What does a police officer think?

In, that is, a situation like that in the Gates case.  Should we hope it isn’t like Boston Police officer Barrett’s reaction?

In Barrett’s e-mail, which was posted on a Boston television station’s Web site, he declared that if he had “been the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC (oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray) deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.”

Or is it just much wiser to assume the police officer is a racist  and sexist bigot wanting to hurt you if you exhibit any non-compliance?**

Barrett maintains he isn’t really a racist.  After all, some of his friends are people of color.  This does make me wonder whether he has dehumanizing ways of thinking about the many different kinds of people he encounters.  Are white students “spoiled, useless brats”?   White women “stupid suburban bitches”?  (Actually, he seems to think in more concrete  metaphors but I’m not going to try to imagine them.)

Anecdotes have so little evidential value in cases where we are raising general questions.  Still, they can remind us of alternatives that sometimes do happen.  With topics like these, I’m often reminded of driving down a California freeway with a white, male visitor from Oxford; this was some time ago, and we were going to an APA in Los Angeles.  It was about 10 o’clock at night and yes, he was driving and we were speeding.  We got pulled over by a police officer in an  unmarked police car (so unfair).  When told we were substantially over the speed limit, my friend, using an impeccable Oxford accent, explained that he was a visitor to the country and couldn’t be expected to know the laws.  The policeman nicely agreed and said he understood.  We drove on. 

Seriously, that did really happen.  I think the  police  officer did suggest we slow down.

**  We should notice that the  implications of this question are a bit odd.  It doesn’t really ask if we should assume all police officers are racist, sexist violent bigots.  That seems to me a very offensive assumption to make about all the members of a group.  Rather, it’s about what’s the more protective assumption to make in certain situations.  There are plenty of  situations in which it is  wise to assume that any X you encounter could hurt you even when you know that most X’s are not dangerous.  This could extend from unknown people out late at night to abandoned luggage at airports or unlabeled medicine.

One thought on “What does a police officer think?

  1. It strikes me that our discourse on race is problematically dictated by the challenge of “identifying racists” (which of course leads to the problem of defending oneself against accusations of racism). The upshot is that the wiser option above is phrased in an order that obscures reality. It probably is unproblematically wiser to be wary of all police officers who are authorized to hurt you if they perceive what they believe is non-compliance and to recognize that race and gender might play a role in those officers coming to those perceptions. Data shows that most US Americans’ judgments are influenced by race even if they don’t realize it is. It’s not interesting trying to figure out who is or isn’t a racist; a better project is trying to manage situations where race is factor bravely and earnestly without labeling.

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