The Responsibilities of Police Officers

From the Goldblog inbox:

You write that you know almost certainly that Sgt. Crowley was trying to provoke Gates into being arrested. How can you be so sure? Aren't you being judgmental here? Do you have any idea what kind of pressure cops are under?

To answer the first question, yes, I know what kind of pressure cops are under. Am I being judgmental? I don't think so. I haven't argued, by the way, that Crowley was motivated by racism (though in my experience, white cops sometimes seem to have a problem with black men who are more educated, and wealthier than they are -- but again, I don't know Crowley, so I can't say this is true for him).

But coming back to the issue of the pressure cops feel, let me ask another question: Are cops aware of the immense power they have? The power to arrest someone is awesome; any cop, at any moment, can take temporarily take your freedom. Yes, there are courts to protect the rights of the innocent, but in the meantime, a police officer can still put handcuffs on you, shove you in the back of his vehicle, fingerprint you and lock you up for at least a couple of hours; and lock you up with some pretty mangy people if he so desires. That is real power, traumatizing power. Society grants police officers that power, but in exchange, we must expect certain things -- that the police officer granted this responsibility show more patience, more kindness, and better judgment than the average citizen. Which brings us back to the issue of Sgt. Crowley. Once he ascertained that Henry Louis Gates was the legal occupant of the house, it was Sgt. Crowley's responsibility to apologize, turn around and walk out. It does not matter at all whether Gates yelled at him, mocked him, got loud at him. It was Crowley's responsibility to understand why Gates could have been upset, and it was his responsibility to turn around and leave. Good police officers know how to control their tempers, and know enough to understand why someone might be upset with them. Crowley should have left the house.