Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Police Brutality, Post-Traumatic Stress, or Both?:
New Orleans, Post-Katrina

For many who've watched the videotaped beating of retired schoolteacher Robert Davis at the hands of NOPD officers and auxilary police, this may appear to be an open-and-shut case.

Three cops bludgeoning a man in front of a video camera is obviously police brutality. The officers have been arraigned at the devastated city's makeshift courthouse, a federal civil rights investigation has been opened, and the officers have all been suspended without pay.

But is this a hate crime based on Davis's race or just a symptom of a bigger problem.

Almost everyone I've ever met from New Orleans has a story about police brutality, corruption, and scandal. I've heard stories of the "accepted" practice of offering "Ben Franklin" ($100 USD) as ID during a traffic stop. I've heard the tales of Mardi Gras beatings and shakedowns of tourists. And I've even witnessed a few brutal detainments at that same intersection (Conti and Bourbon Streets) that made me cringe. A long-running joke in floating around the rest of the state described life in New Orleans, even prior to Katrina, as being like living in another country - a Third World country.

Given what I've seen and heard, that's not that far from the truth.

But I've also known a couple of NPD officers, too. A friend of mine from grad school dated one of the Crescent City's finest. He even hooked us up with an ride in a cruiser once after a day of partying during Carnival. He had a big heart, a good head on his shoulders, and seemed to be an all-around decent guy.

I once had a drunken German kid reach into my pick-up window at a stoplight, apparently looking for a light. The guy caught me off-guard, and, with a quick hook to the face, I sent this guy to the ground, nose gushing blood, probably a few teeth knocked loose. I noticed an officer standing leaning against his cruiser nearby, who instructed me to pull over. Then, just as that pit in my stomach started setting in, the officer looked at the guy, made a gesture indicating the guy was drunk, then waved me on. Why hassle with somebody for defending himself. Its just more paperwork, more court appearances, and all for the same abysmal pay and long hours.

Unlike 9/11 and the public weeping and celebration over New York's Finest, the NOPD has been left hanging in the wind by Louisiana and the Feds, told to keep trucking along, to keep putting in more overtime with shaky gaurantees of a future paycheck. These guys were some of the worst-paid cops in the nation prior to Katrina. The PD was understaffed even outside of the tourist season, working with limited resources in a crime-ridden city full of a kalaidescope's worth of racial tension (Its not just black/white in NOLA, its WASP/Vietnamese/Portugues/Mexicano/Creole/Cajun/Haitian/High Yellow/Red Bone/Black in the city.)

During Katrina's aftermath, while millions were glued to television screens, the Bush and Blanco administrations were exchanging insults, these were the same guys who had to live a live-action version of "Assault on Precinct 13" for six days and nights. Two officers whacked themselves immediately afterwards, having lost everything and unable to keep going. And now, thanks to a rushed reoccupation of a devastated city, the officers who survived are working to deal with their own losses in property, family, and friends while simultaneously being asked to continue to play hero.

Maybe there was a racial motivation behind this weekend's brutality. Maybe all three officers were somehow so overwhelmed by their hatred of blacks that they chose to reinact Rodney King for a Associated Press news crew. And maybe the real reason they manhandled the AP producer afterwards was because they were FOX News fans. Yeah, sure. Its possible. But I think there's something bigger at play here.

What happens when the ol' Boys in Blue finally reach their breaking point?

While the officers' actions are unexcusable and deserve full investigation, its also important to remember that all men and women - police officers included - eventually will snap in times of extreme stress and trauma. These are the same guys who stood watch over a broken city while FEMA and other Federal and State agencies played hookie. These are the same guys who kept going when most of us would've probably given up and ran for our lives.

Again, while the behavior is abhorrent and disturbing, its an ugly reflection of the times we live in. We demand that our law enforcement keep our streets safe and to protect us, while simultaneously declaring they aren't worthy of a decent living wage or a well-equipped precinct. In many of the nation's poorest cities, we offer the bare minimum in terms of investment in law enforcement and expect enormous returns.

Then, when disaster strikes, we call on these same men and women to keep going when we're afraid we can't, to protect our livelihoods at the risk of their own - to do more with less so that our society may somehow prosper. Its always been a game of fuzzy math and backwards logic. And the result - abuses of power and a lowering of the bar in terms of human rights protection.

Sometimes, sadly, there are good people who get brutalized at the hands of authorities. Robert Davis is definitely a victim here. But are the police officers also victims? That's an interesting question, and I don't think anybody's going to want to hear the answer.


Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

This was rather thought provoking.

Carla said...

Ha! It doesn't sound too much different from the way they behave at my place. Perhaps mine is worse. :P

Who'll get the most benefit from 2 guys fighting on the street? The police officer.
Who'll party after 2 cars crash? The police officer. Both of them, a victim or not, need to pay him if they want to get their case processed.
Will a girl, who was just raped or sexually abused, get any concern from the what-so-called police department? It depends. Does she have money?

The world's messing up.