Two recent New York Times pieces have drawn attention to a pair of positively staggering statistics. First, a national survey of over 7,300 young Americans found that by age 23, more than 30% had been arrested. This excludes traffic violations, open container tickets, and the like. Three out of ten Americans have been arrested by the time an average person is finishing college. Second, the NYPD recorded over 600,000 pedestrian searches (the "stop and frisk" variety) in 2010. The subject of 87% of these was either black or Latino.

As this editorial by a 23 year old black New Yorker points out, this is not without long term consequences:

When I was young I thought cops were cool. They had a respectable and honorable job to keep people safe and fight crime. Now, I think their tactics are unfair and they abuse their authority. The police should consider the consequences of a generation of young people who want nothing to do with them — distrust, alienation and more crime.

He's being more diplomatic than I would be (which I suppose is why he's in the New York Times and I write a blog full of dick jokes). The fruit of the War on Drugs has been several generational cohorts of Americans who think cops are A) assholes, and/or B) the enemy. They have every reason to think that, and law enforcement seems eager to give them more every day.

This is anecdotal to the places I've lived and I can't find any statistics on it, but when was the last time you saw a cop "Walking the beat"? Like, on foot? Not actively pursuing anyone, not sitting in a squad car, not conducting a roadblock or investigation…just walking around and, you know, interacting with people. Hell, I'm not sure I've ever seen that. An older friend of mine tells stories about growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and passing Officer Bob every morning on his way to school – not frisking kids or running a metal detector over them. Just standing around saying "Hi kids! Be good!" Does that actually happen anywhere these days, even in small towns?

The militarization of law enforcement and thirty years of Zero Tolerance, tough-on-crime politics have created an America in which law enforcement has become, perhaps unwillingly, the Other, the Ministry of State Security types used as anonymous, menacing stock characters in dystopian fiction. And the frightening end result is that most Americans my age or younger – anyone born after Carter, I guess – have never had an interaction with the police except being arrested or being given a ticket. For non-white people in particular, many of us reach middle age now having never had a positive interaction with police. It has all been negative. Seeing the police does not make us feel safer. It makes us want to get the hell away from the police, because we believe that nothing good can come of interacting with them.

The statistics that opened this post point to deep problems with law enforcement in this country. Americans, especially younger ones, see police as callous, mean, prejudiced, and arrogant. We don't think of cops as Officer Leroy who was hung out on Main Street and told us to stay out of trouble. When we see cops, we think of that square-headed guy from high school who everyone laughed at so he decided to get a badge and take his insecurities out on society. We don't think of them as people who help us – we think of ourselves getting pepper sprayed, smacked over the head, or held face down on the pavement at gunpoint for no reason whatsoever.

I'm a law abiding 33 year old white male with a Ph.D. and an aspiring middle class lifestyle…and I've never dealt with a cop who wasn't an asshole toward me. Not once. If that's how they treat someone who practically shits white male privilege, I feel safe assuming that they're not being much friendlier or more helpful to anyone else. The police officer is supposed to be someone we can trust implicitly, and instead the policies of the past three decades have transformed the citizen-police relationship to one of deep, mutual suspicion. They see us as drug holding, law breaking felons-in-waiting, and we see them as an opponent to be avoided at all costs.

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68 Responses to “HI, OFFICER BOB!”

  1. Bernard Says:

    My nephew is in the Army due to Right wing War on Youth. Darker skin than mine meant 3 years in the Army or in jail with a record. Police power is part of the War on America, Blacks,Latinos, etc. the "Other". the mindset of the military as i recall from "Avatar" is what i think of. Us vs. Them.

    seeing the cops in my town go after kids on Friday Saturday nights on a regular basis at the same selected locations only shows how preplanned and malicious these people are. police hiding out waiting for some young kid to snatch when he drove by. Keeping the peace by "getting" the easy prey, and money from parents via court/lawyers, the Police Entity/Homeland Insecurity

    money power control over the "Other."

    always having a minimum of 3 cops cars at a "bust."
    the system they use for protection from "poor" folks.
    Conservative Paradise, indeed. and it is indeed a safe place to live. consider the price paid.

    Destroying lives to Keep Blacks (the Other) from Voting. White male power/Money. nothing new here.

    why we won't see any end to the War on Drugs.

  2. acer Says:

    Shouts out to Reagan, Riordan, Koch and others who helped militarize cops with one hand while annihilating legitimate "inner city" money-making opportunities with the other. We feel ya, baby!

