As an ex-police officer, I have a unique perspective about the subject of police authority and racism, especially after having distanced myself from the profession with an aggressive thirty-year history of studying the antics of human behavior. One of the things that psychology has made clear about primates and humans is that males in positions of power experience a rise in testosterone.
Put a low-level male in charge of a group, and in time he will blossom into an alpha male with the appropriate level of hormones for the job. This also applies to females, perhaps to a lesser degree. Put a badge and gun on a man or a woman, and in time a bold persona becomes part of a law officer’s personality. It begins to feel right, and it defaults to overt assertiveness when one’s official authority reaches into gray areas.
I know from experience that taking on the persona of a law-enforcement officer results in a surge of internalized boldness; it’s just part of the job. At times this is a necessity because police officers often find themselves in situations where a high degree of assertiveness is all that stands between them and losing control of a situation. I also know from personal experience that if police officers are not constantly reminded of the dangers of crossing the line through their use of their authority, then abuse of their power is a virtual certainty. Further, as with any minority (and police are a minority), associates tend to stick together. That police will back up one another, even when their fellow officers are wrong, is as dependable as sunrise.
For a teachable moment to have occured out of the incident with a Cambridge police sergeant and a distinguished university professor it would be necessary to reenact the incident, to do a play-by-play enactment of everything said, of every gesture made, and of the voice inflection and tone of everyone involved, and then to read the laws covering this situation very carefully. It would be an extraordinary learning experience for everyone who participated. From what I’ve learned of the incident, and based on my own experience, I don’t believe Professor Henry Gates broke the law. What occurred, in my view, was that a learned scholar embarrassed a police sergeant in front of his subordinates, and the sergeant overplayed his hand and authority in the same manner that occurs all over the United States day in and day out. The default position in this case is aggravated by the sergeant’s need to maintain the respect of his subordinates. Moreover, the reason I am quite certain that Professor Gates broke no law is that the police department dropped the case immediately. There was no case, and you can rest assured they wouldn’t have dropped it if there had been one.
In the 1960s I was guilty of this same kind of behavior as a police officer in Dallas, Texas. I am not now in any manner antipolice simply because I am no longer in law enforcement, but I am very much aware of how easy it is for officers with honorable intentions to cross the line and abuse their power. It is an occupational hazard that needs to be acknowledged as such and guarded against by police department managers to keep it from bringing harm to both the police and the public.
Race was an underlying issue in the Cambridge incident, as the African-American professor was very likely oversensitive (but not without some justification) and perhaps overly defensive, but I believe a reenactment would prove beyond doubt that he broke no law. He was guilty of disrespect for a person who performs a dangerous and often thankless job.
For anyone of any race or nationality to declare themselves not a racist is a gross oversimplification. Just as we are all capable of both good and evil, we all have built-in bias—a primeval, our kind bias—that exists as a matter of degree and can be made to surface, given the right context. Through psychology we have known this about ourselves for many years, and the fact that we have achieved so little public understanding, especially on the part of peace officers, is deeply disappointing. I discuss the topic of us and them in great detail in my book, September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life. There I show how we are bedeviled by this issue all of our lives, especially if we remain unaware.
President Obama was right the first time when he said the police acted stupidly, because they should know better. It’s unfortunate that the president found it necessary to step back and retract the remark because until we can see this kind of action with some objectivity, we will never learn enough to actually be objective in such matters. I don’t doubt the police sergeant is a good man, but I very much doubt his objectivity. His authority went to his head to save face, and he overrode the law he was supposed to uphold.
Yes, I’ve been there, done that. And since then, it’s taken an extraordinary amount of study and reflection on my part to realize that in many cases I used to act inappropriately, sincerely believing at the time it was my job to do so.
Charles D. Hayes
Charles D. Hayes is a lifelong learning advocate, a self-taught philosopher, and an author and publisher. At age 17, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marines. After four years of duty he became a police officer in Dallas, Texas, and later he moved to Alaska, where he has worked for more than 20 years in the oil industry. In 1987 Hayes founded Autodidactic Press, committed to lifelong learning as the lifeblood of democracy and the key to living life to its fullest. Mr. Hayes is also the founder of September University, a website for aging baby boomers.