Sgt. James M. Crowley, left, at a news conference Friday.
Police departments issue their officers Kevlar vests to stop bullets, and thick helmets and even shields to protect them from bottles and bricks. But there is nothing in the equipment room to give an officer thicker skin. That tool — as vital to an officer’s safety and the public’s as anything clipped to his belt — is developed in training, and its strength differs from one officer to the next.
The issue of tolerance, in fact, lies at the heart of the dispute surrounding the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Mass. The police say Professor Gates was arrested and briefly charged with disorderly conduct after he ignored warnings to stop haranguing an officer who had asked him for identification inside his home.
Though Professor Gates said he was not abusive and was the victim of racism, the police report said he told Sgt. James M. Crowley, “I’ll speak with your mama outside.”
Two people have very different versions of the incident.
Several officers interviewed in four cities on Friday said they tried to ignore such remarks. Others said they had zero tolerance for being treated disrespectfully in public.
Respect: I insist on it, but have some tolerance for it not being fully accorded. However, a police officer has a significantly more delicate, touchy.
A mounted police officer who has been with the Los Angeles Police Department for 25 years said that taking verbal abuse was a regular part of his job.
“We don’t get to tell people what they want to hear,” said the Los Angeles officer, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being quoted on duty. “Whether we’re giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we’re not dealing with people at their best, and if you don’t have a tough skin, then you shouldn’t be a cop.”
“I wouldn’t back down if there’s a crowd gathering,” the Brooklyn officer said, in part out of concern of sending a message of weakness that could haunt another officer later. “We’re a band of brothers. We have to be there to help each other out. If there’s a group and they’re throwing out slurs and stuff, you have to handle it.”
A 13-year veteran of the Denver police force, who did not wish to give his name, said likewise. “We’re not going to take abuse,” he said. “We have to remain in control. We’re running the show.”
Running the show?
But Robert Anderson, with the same department five years, said he tried to “let people vent” if they grew irate. “People usually aren’t happy to see the police,” he said. “They’d rather see a fireman.”
Cops and firefighters were many of the Little League coaches I knew, and his point is spot-on.
In New York, State Senator Eric Adams, a retired New York City police captain and co-founder of the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, said the rules for dealing with someone differed by setting.
“If it’s their house, they’re allowed to call you all sorts of names,” Mr. Adams said. “A man’s house is his castle. If they’re in the street, and they don’t listen to the officer’s warning, ‘Sir, you’re being disorderly,’ you can lock them up at this time.”
Not that the officer necessarily should, he said.
“Let’s say I do a stop,” Mr. Adams said. “I question, and it’s nothing. ‘Sir, I’m sorry, I apologize.’ What’s the reason for staying, if the anger’s directed at me? If it’s directed at a third party, a storekeeper, I stay.”
But if the officer himself is the provocation, the officer should leave, he said, and added that Sergeant Crowley did not use such common sense.