Cops, Race, Reporters

Recently by Fred Reed: We Are Screwed

Nobody starts a fist fight with a man holding a gun. Nobody holding a gun starts a fist fight with his left hand. Nobody who is winning a fist fight pulls a gun.

Journalism in America, and perhaps everywhere, works according to unacknowledged templates in which the reporter fills in blanks, thus saving him the nuisance of thought, for which he is generally not well suited anyway. In matters of race, it also saves him from being drawn and quartered for Crime Thought. If he follows the template, he is safe. Stupidity, sloth, and cowardice are thus fertilized.

A favorite template is: evil racist white cop shoots meritorious black because the cop hates blacks.

This is twaddle. Why is it twaddle? Because every white cop knows that if he shoots a black, he will first be savaged in the local and quite likely the national media. He will then be suspended and probably fired, losing both income and years toward retirement. An ambitious prosecutor will charge him with murder and, in the cities, a black jury will lynch him. A civil suit may follow, led by a lawyer seeking a national reputation. The cop, freshly fired, will not be able to pay his legal bills or his mortgage.

Do you really think he is going to do this to himself intentionally?

A variation on the template is: evil white cop deliberately shoots unarmed meritorious black. The “deliberately” part is tacit but strongly implied. The cop usually says he thought the dead guy had a gun. The media dismiss this with an implicit “Oh, sure.”

Let us play a little game in the peace and security of your living room. You will be a cop responding to an armed-robbery call at a Seven-Eleven, and you will have your pistol in your hand. I will play the robber, initially with my back to you as you enter the store. I will tell you before the game begins that I will have in my hand, close to my body, either a (toy) gun or a dayglo-yellow plastic banana.

You will yell “Freeze!” or something else suitably dramatic. I will then turn, very fast – which is how it would go down in real life – and point the object in my hand at you. Your job is to decide to shoot me or not.

If I am holding the gun, and you don’t shoot, I will, and for a month or so your kids will say, “Mommy, why doesn’t Daddy come back?” If I am holding the banana and you do shoot, you just killed an unarmed kid, he was such a nice boy, everybody liked him, it was a banana for god’s sake. The joker in this deck is that I will, every time, be able to get a round or two off before you can shoot – if you wait to see what I am holding – because you have to make a decision and I don’t. Do you see how this might make for an unstable evening?

That’s in your living room. Try it for real. You’re a cop and you screech into the parking lot, bar lights going. You are scared. You are pumped up on adrenaline. People are screaming. You don’t know who the hell the bad guy is. Somebody is on the floor bleeding out. A guy turns suddenly toward you….

If the robber is white, you will be suspended, there will be a one- or two-day story in the papers, the incident will be investigated until everyone forgets about it, and you will be back on duty. If the dead man is black, you killed him for his color, you racist swine. Tell your wife to get a job.

Another media template is “profiling.” In real police work, it means simply the recognition of patterns. Let me give a few examples.

In a region known for prostitution, a young woman is leaning against a lamp post in fishnet stockings, a plastic miniskirt up to her armpits, and eight pounds of lipstick. A cop will profile her as a hooker.

Maybe she isn’t. Profiling is statistical. Maybe she just didn’t have enough money for a longer skirt, and she may think the lamp post is about to fall down and wants to support it. But the odds are with the profile. This is how profiles work, and why they are sometimes wrong.

A cop is patrolling in ritzy Montgomery County, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. A pricey car full of white teenagers tops beside him at a light. The kids see the cruiser and look straight ahead, fixedly, like statues. This isn’t how kids normally act. The cop runs the tags. Stolen, for a joy ride. He is profiling.

A cop sees a scruffy unshaved man driving a new BMW. Nine times out of ten, the car has been stolen. People who buy Beamers do not usually look as if they slept in dumpsters. The cop finds an excuse, which a cop can always do, and pulls him over.

If the driver is white, he is arrested if the car is stolen, or sent on his way if it isn’t. Either way, it is profiling. If the driver is black and scruffy because he is seventeen and making an adolescent statement, and the car belongs to his father who is a surgeon, then it is racial profiling. In the real world, the kid will get stopped over and over and be furious. But if the car was stolen, and the cop doesn’t check it out, daddy’s new Beamer will be in a chop shop in twenty minutes. Take your choice.

Whites all engage in profiling, chiefly of blacks. If you are white, when was the last time you went at night into the black inner city for dinner? Why?

Whether your profiling is in fact racial is debatable. You are walking down a dimly lit street and hear footsteps behind you. You turn and see three black men in business suits, carrying briefcases. Do you worry? No. If you see three young blacks in hoods, or three Hells Angels with bicycle chains in their hands, you do. Maybe they are very nice Hells Angeles on their way to repair a bicycle, but you play the odds. You are profiling.

Let’s play another game. We will recruit a group of black students from Yale, put them in hoodies and butt-hanger pants, and have them walk by night, talking loudly in Ebonics, through a neighborhood inhabited by the staff of the Washington Post, crossing lawns. You will give me a dollar for every call the cops get about it.

Profiling. I’ll spend the summer in the south of France.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well, A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Bem, Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle, Au Phuc Dup and Nowhere to Go: The Only Really True Book About Viet Nam, and A Grand Adventure: Wisdom’s Price-Along with Bits and Pieces about Mexico. Visit his blog.