I myself would prefer to eat licensed hotdogs. Moreover, selling sausages without a license isn’t exactly fair to all the venders who took the trouble to get a license. Finally, it should be noted that Officer Aranas first warned the hotdog vender move his illicit dog trade operation out of the football stadium zone. Upon receiving the warning, the vender merely set up shop 100 yards away. This didn’t get reported in any of the voluminous coverage of HotdogGate

In short, the outrage over Officer Aranas seems to far exceed the gravity of the circumstances. Let’s save the outrage for police officers who genuinely violate the public trust.

Why am I writing an essay defending Officer Aranas? My initial motivation was personal: Officer Aranas is my jiu jitsu training partner and my friend. But a broader point soon developed: the left’s attitude towards police isn’t doing us any favors.

Several weeks ago I was proud to march against hatred and the racist malefactors of Charlottesville in downtown Berkeley, California (others may have had different agendas, but most of the people around me appeared to share my motives). Both violent racists and Antifa were expected to show up, so there were lines of police officers in riot gear everywhere. Every single one of these cops looked stone-faced and miserable. No one was talking to them.

And why not? Isn’t one purpose of demonstrating to try to rally people to your side? Why shouldn’t this include police officers? Sure, most of them tilt conservative, although presumably less so in a progressive mecca like Berkeley. And even if they’re going to remain conservative, many of them probably responded to the Charlottesville Nazis with the same revulsion the rest of us did. Moreover, their politics have nothing to do with their duty as public servants: they are helping to safeguard my constitutional right to demonstrate peaceably, and I’m grateful.

So the next time you demonstrate, try chatting up the cops you encounter. Thank them for doing a difficult job. I have no doubt that the police will be more favorably disposed toward courteous marchers, and perhaps also to their cause. One of the stories that came out of the tragic murder of five police officers in Dallas last year was how good a job the police chief, David Brown, had done. Consider the following Tweet from Dallas PD just prior to the murders:

Look at the picture on the left: smiling police officers posing with a smiling protestor who’s marching to protest police brutality. The Dallas PD had managed to create a climate where cops and protestors felt comfortable enough with each other to pose for pictures. It seems to me that we should all strive to have that level of trust in our communities and our public servants. Indeed, I’d like to march around police officers like those in the picture.

So let’s be a little less quick to assume that the police are always misbehaving. We should also hold department chiefs and city officials responsible if the cops aren’t allowed to do their jobs when they’re policing protests. Most notably, this includes Charlottesville, where the police mainly stood by as violence ensued. Clearly they had orders not to intervene, and that wasn’t serving the public interest. The same has held true for protests in the Bay Area.

We live in times of acute partisan polarization. Like the majority of Americans, I’m revolted by Trump and the hatred he’s spawned. I look forward to exercising my rights as a patriotic American by attending more rallies, and each time I’ll thank the police on duty. I encourage you all to give it a try as well. What’s the harm?

I’ll close with some good news about police and our communities: the two-minute speech by Hawk Newsom, the president of Black Lives Matter in New York at the pro-Trump Mother of All Rallies. Mr. Newsom was given the chance to speak in the spirit of free speech. At the beginning, he was booed. By the end, people were applauding. I’m not able to say whether Mr. Newsom represented all members of BLM, nor whether the organizers and attendees at the Mother of All Rallies are typical. Be that as it may, his message was one that all Americans should be able to get behind: “We are not anti-cop. We are anti-bad cop. . . All lives matter. When a black life is lost, we get no justice. If we really wanna make America great, we do it together.”

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