Commentary: Bad karma in Cambridge
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2009 - I had dearly hoped to sit this one out. As soon as I heard that a black college professor had been arrested by a white cop under dubious circumstances, I knew that I didn't want to get involved.
As a retired cop who teaches part-time at a local university, I know a lot people in both camps and generally get along well with all of them. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to keep my mouth shut. Alas, for the very reasons that I didn't want comment on the case, friends understandably solicited my opinion on the matter.
Aside from the can't-win-for-losing aspect of the incident, I also didn't want to write about it because the Beacon is basically a PG-13 rated publication. This is not the old LA Free Press -- people here take standards of decency seriously. My editor and I go back to my days of writing for the Post-Dispatch, so I generally know how much she'll let me get away with.
Given those strictures, I knew I would be prohibited from using official police terminology critical to understanding just what went down. The reader is thus asked to bear with me while I try to use offensive language in a manner that won't offend anybody.
Cops have universal shorthand for describing a deliberately belligerent and disruptive individual. This is a seven-letter word that begins with an "A" and refers to a certain orifice on the posterior of the anatomy not normally mentioned in polite society unless you're discussing proctology. Cops can sometimes fit this profile, as well.
They also have a term to describe a case that results in a contradictory or self-defeating outcome, like the arrest of the victim. This is a four-letter word that begins with an "S." It can be a noun, verb or exclamation of surprise or despair, but in this usage is an adjective. It refers to something you don't want to step in and is the primary motivation for house-breaking puppies.
An a****** will often provoke a s*** case by daring the cops to arrest him. Go ahead and lock me up, then see what happens! This is known as a "request job." (Subject asked to be arrested and helpful officer complied.)
One of the innumerable training sessions I attended while on the force was an FBI seminar on dealing with encounters of this kind. Like most local cops, I was never overly enamored with the Bureau, but this particular instructor made a good point.
He said it was necessary to distinguish between S/A's and T/A's and to tailor one's response accordingly. He defined an S/A as a "situational a******" -- a decent guy who's having a bad day; whereas, a T/A is a "terminal a******" and it's always bad news when he's around.
Now, that we've straightened out our nomenclature, let's take a look at the Cambridge case.
A 58-year-old African-American history scholar from Harvard returns from a trip to China and takes a cab from the airport to his home. Upon arrival, he finds the front door to his residence stuck shut, so he and the driver attempt to force it open. Failing that, they enter the house from the rear and get the front door open from the inside.
A passerby notes the front door action and calls the police to report two males trying to break into a dwelling. A white sergeant from the Cambridge P.D. responds to investigate.
What happens next depends on who you listen to. What is known is that the professor winds up arrested for "disorderly conduct" in his own house and something or other was said about the sergeant's mother.
Charges against the professor are ultimately dropped and the case becomes a national story evoking commentary from everybody up to, and including, the president of the United States.
This thus qualifies as the mother of all s*** cases and is widely cited as a classic example of police oppression of minority citizens. At least nobody got shot, maced, tased or hit over the head.
Note to the Offended Scholar: Prof, this was not racial profiling. You and the driver just happened to be the only two guys breaking into the house the officer was called upon to protect.
How hard is it to prove it's your house? You just got back from China so you have a passport. This isn't rocket science, Teach. Do you think maybe you were a little more irritable than usual because of jet-lag from your long flight?
Note to the Also-Offended Cop: Dude, does a 58 year old with a cane answer your description of a second-story man? Didn't you pick up on subtle clues like maybe there were framed pictures of the burglar hanging on the walls of the house he broke into?
You might also consider that disorderly conduct in the privacy of your own home is legal. I do it all the time. The only person he was bothering was you. Once you figured out that he belonged there, all you had to do to restore the peace was leave.
This guy doesn't know you or your mother, who I'm sure is a fine woman. Don't you know that provocative language is intended to drag you down to the level of the a******?
President Obama initially remarked that the police behaved "stupidly" in this matter, then later amended his commentary to the effect that it appeared to be a case of two good guys sharing a bad day. I agree with him on both counts.
Though I have no personal knowledge of the incident, it has all the earmarks of a request job involving two S/A's, neither of whom was willing to step back to prevent this mole hill from metastasizing into a mountain. Unfortunately, when otherwise sensible adults insist on behaving like a******s, you usually wind up with a s*** case.
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.