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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Let's Skip The Small Talk

Over the course of over half a century, I have had a few run-ins with officers of the law. None of them was over anything very serious. But all of them vivid.

I remember as a teenager in London, walking from the Underground station in Ealing. It was after midnight and I was coming from university. I had had indoor practice with the University football team and then hung around with some friends. I was carrying a backpack with some books and my football kit. I recall being followed by a police 'Panda' car (so called because of the white and colour marking) and then being approached by one of the officers who got out of the car. I was just by a store doorway, and I think he stopped me just there. He asked "Where are you going?". I said "Home." He said, "It's kind of late." I said, "Sure. I've had football practice." Then I asked why he had stopped me. He said a report had come in of a person fitting my description 'acting suspiciously'. This was at a time when there was such an offence ('suss law') and it was often used to stop a lot of black youths. "What did he look like?" I asked. "Tall, bushy hair." I sighed (or similar). I am five feet nine inches, and I had short hair. "But, I don't fit that description," I added. "You're right. Well. Go along and don't get into any trouble."

My heart had been pounding all the time. I was not afraid that they would harm me. I was just plain scared. Stopped. For no real reason. I knew that I was angry but I had a lot of reasons not to let that surface. It was late. I was alone. I had been trained to bottle up the temper as it could be costly on the sports field, and that characteristic kicked in. I felt offended that the officer could say something so utterly stupid. I did not think that I looked like anyone suspicious and I had not done anything but get off a train, head to the street and start to walk home.

It was too late to get a bus and I walked about five miles to my parents' house. I told my Dad the story. My Dad was furious and asked if I had taken the officer's badge number and could identify him, and if I wanted to file a complaint. I said that, for me, it was over. But, it was a lesson that said to me that I was always a potential suspect in some one's eyes.

That was not much really. Since, I have had encounters with the police, in the UK, in the USA, in Jamaica, in Barbados. My attitude has changed a lot. I was a man. I was fully educated. I was also not keen on being disrespected. I was also prepared to argue, not in a 'get out of my face' way but more 'you do your job but help me understand'. It's worked for me in getting off with alleged speeding and illegal parking and a few other nonsense things. No one ever showed me racial preference as the police never uttered words or took a stance that suggested they saw my colour as a factor. In fact, one night driving to Virginia from DC, I was driving too fast on a totally empty road. A white police officer pulled me over and asked if I knew how fast I was driving. I said that I did, about 60 MPH. He asked if I knew the limit. I said I did--35 MPH. He asked why I was driving so fast. I told him that I had had a good night and was really excited about what had happened. He laughed. He did a quick check of my breath for alcohol. He asked me why I had not denied anything. I said that it did not seem to make any sense. He told me to ease off the speed and get home safely. I thanked him and did as he said.

Conversely, in Barbados, I have been pulled over for a couple of traffic infractions (expired licence). Police here are not interested in discussing what you have done. They also do not issue citations, but utter words like "This may go to court" and then a few months later, someone may arrive with a summons. They do not really check for you--looking down all the time or talking to you without any eye contact. Their offishness is a real annoyance as is the air of 'we are the law'. But, you live with it.

A Jamaican policeman once took offence to my photographing his profane assault on another motorist, whose path he had blocked with his vehicle. I also had started to make notes of badge number, time, etc. He went into a rage and started to yell. I asked why he was yelling. He said I had no right to take a picture. I asked why. He went silent. He told me to pull over and show my papers. I did. I asked what was the offence: my car had been stationary at the lights. He gave no answer. He touched his pistol. I raised my eyebrows and pulled at my camera. He looked into the car. I was alone. He told me to stop causing trouble. I drove off. The 'tschoupse' never came out.

No policeman has ever touched me. many people are not keen on authority figures stepping that close. Talk is alright, but do not touch me. Admonish me, but do not yell at me. Ask me for my details but do not point your finger at me. No police officer has ever barred my entry or exit. None has ever sought to enter my home, even when asking questions related to incidents at the house. None has ever threatened me. These are aspects of human interaction that can move a 'normal' situation to an 'dramatic' situation.

