I have avowed or suggested or implied that a police officer was a liar, had been incompetent, had been less than bright, had used excessive force, had been brutal. I have been personally wary and fearful when I have seen a cop. But I respect the police and what they do.
I didn’t have any contact with the police in the small town where I grew up until I was halfway through high school. Then one day I was asked to go the police station after school where I was questioned by detectives. The crime being investigated had occurred in my girlfriend’s neighborhood. I had dropped Wendy off the previous night. (Of course, I had walked her to the door; I was a young gentleman.) I had been driving my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile, and apparently a neighbor thought that the car had been involved in some sort of incident on the previous night. I seldom drove that or any other car, and although the police kept me for an hour, I was eventually dismissed. Perhaps it was my teenage arrogance (which did not necessarily end with my teenage years), but I was never concerned or scared or apprehensive. I was, after all, innocent. I thought it mostly amusing.
My other contact with a police officer in high school was more informal. On summer mornings I umpired younger kids’ baseball games that were held at what was once a minor league stadium. The program was supervised by a police officer, who, after his midnight-to-eight shift, came to the ballpark. He seemed like a nice guy, but I was shy around adults and learned little about him or his work. I regret my inability to talk more with him. I wonder now what it was like to patrol my hometown and the stories he might have shared. I did not think then about who his friends were or about his family. The kids I hung out with came from a wide economic swath of the town. My friends’ parents worked in factories, were tool and die makers, cabinetmakers, barbers, factory owners, lawyers, bankers, tavern owners, manufacturers’ representatives, physical education teachers, insurance salesmen, clergy, and jewelers. But I knew no one whose parent was a police officer. Whatever world this police officer and his colleagues inhabited, it was completely separate from my world.
I had no contact with the police at my isolated university either. I don’t remember ever seeing an officer on the campus. The police certainly did not seek to enforce the drinking laws. As long as we were on college property, we could have our beer and scotch. This only meant finding a senior to buy the goods and carry it across the street from the liquor store onto the campus. (Done in those genteel days without a fee or surcharge other than one beer for the senior.) There were drinking rules on the campus; underage students were not to drink openly on campus, but it was ok in rooms and certain outdoor places. This restriction was loosely enforced by university security personnel called proctors, and violations were usually met with a mere reprimand. Something more severe, such as breaking a bottle or window, might cause a report to a dean. Never once did it occur to us that such behavior could cause an arrest and trip to the precinct headquarters or to court—something I only thought about a decade later when, working as a public defender, I realized that comparable street corner actions in New York often brought out the handcuffs.
In my college years, I did have one contact with the police. I was sharing driving duties with classmates as we drove from New Jersey to Chicago, and I was stopped by an unmarked car for speeding (which I was) on the turnpike in the middle of Pennsylvania. I was asked to get into the cop car and was driven to a Justice of the Peace where I paid a fine while my college colleagues waited for my return. (I was a little miffed that they did not offer to pick up part of the fine since all of us drove over the speed limit.) I was polite and mostly quiet with the officer. As we got to the court, he said, “I could have charged you for going more than fifteen miles an hour over the limit, and I would have, if you were a wiseass, but you haven’t been.” I thanked him and said, “I was being careful to keep it at thirteen or fourteen miles too fast. I only went above fifteen because I saw you behind me and sped up to get in front of some cars in the right lane to pull over and let you get by me.” He smiled a bit. What I most remember about the drive from the turnpike to pay the fine was that this was my first sight of Appalachia and that many of the houses’ sagging porches looked as though they were being held up by a wash line strung between the corner posts.
Primarily, however, as I left college, I had given little consideration to the police, who they were, where they came from, how they learned their job, or the work they did. I, like almost anyone of my generation, had seen the televised police brutality with civil rights demonstrators, but that was in the South. I assumed that the South was a world apart.
I chose to go to law school in Chicago over what some assumed were more prestigious law schools elsewhere. After growing up in a little Wisconsin town and going to college in a small, isolated New Jersey village, I wanted to live in a city. The University of Chicago certainly provided me with a new atmosphere. It was a beautiful campus in a beautiful neighborhood, but that neighborhood was small and bordered “ghettoes,” which meant black neighborhoods. We were told that these were not safe for university students, which meant young white people. This was the first time that I lived in a community where people were concerned about crime and their personal safety. These concerns, however, did not cause me to reflect much on the police. They did not seem to me to be my protector; they couldn’t really protect me if I were to become a victim. This was confirmed the first time I was mugged.
I lived in a terrible one-room, one-window apartment with a decrepit bed that came out of the wall. There was no air conditioning and the window faced a brick wall three feet away. During that first hot summer, the apartment was unbearable. I got up one night from my sweat-soaked mattress and decided to make an after midnight walk in hopes of catching a breeze. Instead, I was confronted by teenagers with knives who demanded money. They got it, but they agreed that I could keep my wallet when I said that I didn’t want to have to replace my papers. One said he wanted my watch. I said that a friend had only given it to me a week ago (true) and I would not give it up. The leader smilingly nodded to me, and they ran away without it.
It never occurred to me that a police officer should have or could have prevented this incident. The mugging took just a few moments, and it would have been the barest coincidence if a cop had been nearby when it happened. That was driven home twenty years later when I was robbed at knifepoint again, this time on the Brooklyn block where I live. I was walking from the subway to my home after work on a winter evening when a man walked past me, turned, and blocked my path. He made sure I saw the knife in his right hand and quietly, but menacingly, demanded my money. He got it, but again I retained the wallet. This only took a few moments. Other people were out on the block. I could see my next-door neighbor over the mugger’s shoulder. She yelled hello. She could not see the knife held by the man I was apparently chatting with. I merely nodded in response, and my robber sprinted off after getting my twenty dollars.
(continued Sept. 30)