by David B. Durk
TRUE support of the police should be devoid of every chauvinistic connotation. “Vigilantes not wanted.” Support includes a right to be critical of particular policies or particular cops. Bad cops do exist. The problem is to support the good cops.
Lenny Bruce, for all his problems with the police, used to portray and vilify the hypocritical liberal, especially in relation to the police. For he saw the police as a creation of society to handle those dirty areas, the “garbage” and the problems that “decent citizens” do not want to know about. This thinking is facilitated in certain strata by dehumanizing the police. It is tacitly displayed when, in this time, there is recurrent talk of disarming the police and other esoteric suggestions reflecting the view that as public policy it is far better for X number of cops to be hurt or killed than one innocent bystander. Support of police could even mean recognizing, as journalist Pete Hamill did in a recent Village Voice, that “they have rotten jobs, but we hired them.” New York City, he writes, can be “a violent, brutal city, and until the golden day when really basic change is effected in the society, it will remain brutal and violent.”
It is amazing how many graduate students in the social sciences or practicing attorneys (some of whom aspire to become judges) beg off, when posed with this or that real or hypothetical police situation, with the comment that they are not police and cannot make such judgments. The police do not complain about having to make such judgments, some of them instant judgments. But they resent being criticized for being in that decision-making position. For example, is it really illiberal or bigoted for the policeman to exercise sophistication about the demographic patterns of New York City? Knowing, for example, that Park Avenue landlords in the sixties do not normally rent to blacks, an alert patrolman observes a black man emerging with the proverbial sack at 3 A.M. Should he be blinded to the possible cues that social scientists accept as tentatively valid indices of behavior worthy of further investigation?
Similarly, it is rumored that black prostitutes have shown some resentment toward their white counterparts for being able to have a longer run at some of New York’s better hotels. Visibility, however unfair, can be a “legitimate” factor.
In the ghetto areas, there are high rates of violence, and they are almost always cases of poor against poor, black against black. But invariably, few in the community wall assist the cop (or anyone else) either to aid the victim or to arrest the assailant. Many blacks privately acknowledge how wrong this is, but will not themselves step forward to help or even speak out for fear of appearing to be insufficiently militant or even anti-black.
As we all know, the police are not omnipotent; they often require information to do their job. I would urge those who distrust their “ghetto police,” who profess to see them as an occupying army, to test them by giving information, even anonymously, that the police can act upon. Contrary to appearance, the fact that numbers and narcotics are sold relatively openly in front of you is not to say that this is openly done in front of police, thereby constituting probable cause for arrest. (This is not to gainsay that corrupt cops do exist; you can expose them, too.) The community that is truly concerned about the corruption of its youth can test theories that the police don’t give a damn and perhaps be surprised. All is lost, frankly, if you feel being an informer is a greater moral evil than effectively condoning the pusher or the mugger. If democracy, specifically “participatory democracy,” is to have meaning and viability, civic responsibility must be endemic.
Support of your local police might mean joining them. It is obvious that there exists today an enormous group of idealistic young people concerned about social change who would welcome an opportunity to combine meaningful work—challenging, useful, exciting, socially significant—with that concern; not the romantic revolutionaries who seek fulfillment in violent confrontation, but the same socially dedicated young men who were previously drawn to the Peace Corps, the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns, and currently to teaching, with great effect, in our slum schools.
But the police role, too, is crucial in our society. True, the policeman’s authority can be abused. But it can be a positive force for the enhancement of humane values.
Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s former special assistant for law enforcement has even challenged the more dissident to become policemen. “It’s one thing for young people and blacks to complain, but the easiest way to change a police department is to get in it,” said Wesley Pomeroy, associate administrator of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.
So, I’d say to the socially concerned young man, If you really care, become the cop and prove it. The role has to be filled by someone, and as much as we would envision a world without such a need, the police are needed now.
In the crucial area of family disturbances, for instance, a recent experiment has found much success in New York City’s 30th Precinct, located in upper West Harlem. This project, known as the Family Crisis Intervention Unit, takes note of the fact that the police, of all social agencies, are on call twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, to be summoned when violent family crises occur. Dr. Morton Bard, the project’s originator, feels that the new unit has unquestionably saved many lives by establishing such contact with the community that the “family cops” are called for, even before family tensions end in violence.
Dr. Bard says the policeman is “somebody who wants to help. I suspect very strongly that a significantly large percentage—not all—of them who seek to become cops do so out of a wish to help. They’re idealistically motivated.”