But, if ever I were standing in my home and feeling that I was innocent of any crime, and I had not uttered a profanity or touched the officer questioning me, I think I would be terrified if that policeman felt that my interaction with him warranted that he arrest me. What would it mean that he/she was upset with my behaviour and the only solution was to restrain me with handcuffs? I cannot speak for the officer, but with every moment, my level of outrage would be rising, as would my level of fear. Because I am headed to an unknown for doing what I think is nothing at all. Is life really that difficult?

6 comments:

Jeff said...

A well written and thoughtful piece, LIB. Of course you should be advised that in Barbados we have the offence of "using insulting language to a police officer", which is usually misapplied bu the local courts; in that while it must be in public and is likely to lead to a breach of the peace, the courts usually ignore these 2 requirements.

Dennis Jones said...

Thanks, Jeff. The charge against Gates was "disorderly conduct", and was dropped. Sgt. Crowley's account includes alleged comments by Gates that could be interpreted in several ways, though none seemed profane; ("your mama" is open to several interpretations).

venturemike said...

Yep, fascinating. And I'm even more intrigued as to what caused you to write this piece, Dennis!

Shamefully, we still haven't eliminated the 'institutional racism and pomposity' that seems to be built into British (and British-colonial) police forces, but things are becoming more equalised. At least as a middle-aged white guy, I now seem to get the same bombastic treatment as everyone else - and, because of my challenging attitude, I've had a few run-ins with the UK police. In general I've found them to be mainly unthinking, boorish and too ready to assume the "you have no rights now you're in my hands" position.

As a child, I was always taught to 'trust a policeman' if I ever got lost or needed help - but not any more. I'd love to be able to prove the abuse I suffered at the hands of one policeman to whom I turned for help - who the moment he heard I was from Oxford decided I must be one of those "cocky, university types" who was "probably a member of the Conservative party", both of which were clearly serious offences as far as he was concerned.
Now, whenever I see anyone being stopped by police in London, whatever their colour or demeanour, I always hand them my card. It usually draws an immediate accusation from the officer concerned that I'm obstructing them in the course of their duty - but it does change their attitude knowing they're being 'watched'.

Never forget - these days most mobile phones have the ability to go silently into record mode...very useful when Mr. Plod enters your life.

Jdid said...

seems that we all remember specific interactions with the police and they stay with us seemingly forever and not in a good way.

Dennis Jones said...

The bad experiences are not offset by the good ones.

Aohinds said...

The Massachusetts statute defining "disorderly conduct" used to have a provision that made it illegal to make "unreasonable noise or offensively coarse utterance, gesture or display," or to address "abusive language to any person present." Yet the courts have interpreted that provision to violate the Massachusetts Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech. So police cannot lawfully arrest a person for hurling abusive language at an officer.
In several cases, the courts in Massachusetts have considered whether a person is guilty of disorderly conduct for verbally abusing a police officer. In Commonwealth v. Lopiano, a 2004 decision, an appeals court held it was not disorderly conduct for a person who angrily yelled at an officer that his civil rights were being violated. In Commonwealth v. Mallahan, a decision rendered last year, an appeals court held that a person who launched into an angry, profanity-laced tirade against a police officer in front of spectators could not be convicted of disorderly conduct.
So Massachusetts law clearly provides that Gates did not commit disorderly conduct.
The Cambridge Police should be training their officers to know the difference between legal and illegal conduct. What Gates did was probably not so smart -- in general, be nice to people carrying guns -- but it wasn't disorderly conduct. At least not in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
That explains why the charges against Gates were dropped. It wasn't because the police were trying to defuse the situation. It was because Gates had done nothing illegal.
Arresting someone for doing something that isn't illegal is pretty stupid.