Shows of Force

A Quarropas episode has been transferred to movie screens. This docudrama is making its way along the film festival circuit. Hopefully a distributor will acquire the movie and give it general release. Though factually based, and likely with poetic license taken, the effort will not portray my former hometown kindly.


The basics: one night nearly eight years ago, a widowed black pensioner inadvertently jarred his senior alert sensor. It summoned the police. From behind the door of his apartment, the resident acknowledged the bump. He’d been asleep. Tossing and turning, his hand accidentally activated the device. He informed responders his an errant alarm. There was nothing to it.

The pensioner just wanted to be left alone. He just wanted to resume his dreams.

Police, however, were insistent. In this case fatally so.

After an accelerating argy-bargy which increased both sides’ aggravation, police invaded his premises. Admittedly by checking on the old man authorities performed their duties. But after breaking in they went overboard.

The matter escalated tragically for the victim through the officers’ wantonness.

Common sense or reevaluating the situation never entered play. After all a squad of callow cops responded to a non-compliant black male. That’s not 20-20 hindsight. Who denies had they been responding to a similarly aged Anglo methods wouldn’t have become excessive, violent, and ultimately homicidal?

After an investigation, naturally the police were found to have acted without fault, within department guidelines. More and more American communities are hearing that conclusion. Especially when the incident results in some civilian’s extreme trauma. As if going by the book, the letter of the law as it were, completely dismisses initiative if the situation encountered is one outside the box.

Soon enough the movie will be released. Certainly producers hope the public takes the opportunity to determine the case’s merits, whether storytelling hews soberly to events or sensationalizes them.

Nonetheless complaints about police overreaction are becoming more commonplace. A series of factors have contributed to greater awareness.

First, the segments of our populace who feel the weight of law enforcers’ boots have become less timid over time. Back in the old days, cops could manhandle certain groups with impunity and few peeps, if any, might result. But thanks to the gradual extension of fuller rights to all Americans, those who the law once dealt with arbitrarily are less willing to accept injustice quietly.

Second, technology has become the bane of any badge-wearer believing him or herself judge and jury. Other than the abjectly stupid ones, what cop doesn’t know that if he or she metes out some summary “correction” his or her actions may be recorded on video?

What passersby don’t have their cell phones cocked at the ready for street incident vérité?

Previously if it came down to an officer’s word against that of a civilian, the common inclination was to unquestioningly accept the law’s version over the citizen’s. Often only grudgingly thorough investigations correctly placed these burdens.

Today we thankfully enjoy far fewer occasions of such unthinking acceptance.

The same devices that may instantaneously deliver life’s most embarrassing moments onto social media also can either solidly confirm or refute claims. Of course that goes two ways. While the police can’t just ladle out “wood shampoos” on whim, agitators also can’t instigate actions calling for heavy-handedness.

Ideally handheld devices should keep in check any sides prone to randomly exceeding the bounds of civility.

Nonetheless spurred by the most exaggerated threat of our modern age, terrorism, hasn’t policing has gone beyond “serving and protecting”? Hasn’t law enforcement entered a realm that now encompasses suppression and surveilling?

While the United States isn’t immune to acts of terror, neither is it a magnet suffering frequent outbreaks. Somehow the French and Israelis have absorbed more piercing attacks upon their societies than us but they’ve managed not to curtail civil liberties as have Americans.

For the skeptics of the above, just look at the police presences at demonstrations. The most innocuous manifestation demands an overwhelming number of police, sheathed in armor, helmeted, bearing weapons best suited for combat, and backed by tank-like vehicles. And that’s just for the most peacefully-stated marches or protests imaginable.

Who knows what’s in reserve if the parade consists of goosestepping reactionaries or short-fuse anti-fascists?

We do know that the threat of terrorism doesn’t mean Americans have forfeited our right to assemble peacefully, don’t we? And while our abilities to rally remain somewhat free, what appears on the fringes to ostensibly protect us doubtlessly insists on maintaining the sort of strict order that calls into question future gatherings.

Seeing so much might amassed and deployed for “peaceful” purposes could be reason enough for people to mute their voices, leave their opinions unstated, by staying home. It’s a sort of state-preferred docility these shows of force suggest, no?

The above is assertive policing that too easily slides into aggressive measures. That’s what the Quarropas victim suffered.

As I’ve written elsewhere, while today’s law officers are among the smartest ever to have graduated from our police academies, few are sharp. Too few are old enough, mature enough, sufficiently worldly enough to properly read much of the public they serve.

Compounding the Quarropas tragedy, the officers who answered the call were predominantly young white men not long on the force. Moreover, no senior supervisor at least monitored the situation. So, a still blossoming squad of patrol officers met a circumstance beyond their limited ken: a cranky old man who wished to remain undisturbed.

Doubtlessly none of the officers was accustomed to being rebuffed. Especially by a black male.

Unlike legions of previous Quarropas cops, none who responded that night had even remotely been a local boy. All outsiders, each was probably raised in a homogenous environment with all the distinction of the contents inside a sugar bowl. Diversity to them possibly ran the gamut between Protestant to Catholic.

Those who’d served in the military before joining the force knew how to execute orders, and little more. So under the circumstances and given the personnel at this stage of their careers, no one could expect any deviation from procedure.

What each certainly knew was that an old black man behind a door refused complying with a lawful order. And no, knocking on a neighbor’s door, getting some gen on the fellow, maybe even use the neighbor as an interlocutor never entered any equations.

Today’s officers are consumed by compliance, from a complaisant public. Have any ever learned, like elected and appointed officials, municipal and state functionaries that through our consent, they serve us? God has not deigned them. It is not a right, nor an inheritance. We have granted them the privilege of service.

Of course in our modern world, law enforcement will exaggerate – because we let them.

Yes. Police work can be dangerous. But it’s safer than logging, commercial fishing, or mining. Still waiting for any lumberjack, fisherman, or miner to shame the public regarding his or her job hazards.

Events that would’ve stiffened the spines of our parents and grandparents then roused them into action, confuse and paralyze this generation of Americans. Hovering parents ready to swoop in at a minor dilemma’s moment have stolen the most valuable lessons their children ever could’ve learned. How to extract one’s self from life’s pitfalls.

My parents never reminded me that someday they wouldn’t be around to guide. They were too busy teaching me how to navigate.

The possibility of terrorism is an opening law enforcement agencies have rushed through and crowded. The friendly patrol officer of much of my generation, someone we generally respected because he reciprocated the same, has now been shoved aside and almost from memory thanks to the shadowy, unknown urgencies which may menace us from their bases in nebulous places.

The “friendly cop” has now become a praetorian. A stalwart of that thin line restraining rampaging hordes which allows us to live in drab comfort. The bulked up bodies, the shaven heads, the piercing stares, the indifference or impatience emitted when dealing with the public – their paymasters – elides into militarism.

Indeed, what young junior police officer doesn’t hope our compliance becomes obedience?

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