Monday, August 22, 2016

Officer Friendly is Our Hero

Five years ago this month, I was relaxing in my condo on busy University Avenue in San Diego when a multitude of police sirens could be heard blaring outside. I and several neighbors ran out to encounter what seemed to be half the La Mesa Police Department and a number of SDPD cars heading west at great speed. We could only speculate as to what was happening, but we figured it would likely be on the evening news.

As it turned out, an officer had been shot in troublesome City Heights, a few miles west of us. Units from several jurisdictions had rushed to the scene, though there wasn't much that could be done. The perp was a mentally-disturbed type who had shot the officer suddenly for no apparent reason.

As much as anyone I thought it sucked, but for the life of me couldn't figure out how sending so many squad cars from other departments to the scene was supposed to accomplish anything productive. A few days later, when an evening memorial vigil for Officer Henwood was announced, in the park that would later bear his name, I got on my motorcycle and putted over to attend. There were a number of biker types there--ironically, the sort who were so often at loggerheads with cops during the times I grew up in--so I parked beside and joined them. There was also a contingent of low-rider cars, also not normally known for their pro-cop sentiments during my formative years. It was a solemn ceremony, and the sense of community was genuine.

Something similar occurred earlier this month, and made national news. Officer DeGuzman was the first SDPD fatality since the unfortunate incident five years ago. Then last Monday, another ceremony was announced in the same park to honor both officers on the fifth annual observance of Henwood's death. I also attended that, though being on a work day in mid-afternoon it wasn't quite as well attended as the evening vigil five years ago. The free barbecue was an incentive, though I did genuinely feel a need to be part of a public showing of support. Police officers seldom hear a word of thanks for their efforts, and--times being what they've been--could use some positive feedback at this particular moment. We all seemed sincerely to want to honor them on that day.

As Abe Lincoln once said, it is fitting and proper that we do so. Yet in a larger sense, I just can't get on board with this Officer-Friendly-is-Our-Hero business. It's the times I grew up in and my own life experiences. Most cops do the best they can, but the world's a dumb place. Police work, like most work, is generally routine and pretty mundane. Chances to be a hero are rare, though I suppose a good deed like helping an old lady get her stalled car started is in its own way heroic. I've read in several places that the average officer never draws his gun on duty during the entire course of his career. Cops are paid pretty well, and most have retirement plans the rest of us can only dream about. They go to work every day and enforce rules other people make, no matter how blatantly ridiculous or inapplicable the rules might be. Their reward is job security, and the assurance that they don't have to think too hard about the basic aspects of making a living.

My idea of a hero has always run more along the lines of someone like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Soichiro Honda, or Steve Jobs. Someone who works for the government and obeys orders doesn't quite do it for me. If the person does the job conscientiously, it's honorable--yes--but what's so heroic about it? I recall working the graveyard shift at a retail job just after high school, and the boss told me it was their policy to provide free coffee to police officers. When I questioned him mildly about it, he replied that it was less a matter of honoring them (not exactly the term he used) than of keeping up a good working relationship; a 24-hour retail business tends to need their help from time to time!

Frankly, I think most police officers would agree with me once they get around the erroneous notion that I'm anti-cop. Some would argue that they have tremendous discretionary power to take into account specific circumstances, that their primary role is to "keep the peace" rather than to give a ticket to everyone who commits a minor infraction. The problem here is that police officers, much like public school teachers, are under great administrative and societal pressures to produce certain outcomes while keeping up appearances, and everything about my own experience tells me that societies--whether democratic or authoritarian--are basically ridiculous. You simply can't administer a policy impartially to thousands and thousands of people without various absurdities arising with great regularity.

I was catching some documentaries last week on KPBS, about recent U.S. presidencies. Nixon's and LBJ's were particularly impressive as narrative histories of the times. They were the presidents of my teenage years and late childhood. I grew up in a rebellious time as a clean-living Eagle Scout type. By nature, I was respectful toward any duly appointed authority at a time when anyone wearing a uniform was regarded as a mindless automaton.