  3. Grelb Says:

    gimmie some gin and a taco
    and I am ready to rock-o

  4. eau Says:

    This phenomena is not confined to the States, nor to cops.

    I'm a white Australian with what's often called an olive complexion – I'm just dark enough that I manage to draw a bit of "random" extra attention at airports, just about every single time I fly, just about anywhere in the world. It happens so often, it's become a running joke among my friends. My white partner, who has been with me for most of these trips but is much paler than I, has never been "randomly" stopped. Never.

    Don't get me started on Aussie cops up North (Australia's north: USA's south, pretty much).

  5. Enomis Says:

    I'm 54, white, upper middle class, with a Ph.D. (Your readership seems to be a pretty narrow demographic.) I grew up watching /Adam 12/ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam-12) and actually expected police to be polite to citizens and scrupulously follow the rules.

    I too must report that I have almost never encountered a police officer who was not, well, a dick. To be honest, this experience holds also for officers out of uniform. I have long said that anyone who wants to be a cop should not be allowed to be. As far as I can tell, they are just bullies that grew up.

    In fairness, I should say that I can usually get them to stop being a dick by talking to them. I treat them the way the fictional officers on /Adam 12/ treated people. Also there was a surprise exception just last month. An officer responded to the scene of an auto accident I was in, and he was not a dick at all. Maybe he forgot to be a dick that day.

  6. grendelkhan Says:

    I think this is one of those things where what I thought was anecdotal is actually nearly-universal. My brother hates cops, and has ever since he got pulled over at a traffic stop and apparently reached for his registration without telling the cop first, and had a gun pointed at his face. It was apparently a very formative experience.

    I was sort of neutral on cops until I had a car stolen, and the cops who I dealt with were professional and all that. (Person-who-shits-privilege here as well, so no surprises with that.) The thing that did surprise me was that the cop who handled it figured out where the car would be, and when he drove me there to wait for the tow truck (the joyriders had broken it, of course), he seemed to know everyone who walked by. I remarked on that, and he said that a good cop knows everyone on his beat, knows what's going on in the community.

    But, of course, it's much easier to do the keep-'em-in-line-with-fear thing, and it takes a lot of effort to get to know so many people and understand they dynamic out there. Maybe the guy was just tooting his own horn, but I'd never even had the idea that there was more to policing than cracking heads and investigating crimes after the fact.

  7. Da Moose Says:


  8. Nom de Plume Says:

    Well shit, you could watch a single episode of "Cops" and know what dicks a lot of them are. And keep in mind, that show is designed to portray them in their best light.

  9. Jim Says:

    It's ironic: Police have become more and more intrusive, yet parents worry more and more about letting their kids play outside because of the perceived risk. It's not the America I grew up in, or want today's kids to grow up in. In too many cases (though fortunately not all), cops walking a beat have been replaced by SWAT teams in armored vehicles brandishing military weapons. Money from the Homeland Security apparatus has made it de rigeur.

  10. doug Says:

    Late 60's: My room mate graduated with a degree in Philosophy, told us all he was going to join the police force,which he did. We all had good relations with his squad mates, but ultimately he had to quit, as he said he was becoming a red neck typical cop after about 8 or 9 months. He said his job was basically telling people they had a problem when they did not think they had one. Only a few people can be cops and remain nice. There were several on his squad with lots of experience that still treated everyone with respect. I admire the ones that can. I think the police has become much more militarized in the last few decades, as have the gangs and criminals they meet every day on the job. It can not be ramped down in any way that I see.
    It is interesting that no one takes a cop's viewpoint in all the posts before this. Tells something about the demographic as well….
    Ed, try riding with one sometime. It is eye opening.
    Thanks for all the great columns this year.

  11. Townsend Harris Says:

    Ed, you need to shit harder. A lot harder. You need to lay major cable in the white male privilege department. Time to upgrade your age and wardrobe and potential political connections. You're 33 and your most privileged years are ahead. (And you thought you had nothing to look forward to.)
    In big American cities, the trick is simple. Look like a perfectly-scrubbed middle-aged white male in a good suit, good shoes, shaven, barbered. The goal is to make cops worry that you *might* have a lawyer who knows a deputy mayor who'll ream the ass of his precinct captain if he fucks with you.
    Always greet the officer with a Mitt Romney smile and an open hand, asking "Officer, good to see you. How are you and what can I do for you?" You'll skate through.
    I pity everyone else.

