Benefits of Doubts

by Conor Friedersdorf

On Internet discussion boards I've been following, people are debating the altercation between black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Massachusetts police department. A point of disagreement is whether police officers should be given "the benefit of the doubt" in these situations due to the difficulty of their jobs.

Lest anyone doubt that the job is difficult, let me share a brief story. On a ride along with the NYPD in Manhattan, the squad car I inhabited got a call that sent us speeding from Union Square to a destination maybe 10 blocks away, tires screeching, sires wailing. The dispatcher said merely that someone reported a street scuffle involving a dozen men, that one wielded a baseball bat, and that a street front window had already been shattered. As we pulled onto a small street in question, under cover of darkness, view of the altercation was obscured by a large truck parked illegally on the street. The effect was that after the squad car rounded its cab, we found ourselves on the edge of the melee.

It all happened damned quickly. The two officers in the front of the car jumped out immediately, pushed through the onlookers at the edges of the commotion, grabbed a guy and pinned him against the wall. As I watched from the backseat of the squad car, I couldn't figure out why they grabbed that particular guy, but it quickly became apparent that in a split second they'd somehow identified the only man on the scene with a weapon (a knife), separated him from everyone else, and disarmed him, without ever brandishing their own guns. I was impressed, and conscious of how easy it would've been to make a mistake in that situation: a violent altercation already underway, a crowd of men, one of them armed, and darkness. It gave me a better idea of how police officers are sometimes killed, and how they sometimes injure or kill the wrong person.

Given that kind of situation, where split second decisions are forced upon officers, adrenaline is pumping, and all the rest, I understand the impulse to give them the benefit of some doubts. But why should police officers require the benefit of the doubt when they are confronted with a lone guy -- old, nonthreatening in appearance, apparently well-dressed -- who is pushing on the front door of a house in a nice neighborhood? Does that sound like a particularly dangerous situation? That isn't to make a judgment about what actually happened, or whether the officer misbehaved. It is merely to say that the matter should be decided on its merits, that it is irrational to give the officer any special "your job is hard" benefit of the doubt, especially in a circumstance significantly less difficult than many police face. Why privilege the story of the officer over a law-abiding citizen who turns out to have been outside his own house? If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt in cases like this one, it is the citizen.