Watching these documentaries reminded me of how terribly divisive--and riddled with absurdities--those times truly were. The war in Vietnam was a source of rancor, in some cases approaching open insurrection, in a way that makes our current societal problems look like a case of diaper rash. The bitterness spread into all areas of society, and left anyone impressionable at the time--like myself--indelibly affected.

Like just about everybody, I grew my hair out around that time. If you didn't grow up in those times, it's hard to fathom how contentious the matter of hair length could be between parents and their male offspring. My parents, however, had to admit reluctantly that mine didn't look half bad. It was copper colored with streaks of several other colors, wavy and thick. My little brother, on the other hand, had straight stringy hair, and my father never tired of telling him that it looked ridiculous. Still, by some peculiar logic my father could never get the notion out of his head that I, as the oldest, had an all-powerful grip on the imagination of my siblings and was therefore responsible for every undesirable tendency they ever adopted on their own.

Dad was a public school teacher who came home pissed off virtually every evening. His overriding desire in life was to wallop the living crap out of any kid who caused him disciplinary problems. This, of course, was impractical on the job, so he settled for doing so to the nearest kid--who happened to be me--upon arriving home, regardless of how quiet, compliant, obedient, and diligent I might be. It didn't matter whether it was my brother or my sister who set him off; I was always the one who caught the nasty end of his outbursts.

Such was my introduction to the concept of fair treatment, and I've never really had high expectations for it since.

Given the incongruity between my appearance and my personality, peers didn't treat me a whole lot nicer. I was the "square" who found their non-stop inane conversations about the pot they'd just smoked, the person they planned to buy more pot from, and the place where they planned to smoke it... stupendously tiresome. I was "one of the smart ones," as if being dumb were a badge of honor. I was the Boy Scout who stayed active mainly because I enjoyed hiking and camping, but found the ideals of the organization a wonderful code to try to live by. In contrast, too many of my peers seemed to revel in being as untrustworthy, disloyal, hindering, hostile, rude, cruel, defiant, cheerless, spendthrift, craven, dirty, and irreverent as possible.

In those hap-hap-happy days, cops had a distinct dislike for long haired teenagers, partly because so damned many of my contemporaries fit the disrespectful, drug-addled stereotype. I got my fair share of being "profiled," but being not inclined to mouth off at authority figures I talked my way out of several tickets and situations that another person might not have been able to. This is why I don't have a lot of regard for certain segments of the population who think the police target them unfairly. If you don't act like an ill-bred jerk with no manners, a stop for an equipment violation will likely not escalate into a felony arrest or shooting... despite whatever preconceived notions a cop may harbor.

Then again, there was that experience in December of 1981 that I will never forget for as long as I live. I was less than a year out of active duty military service, and had decided to grow long hair and a beard just because I could... even though it really wasn't much in style at the time. I was riding my motorcycle to whatever place the Foreign Service Exam was being conducted that year. It was 6:30 on a Saturday morning, and I came to a stubborn red light at a cross-street that was the entrance to a shopping center. Everything in the shopping center was closed, and there wasn't a car in sight. I sat there at the light for what seemed like forever, but it refused to turn green.

Motorcyclists encounter this problem from time to time, and the common sense thing to do is to proceed after waiting a reasonable amount of time, as long as there's not a chance of any cross traffic. As my usual luck would have it, just as I decided to go ahead and ride through, a police car came around the curve behind me and tripped the light green. He pulled me over, and I reasonably and patiently explained the circumstances. He gave me a ticket anyway. Though I was annoyed, I didn't argue with him but decided instead to contest the ticket in court. I figured that reasonable people would reason with me.

The officer showed up for my appearance, and the judge--an irritable black woman who seemed to think that riding a motorcycle with long hair and a beard constituted a crime in itself--would not even listen to what I had to say about common sense or anything else. The-law-is-the-law-is-the-law-is-the-law, and it was my duty as a law-abiding citizen to sit there like a dolt in an empty intersection at 6:30 in the morning for the next hour, if necessary, until the light turned green. Never in my life have I been so angry, and few times in my life has an experience so strengthened my conviction that society and the laws that govern it can under certain circumstances be utterly 100% bum-fuck stupid.

