The Breakfast Table

Citizens and Cops: A Double Standard

Of course, I agree that the state is not the only source of coercive power; to subject the individual to the power of capital without the opportunity for state mediation (lawsuits, anti-discrimination rules, and such) is to reduce individuality to the law of might makes right.

Which brings up the latest development in the Diallo case, the shooting of a peddler of African descent by four New York City policemen, an event which has done much to tarnish the reputation and political future of our beloved mayor. According to the Wall Street Journal , prosecutors will have a tough time winning a conviction against the officers even though they have been indicted by a grand jury of second-degree murder. It seems that the police are held to a different standard than the rest of us. They are not required to answer questions posed by investigators for two business days after the event. In the Diallo case, the four officers were brought to an emergency room and sat together for four hours right after the shooting. During this interregnum, they had a chance to fabricate a common story and deprive prosecutors of one of their best weapons: catching suspects in varying accounts in order to impeach the credibility of the alleged offenders. In addition, they refused to testify before the grand jury and are likely to seek a trial before a state court judge rather than before a jury, which in New York, according to the article, is more sympathetic to victims of the police than similar bodies elsewhere. Tucked in the middle of the story was the revelation that these officers’ rights were part of their union contracts.

Now, my first reaction was to say that they should be held to the lower standard. Upon reflection, I concluded this would be a bad idea. In New York, the mayor’s overt policy is to hold suspects guilty until proven innocent, especially black men. Yesterday I had a long conversation with a black student in one of my classes whose experience with the police confirmed what everybody knows about how suspects are treated in New York. If you conform to the profile of a likely felon by race, gender, dress, and type of automobile, the police are instructed to stop and search your person and your car on the presumption, at least for black men, that you are carrying dope or are guilty of some other crime. But the police have latitude, and are not subject to the arbitrary search, seizure, and interrogation that ordinary citizens suffer, white as well as black and Hispanic. Every citizen should be so protected. I began to realize that it was wrong of me to demand that the standard for them be as bad as it is for us. In every endeavor, we should find the best standard and raise the bottom rather than lowering the top.