  12. Bears Fan Says:

    As a long time resident of both Chicago and its burbs, I have to say that Chicago cops are horribly racist lazy and mostly a waste of space. This coming from someone that grew up in a wealthy white suburb, that went to a college, Western Illinois University, which is one of the top LEA schools in the nation. I have tons of cop friends both in the suburbs and city. I have over the years ended up distancing myself from most of the city cops. Even the ones that were OK guys in college became substandard humans after years as Chicago cops. One guy that I knew in high school, that you would consider to be the epitome of a compassionate, caring, open minded individual, became a racist scumbag after a few short years working with the CPD. The stories I've heard from cops or their immediate relatives about the lengths they went to in order to avoid work is nothing but depressing.
    The guys I know that are cops in the lower middle and middle class neighborhoods are mostly really decent people. I can't say that they are that way on the job, because I've never been around them at work, but I doubt they are much different in dealing with others there than they are out of uniform. The Chicago cops on the other hand are people you really wouldn't want to spend time with outside of work.
    I imagine that much of this is from dealing with areas that have a high crime rate, but it seems that there are simply culture differences inside the police departments. Most of the Chicago cops I know, even those with college degrees, are part of cop families. Daddy, uncle, brothers etc. were all Chicago cops. I think that reinforces the racism and bad attitudes they seem to have. I suppose when you were growing up in such a family the only stories you heard had negative connotations to them, and they were exposed to the racism from a very young age, so the bad attitudes towards people were reinforced all the time, and easily reproduced once these guys became cops themselves.

  13. PGE Says:

    I'm 55, white, long-haired,middle to upper-middle class, and have been lucky. I've witnessed cops clubbing someone who was on the ground and no threat, but all my own experiences have been neutral at worst. Of course, I rarely say anything but "Yes,officer", "No, officer", or politely answer their questions. Best exprience: walking to catch the bus to work one morning on the north side of Chicago when an unmarked pulls up next to me and two cops jump out. They ask if they can see the contents of my briefcase, and I let them; then ask what they'll find in my pockets. I tell them there's a 16th of an ounce or so of weed in my breast pocket, which they ask for. Then, "Have you ever been arrested before?", and I respond "Yeah, as it happens about a month ago I was picked up for smoking a joint in Grant Park". "How much did you have on you?" "Less than half as much as you're holding there." Incredulous, "You're kidding. They brought you in for that!?". They then told me they'd stopped me because I matched the description of a thief they were looking for in the neighborhood, put the bag of dope back in my pocket, wished me a good day, and went on their way. As you might guess, this was just before the war on drugs got started. No doubt it would be a different story if it had happened last week.

  14. Typical Says:

    This happened a few hours ago in my neck of the woods. The quote from the cop right before he shot a man in cold blood in a bar is pretty telling:

    "I'm a cop. I can do whatever I want to do."


  15. Ben Says:

    @PGE: Learn your 4th Amendment rights.

    The only positive interactions I've had with cops were a polite fellow in Wyoming who gave me a speeding ticket, and a cop who responded to a car accident and took down all the relevant information in a dispassionate manner. Other than that, dicks.

    A friend of mine was mugged on the south side of Chicago. She dutifully reported it to the police who proceeded to pull in the first black kids that they could find, even though they bore no resemblance to the description she had given. She was absolutely mortified and felt so guilty about the treatment of the "suspects" that she regretted reporting the mugging at all.

    That's fucked up.

  16. TwShiloh Says:

    It seems the culture and environment described here (http://www.policemag.com/Blog/Patrol-Tactics/Story/2011/12/In-Praise-of-the-Unreasonable-Cop.aspx) has a lot more to do with the behaviors you identified than sociopathic bullies flocking to law enforcement.

    Certainly there are some there but it's the institutions which encourage and reward those behaviors that we should really be worried about.

    If people aren't having positive interactions with law enforcement we should be asking what metrics law enforcement agencies are evaluating their officers against. I don't know but I'd be surprised if 'community relations' was present on more than a handful of evaluations.

  17. My Says:


    Wow. Holy sheeyott. I'm not even done listening to this: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/414/right-to-remain-silent and I'm already pretty well entirely disgusted. Having lived in NYC, I'd heard stories…but good gawd. How can the entire NYPD leadership even continue to function? How can the people of NYC not march on city hall?

  18. jjack Says:

    I have had a positive interaction with a cop. My dad was one.

    Part of the reason he's not any more is because he got tired of playing workplace drama with a bunch of assholes who ended up consuming the whole department.