An Indian-American Speaks on the State of Police in America

In October, the famous New York whistle-blower cop Frank Serpico, gave a long interview to Politico Magazine. As a Serpico fan and certainly of the movie (Al Pacino is fantastic), I read it. Part of the interview is about police accountability and the lack of it when he was in the force and its continuance today.

As the events of Ferguson, Cleveland and New York and the names, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others echo through this nation and reverberate beyond, I thought back to Serpico’s interview and will quote some here, it’s directly applicable to all the afore-mentioned cases and the many which have not received media attention.

Before I go further, I want to say, I respect the majority of the US police force. I cannot imagine going to work every day and depending ones real duties, having the real possibility that I would not come home. I commend those men and women. Likewise, I cannot fathom the lives of people married to police officers or their children and living with chances, they will be dead or injured at days’ end.

Police officers see the worst parts of humanity and depravity regularly; the awful things we have the ‘privilege’ of hearing about through the news, they see daily: child abuse, sexual abuse, horrific murders and sense-less acts of violence are their ‘normal.”

I used to live on what I jokingly called the ‘safest street in America,’ because in the space of a few blocks there were two active FBI special agents, a regular town police officer, a retired state patrolman, a former member of the Italian police, the carabinieri and a retired sheriff. That is a lot of law in the immediate neighborhood. I am semi-serious of course, but all police I have ever known personally are good people. I truly believe that.

Ok, back to Serpico. As the article continues, he discussed the main problems with police as an institution in America. As I have read the news and watched television about myriad cases of cops shooting unarmed citizens, particularly minority ones, I agree with his sentiments.

“The gulf between the police and the communities they serve has grown wider…” Further, on he says “But when you are dealing every day with civilians walking the streets, and you bring in armored vehicles and automatic weapons, it’s all out of proportion. It makes you feel like you’re dealing with some kind of subversive enemy. The automatic weapons and bulletproof vest may protect the officer, but they also insulate him from the very society he’s sworn to protect. All that firepower and armor puts an even greater wall between the police and society, and solidifies that “us-versus-them” feeling.”

I read that and began thinking: “us versus them,’ when was the last time I saw a police officer engaging in regular conversation with people in the street? Sometimes, I see police officers speaking with folks through the windows of their vehicles, but that is the point. I hardly ever see police NOT in their vehicles. In addition, when they are in their cars they are usually parked on the side of the street, windows closed, laptop opened and either staring intently at the screen or viewing their surroundings suspiciously.

When I see police on the pavement, they are usually engaged in police activity, making an arrest, interrogating someone, their stance is both aggressive and intimidating. No one ever looks like they are enjoying the interaction. I can count only a few times I saw police in Washington, D.C. conversing with people or business proprietors in a friendly, informal way. I have lived here for almost a decade.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Ask yourself when was the last time you had a conversation with a police officer that did not involve explaining a law or procedure? If they are not talking and getting to know the people in white or upper-class neighborhoods, then do we really imagine they would be doing so in high poverty and crime areas which tend to have greater minority populations?

I get it. They have to be vigilant and they must bring cynicism of humanity to their jobs. However, perhaps much of what is transpiring in cities and towns across America, as the police fortify themselves behind the ‘wall’, could be mitigated by walking and talking in public.

Start conversations and engage in banter with people. Sure, they are likely to be off-put at first, but only because it is such a strange phenomenon for them to talk with a police officer in a non-confrontational way. In time, those awkward feelings for both sides might change, but it will never get better if police continue to view everyone with suspicion or at least look like it.

Why can’t police get to know the neighborhood they work in, walk around the streets, and be a friendly presence instead of an intimidating one? Do I feel secure when I know police are around? Sometimes.

Nevertheless, frankly I would feel more secure if I knew any of them by name, had spoken directly to ones I saw in my neighborhood regularly. I live in one of the safest parts of Washington, D.C.; surely, the police could develop at least acquaintances with people around me.

I understand, I live in a city with pockets of high crime and violence, but police are public servants and must be everywhere, when they are in the less crime ridden places, could not they at least talk to me?

Let us now get to the racial aspects of this problem. Here again, Serpico…

“But they (he’s talking about white folks who watch cop movies and are raised believing all cops are heroic) often don’t understand that these minority communities, in many cases, view the police as the enemy. We want to believe that cops are good guys, but let’s face it, any kid in the ghetto knows different. The poor and the disenfranchised in society don’t believe those movies; they see themselves as the victims, and they often are.”

I am a man of non-white skin, but where I differ from most minority men, is that I only ever feel stereotyped for having that brown skin by the TSA and folks who work at airports. Never in my life have I felt uncomfortably scrutinized by regular law enforcement, as guys like Michael Brown and thousands of other black and minority men and women in this country are daily.

To be a black man, watched constantly as so many of these men are, merely walking on streets is foreign to me. I cannot imagine the impact psychologically that must have on people of color in the United States.

In my experience, Indian men do not suffer from the blanket stereotypes that other non-white males endure from law enforcement officials here. There are of course isolated incidents; violence against Sikhs wearing turbans and post 9/11 anti-Muslim sentiments, but my experience is wholly unlike what black or Latino communities experience daily.

Honestly, while I feel like I should be able to identify more closely with minorities in this police brutality and violence issue, I am not sure that is the case. If someone with white skin looked at me, I think they would assume I could relate better to the black community than they could. I may feel more at ease because my skin color is closer to theirs, but I do not identity with the race and police problems that many minorities face here.

I support all who speak out, but I do not feel like I can, on the racial aspects. I cannot march in the streets and decry police brutality because of my skin color, because I have never felt it.

As a basic justice issue, I am appalled by certain police actions and policies that take place. However, as an Indian-American guy, the minority experience with law enforcement, and especially for black men in America is far from my everyday understanding.

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