Until police are 'good guys' for all, there's a problem


As we enter post-riot America (at least I hope it's post-riot America) we are in danger of making a big mistake.

Most of what I now hear is how we as a society must do more for the African-American community, provide more jobs, small business loans, etc., etc.

And this is fine. This is swell.

But it also glosses over a problem that we have glossed over for much too long. It is a problem central but not limited to the Rodney King case:

Too many black people in this country feel they are systematically victimized by law enforcement officers. Too many black people feel they are the continual subject of what, when I was a young police reporter, was called "rousting."

Rousting is when a police officer stops you just because you look "wrong" to him, you look like trouble, or because he wants to give you a hard time.

Ask a white person how many times he has been rousted in his lifetime. Now ask a black person. I think you will get two very different answers.

There is also a difference in the reaction of many blacks and many whites to the Rodney King tape. When white people see it, many say: "What a terrible thing is happening to that man."

When black people see it, many say: "This happens all the time. That guy just happened to get his beating when there was a

camera around."

Not many black people ever are going to lead police on a high-speed chase like Rodney King did. But I think I do not exaggerate when I say millions of black people feel imperiled by the police whenever they go out in their cars, especially if they are driving through non-black neighborhoods.

"Any black man without a tie could be a Rodney King," a black Baltimore attorney of my acquaintance said flatly. "My son, who has never been in trouble, was stopped three times by police in Baltimore County in the last month. There was no probable cause to stop him. There was no reason to stop him. He had done nothing wrong. But they stopped him.

"I had lunch today with two friends: One was a man who works with a New York financial underwriters firm. By any definition this is a successful black man. And he said that he feels endangered and threatened by the police all the time. A mortgage banker, black, also at lunch, told of how he was recently stopped in his car by police for no reason. And I realized after talking to them that I wear a shirt and tie all the time, partly as plain protection. Because what you want to do if you are black is look professional at all times. Otherwise, you could end up like Rodney King."

In a safe and sane society, it is essential to have faith in our law enforcement officers. They are empowered to carry weapons and use force, and it is therefore necessary to believe that they are there to enforce the laws and not break them.

And, of course, the majority of police officers deserve the faith we place in them. They serve and protect, endangering their lives for us.

But there are cops who clearly have a problem with race and excessive force. How many? I don't know. Only four cops were accused of beating Rodney King. But 11 more stood around and watched.

There are now several "reality" TV shows on the networks that glorify how police arrest people. Much less common in the media are serious investigations into allegations of police brutality.

At my first newspaper job in a suburb of Chicago, I did a series of stories about a kid severely beaten by a few police officers. The reaction was instantaneous and angry, but in a way I didn't anticipate: Not only were the police angry, which I expected, but the public was angry, too. They didn't want to read negative stories about the police.

"If the police did that to the kid, then the kid must have had it coming," was the usual response I got from callers.

Unfortunately, some 20 years later that was the response of the Rodney King jury.

It is right and proper and good to care about jobs and programs and dollars for people in the minority community. But we can't get so caught up in the general problem that we forget about the specific one.

The specific problem is that too many people view police officers as the enemy rather than as their protection from the enemy.

And until we solve that problem, the rage we saw unleashed in Los Angeles is going to remain with us.

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