When I started med school, during orientation the faculty were very clear that if the New Orleans police stopped us for any reason, we were to always be polite and compliant. “These guys maintain order at Mardi Gras,” the professor explained, “you don’t want to make them mad.”
Right now tensions between the police and the public are making news across the nation. I work with a former award-winning policeman, and listening to him and thinking about his views makes me consider these problems from different viewpoints. Sometimes I think he’s right, sometimes I disagree with him, but most of the time I think about flaws in our thinking on all sides.
A problem we have looked at repeatedly here is the idea that one size does not fit all. When you’re a hammer, the whole world is a nail. Or rather, if you’re a hammer the whole world looks like a game of intellectual Whack-A-Mole.
The Fears of a Police State
One of the fears of the US Founders, and of most generations since, is of a police state. Most of our police reject the idea as strongly as the public. We may argue about what specific restraints we should impose upon our finest citizens, but everyone agrees there should be some. For instance, I know of no one who would approve of a home search without a court-administered warrant, permission, or good evidence of a recent or on-going crime.
Policing Mardi Gras
The other day, my friend was relating about a colleague of his, a state trooper who was working with a New Orleans city officer at Mardi Gras. As they walked through the crowd, someone thumped the trooper’s hat. The trooper turned around and chewed the guy out.
When he caught up with the other policeman and explained what had happened, the N.O. officer immediately objected, “No. No.” He turned around, found out who had done it, and roughed the man up.
By our laws, the city policeman was now the criminal. But again, that is hammer thinking: there is only one rule, and it applies in all situations. New Orleans Mardi Gras is a massive IED, always a half-Kelvin away from detonation. The policemen know that everyone in the crowd is in constant danger from a potential riot, and strict control has to be maintained.
Dispensing Justice in Chaos
So rather than defend the officer, let me ask a couple of questions:
Compare Mardi Gras to the US situation in the Middle East. We would certainly not expect our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan to follow US police procedures, and I can’t imagine too many reasonable people would even suggest such a thing. War is a different situation that requires a different set of rules; by definition, war means that civil order has broken down, and civil police rules are often ineffective.
At the same time, if there are no restraints on our troops, we betray our most important beliefs about freedom, dignity, and the sanctity of life.
I have been suggesting that we need functional definitions for liberal and conservative, rather than the current absolutist, football mentality. We need to understand that sometimes we need to be conservative, sometimes liberal; even the most strident partisan isn’t always conservative or liberal. So we need to understand both approaches, why and when they work, and much of the time we will need to design something in between, a compromise that borrows from each of them.
War and peace are near-absolute concepts that, in reality, represent a continuum. We have been looking at the Petraeus/Nagl doctrine where soldiers interact with local populations in ways that do, in fact, resemble proper police procedures, and in fact what we want from the finest policing. If war zones can sometimes resemble peaceful communities, then we can then understand that the opposite may be true, for situations such as Mardi Gras police officers are in a situation moving toward a war zone.
Police Brutality, Police Responsibility
It’s neither one nor the other, it’s both. What is considered police brutality in a stable situation may be the best course of action in a volatile situation. And vice versa: proper police conduct in a stable situation may be catastrophic in a volatile situation. There are pros and cons to both situations, and the last thing we need are police officers, or a public, who approach the situation with pigeonholed thinking. If we don’t allow police officers some discretion, then we deprive them of the responsiveness to handle dangerous, complex situations. On the other hand, if we don’t hold them accountable then we dishonor the democracy they are sworn to uphold.
My take-home point is, once again, there is no one-size-fits-all. The police are not all heroes, the police are not all villains. Painting with a broad brush either way makes for profitable but highly toxic news. Today we need open, serious discussions among all stakeholders, particularly those who are interested in investigation and discussion first, and conclusions only thereafter.
Because our current approach, of starting with conclusions, is unraveling the fabric our nation.
Mardi Gras mask courtesy of Greyerbaby on Pixabay.