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August 2nd, 2009

Some of the remaining bits & pieces now being tabulated in the Gates arrest drama are the side players who got involved in it for various reasons. One that’s a bit scary involves a police officer, Justin Barrett, who sent a letter to Boston Globe writer Yvonne Abraham, in which he said this:

His first priority of effort should be to get off the phone and comply with the police, for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC [oleoresin caseinate aka pepper gas] deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.

Barrett also forwarded the letter (full text here) in an email to colleagues. When the inevitable fecal matter hit the fan, Barrett said of the letter, “I did not mean to offend anyone. The words were being used to characterize behavior, not describe anyone … I didn’t mean it in a racist way. I treat everyone with dignity and respect.” Later in the same email, he wrote to the female journalist:

You are a hot little bird with minimal experience in a harsh field. You are a fool. An infidel. You have no business writing for a US newspaper nevermind [sic] detailing and analyzing half truths. You should serve me coffee and donuts on Sunday morning.

Umm… Okay. “banana-eating jungle monkey” is not racist, and “hot little bird,” “infidel,” “fool,” and “you should serve me coffee and donuts” to a woman is treating her with “dignity and respect.” Gotcha.

Barrett described “jungle monkey” as a “poor choice of words,” and not racist, but he repeated the phrase four times, ending the letter with:


Certainly, adding “back to one’s roots” dismisses all speculation that it’s about race.

Hoo boy.

Let’s set aside the “jungle monkey” thing for a moment and look at the rest, shall we? Spraying someone in the face with pepper spray in their own home because they accuse you of being racist? That’s quite something right there. But a lot can be gleaned from the expression, “belligerent non-compliance.” That’s a strongly loaded phrase, in part because he’s likely quoting a commonly-used police expression. Now, if a police officer is acting in the line of duty to accomplish a task necessary to the safety of the public or themselves, and a citizen angrily refuses to comply with a direct order necessary to accomplish that task, then “belligerent non-compliance” is in order. But remember, Crowley arrested Gates after it was firmly established that Gates was a college professor in his own home, and there was no crime involved; already, the situation was confirmed to be completely free of risk or danger, and all you’re left with is one pissed-off old man on a cane.

In exactly what terms was Gates supposed to be compliant? “Compliance” suggests that he had been ordered to do something–well, he had been asked to show ID, and he did. That’s all. After that, there was nothing.

But the reason that “belligerent non-compliance” is somewhat scary here is that it subtly suggests more than just professional police work; it hints at a mindset, hopefully not shared by too many in uniform, that police are less civil servants and more civil masters. That a citizen is expected to comply with any police request in any way, with a smile, or else.

How many think in this way? Crowley felt this strongly enough that he arrested Gates. One can only imagine what Barrett would have done if he were the officer at the scene. What percent of all police officers would have done less or more than Crowley did? How pervasive is the natural expectation of meek compliance by the public?

Think of the atmosphere in which police serve, understand that they are people just like everyone else, and it becomes easier to understand how many could easily be lured into a mindset that is less than appealing. You belong to a fraternity charged with public safety; like doctors, the power of life and death in your hands can attract or lead to the mightiest of egos. You carry a gun, and in terms of authority, you are high on the totem pole in society. People fear and respect you just for wearing the uniform. You are given a certain deal of latitude to act on that authority, and you have the solid support of the entire police force, often the prosecutors as well, in case you step over a line. Your word is far more often respected than that of an ordinary citizen if there is a disagreement. Culturally, you might even feel elevated to the role of hero; certainly, the role of cop is exhaustively expressed in all forms of entertainment in a manner that speaks directly to the male sense of dominance and ego.

In recent comments, a visitor to this blog and I had a discussion about how this relates to customer relations in retail work, where workers dealing with customers have to deal with various kinds of people on a daily basis. Most are non-offensive, some are very agreeable, and some are disagreeable. People in these jobs tend to become aggravated by the disagreeable ones, and much time is spent with co-workers carping on how stupid and unreasonable they are, with the worker usually holding back great resentment while having to be outwardly respectful while being abused by them.

Now put that into the context of police work, where the situation is greatly exaggerated. The disagreeable customers are often armed, dangerous, or aggressive in some way; a good part of your job is to deal with the worst and least respectful elements of society, and it is likely very easy to see anyone acting disagreeably with you–including Harvard professors–to be part of that overall group. You are Authority. You carry a gun. You are to be respected and obeyed. And here’s some ass giving you lip, after you put your life on the line to protect him. He should be grateful.

This is likely not helped by the other end of the spectrum: the respect, fear, and even adulation others show to you. People who automatically show great deference, who will comply readily with your requests, with “thank you” and “please.” That plus the general respect, recently enhanced (especially since 9/11) that police share with firefighters and soldiers, as being the segment of society that keeps everyone secure and alive, boldly patriotic, heralded as heroes and you’d better not disagree.

Enough of this sinks in with enough people that it comes to the point where some start abusing that authority, even in small ways. Here you are protecting this guy’s home and he thinks he can accuse you of being racist? Let’s show him the error of his ways.

I’m sure that many if not most police officers would read this and laugh. But I am just as sure that some, perhaps many, would feel the expressions resonate. That there is an entitlement that goes with the job. That citizens had better respect and obey. Certainly that was the case with Barrett; think you can talk back to me, jungle monkey? Enjoy some pepper spray, boy. And you, lady, you think he’s in the right here? Well, serve me coffee and donuts, hot little bird. And don’t forget to do my laundry. With all due dignity and respect.

Hopefully, Barrett represents the worst and nowhere near the norm. But Crowley, who comes across as much more reasonable, still let himself step over the line when he arrested Gates. And these are not isolated cases.

We probably have no choice but to accept a certain amount of this; police are not supermen, they have to deal with an insane amount of crap, and that kind of authority cannot be expected to have zero effect. But neither should the situation be ignored or dismissed when it does become a problem. Crowley should have been disciplined for the arrest. Barrett was very rightly suspended, but only because he clearly went too far and posed a greater risk.

And, as a co-worker pointed out, all of this is an excellent example of how we are not the “post-racial society” that many have suggested exists.

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