On the other hand, I had enough future-time orientation not to turn something so trivial into a night or more in jail just because I'd been "dis--re--SPEK!!!--tud" by a small-minded functionary.

Many years later I would be sitting through jury selection, watching what could only be called Fascism With a Friendly Face. A rather pudgy and harmless looking black fellow was to be tried for buying a small amount of cocaine from an undercover officer. The female judge acknowledged that it really wasn't a very major case, but the-law-is-the-law-is-the-law-is-the-law. She seemed to want to make the point that we were all just reasonable people there while we contemplated how to ruin this guy's life for perhaps a $50 illegal transaction; I can't remember whether it was his "third strike" and whether or not he would be facing life imprisonment. When I expressed my sentiments in more or less this way, I was excused from the case.

My experience as a soldier in the active duty army during the post-Vietnam era also did little to make me feel that life was fair, or even delineated particularly clearly between good and bad. I had a cushy job in Washington, DC, but was forever receiving packages of cookies and such from my folks' church, which had a policy of sending nice stuff to any of the congregation's family members who were in military service. It was a fine gesture, but really rather simple-minded considering the comfortable surroundings I was in already. On the other hand, when I'd ride my motorcycle in uniform back to Fort Myer over the Key Bridge near Georgetown University from time to time, I'd be flipped off, cat-called, and occasionally the target of a poorly aimed piece of fruit.

Came the Iranian Hostage Crisis during my second tour in DC after three years in Germany, and now these same assholes--or the latest generation of them anyway--are waving to me and thanking me for my service (in the same cushy desk job as before). I was always polite about it, and tried to comport myself as a professional, but my deepest feeling was one of contempt. The derision seemed dumb four years before, and the adulation equally dumb at the time. At both times, I was doing a job, and expected to be neither derided nor adulated.

The bottom line is that I grew up in a time when the popular thing to do was to question authority. Having had some sour experiences both as a member of the armed services and at the hands of authority figures myself, I find it difficult now to wrap my mind around the idea that we're supposed to admire--even love--every public sector weenie who wears a uniform and does whatever he's told to do. It seems simple-minded, insincere, not quite right, and even rather wimpy. I get the distinct feeling that most of the people who do it never wore a uniform themselves beyond perhaps that of a high school marching band.

It reminds me too much of the mindless pinheads with their "Support the Troops" rhetoric, who thought George W Bush was doing a wonderful thing by invading Iraq. They'd throw around military acronyms and abbreviations they'd picked up from CNN and Fox News--tiresome B.S. I hadn't heard since my days on active duty--like some sort of half-assed military wannabes. When it turned out--yet again--to be another situation where good people were sent on a fool's errand, the rhetoric switched to, "Hate the war; love the troops." Well, yuh know something? Fuck that! Who were those people, anyway? Maybe the sort who protested in Chicago and blamed The System for everything in 1968, all grown up now and hoping to atone?

Sorry, but I just couldn't get on board with it. I'd have gladly endured cat-calls, bird-flips, and poorly-aimed pieces of fruit again if it would've helped keep us out of that fiasco!

Typical scene from the 1968 Democratic Convention. The Chicago
Police, pushed to the limits of their patience, were themselves said
to have "rioted." Yet, to their credit, no one was killed there.

Easy Rider. The theme here was exploring America in a counter-culture sort of way.
Though different in temperament from the "outlaw" biker gangs of the era, Mainstream
America categorized us all negatively and the police tended to treat us accordingly.

No cops at all made for not much fun at Altamont in late 1969.
Anti-cop sentiment among the counter-culture then faded a bit,
with a little help from Charles Manson. The "Officer Friendly"
meme appeared around this time in public schools.

Henwood Park in City Heights, named for a policeman who,
apparently, actually did fill the "Officer Friendly" role.