This is Part Two. Part One is here.
I am descended from a hero cop. My great-grandfather, Mom Mannion’s grandfather, took on violent and armed criminals by himself with his bare hands and hauled them off to jail. He jumped into the icy river to save a man from drowning. He was tough, brave, and smart. He was a detective although that was a job description not an actual job title: at least for the first part of his career his department didn’t have a detective division. A detective was just whichever officer on duty the chief thought could handle an investigation and solve the case, and that was usually my great-grandfather.
We Mannions are lucky to count as a good friend the regular visitor to Mannionville known as Chris the Cop. He was a on the job for well over twenty years. For a good chunk of his early career he worked undercover and helped put away many stupid, violent, and desperate people. Criminals at heart and in deed. Dangerous people who wouldn’t have needed to figure out he was a cop to turn on him and do him serious harm. There was a reason he made sergeant and finished his career out on patrol watching out for and watching over other cops. He was a very good cop, as in way more than competent and as in honest, decent, and brave. He was (and is) very smart and level-headed but he also had an ironic sense of humor and a sense of detachment that let him think outside of the typical cop box and see situations from a non-cop point of view. “We’re cops,” he once said, calming down a young officer who was losing his temper at a drunk yelling insults from his own front porch, “People don’t like us.” He was the kind of cop I like to imagine my great-grandfather was. He never had to jump into a river to rescue someone from drowning but he would have if he’d had to. The only thing he was afraid of was having to deliver a baby. He claims to have been terrified of ever having to answer that call.
And, sure, I’ve had my share of run-ins with bullies with badges. The most recent was ten years ago, when I was long past being a longhair and was in fact a graybeard, and I wasn’t in a car, I was on my bike. I took a wrong turn and wound up on a private road I shouldn’t have been on and this guy took it personally. He took it even more personally that I didn’t move fast enough and in what he thought was the right direction to get out of there. But that was the only time I ever felt in actual danger of being arrested, as opposed to just hassled, and of getting hurt in the process. And excluding those times when I was hassled, almost all my dealings with the police have been positive. The officers involved were polite, professional, respectful, competent, helpful, and, most of them, good-natured and friendly.
What I’m getting at is that if I judged only by my personal experience, I would be one of the police officers’ biggest fans.
Then there’s this:
And, of recent examples, most notoriously, this:
These all happened within the last six months. The Leon County deputy was killed only two weeks ago. And those are only four of the forty-three cops shot dead so far this year. Two more were killed in assaults. One hundred and seven have died one way or another while on the job.
It’s a hard, nerve-wracking, soul-trying, mentally and emotionally exhausting, psychologically wearing, dangerous job. Statistically, it’s not the most dangerous job but outside of the military, there’s no other line of work that routinely brings you into contact with people who want to hurt you. You’re a cop, you’re going to hear a story just about every week about a fellow officer somewhere in the country who was killed by someone who saw a badge as a target. They’re are too many idiots with guns out there and you never know when a call’s going to come in that will require you to deal with one of these idiots.
But just because you do a job doesn’t mean you’re good at it. It doesn’t mean you deserve it. And it doesn’t mean you should keep it no matter what.
Like all cops, Chris the Cop has stories to tell and he tells them well. And many of his stories about his fellow cops have as their moral, “And they let people like that carry guns!”
And while I’ve never been arrested and at mercy of angry and violent people officially sanctioned to take out their anger and use violence on whoever pisses them off, Mrs M has. She was arrested and assaulted by a cop.
I should say assaulted and arrested.
It happened back in college. She was at a block party and either the neighbors complained about the noise or the campus cops just decided things were getting out of hand, whichever, the cops pulled the plug on the band and set out to break up the party. But students didn’t leave fast enough. Many stuck around to complain. Somebody threw a bottle and one of the campus cops called for back up from the Boston City Police. He called it in as an “officer in trouble”. The Boston cops arrived in a hurry and started arresting kids right and left. Mrs M, who was an editor at the student newspaper and her reporter’s instincts had kicked in. She was hanging back, taking notes. One of the cops saw a young woman standing by herself, doing nothing but watching, and identified her as a target. He grabbed her by the hair from behind, pulled her to the ground, dragged her across the pavement, and threw her into the back of a patrol car. She spent the night in jail.
Later, when she tried to file a complaint against the cop, his precinct covered up for him.
I’ll tell the whole story another time, but for now: the reason I wasn’t with her when it happened was I had gone home for the funeral of my grandfather, my hero cop great-grandfather’s son. How’s that for an irony?
Neither of us has ever heard a story since about a cop beating somebody up and thought, “Bet the perp deserved it.”
Then there’s history, and the history of law enforcement in America is a history of brutality.
For a long time, a very long time, brutality was thought necessary to policing. Call the cops and they arrived on the scene swinging their nightsticks. Crimes were solved by beating confessions out of suspects. I don’t like to think about it but in my great-grandfather’s detective tool kit were likely a bright light and a rubber hose. Telephone books weren’t kept in interrogation rooms so suspects could look up the number for their lawyer. It was taken as a matter of course that what kept certain neighborhoods in order was the fear on the part of residents of what could happen to them down at the station or on the way to the station or right there on the street. Was taken as a matter of course? Is taken as a matter of course.
And the history of law enforcement is also a history of corruption.
I’m not talking about Chicago during Prohibition. I’m not talking about New York City when Theodore Roosevelt was a commissioner and failed to clean up the department or in the early 1970s and Frank Serpico stood up to the corruption and was nearly killed for it. And I’m not talking about the Los Angeles Police Department for just about the entire Twentieth Century.
I’m talking about every department, everywhere.
At one time or another, in one way or another, corruption has been the default condition of local and state law enforcement agencies.
Keep in mind there are many ways to be corrupted besides by money and vice.
Departments can be corrupted by politics, standard office politics or the politics played out in city halls and state houses.
They can be corrupted by institutional arrogance, bureaucratic inertia, laziness and incompetence at the top, indifference and demoralization in the ranks, by the encouragement and enforcement of excessive and misplaced loyalty, by a culture of swagger, machismo, and toughness, by a too easy acceptance of human folly.
They can be corrupted by power.
They can be corrupted by fear.
They can be corrupted by anger and resentment.
They can be corrupted by pride.
And, obviously, they can be corrupted by racism.
Finally, they can be corrupted by a lack of restraint and permission from public officials, civic leaders, and private citizens to do whatever they decide needs doing to get the job done.
This is the sort of corruption we’re seeing at work today.
And in a corrupt police force there can be no such thing as a good cop.
End of Part Two.
A couple of tales of institutionalized corruption and brutality at different times in the history of the NYPD:Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks and The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge by T.J. English._____________
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