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Sandy Banks

It Happens --So Why Don't We Face It?

July 16, 2002|Sandy Banks

I've never been body-slammed onto the hood of my car. Never been spread-eagled and searched on the street or handcuffed and poked with batons by police. I know enough people who have to know that it happens, and not infrequently. But my encounters with police have been uneventful and mercifully brief.

In fact, my lone example of mistreatment is so insignificant as to be laughable, in the face of our current controversy. But it opened a window for me into the kind of attitudes that can lead to police brutality, whether the victim is a teenager munching potato chips or a fleeing suspect high on PCP.

I was working "night cops" at police headquarters 25 years ago for a Cleveland newspaper, reporting crime stories passed along by police. I'd heard from my predecessor--a middle-aged white guy with years on the beat--that the cops were kind and cooperative. But from my very first night on the job, most were rude and contemptuous toward me. They ignored my polite requests for information, rebuffed my friendly overtures, greeted my presence with racist and sexist jokes that seemed funny to everyone but me.

After months of this I sought help from my editor, a black man who'd spent years on that beat. What had I done to make these cops dislike me, I asked him. Why were they so nice to others and so mean to me?

It's not you, he told me, but what you represent ... and what their lives have taught them to expect. Back then, Cleveland was dreadfully segregated, and most officers had been raised in white, working-class neighborhoods, tightknit communities of first- and second-generation Americans from places such as Poland and Croatia and Italy.

They go their whole lives and never meet a black person until they join the police department, I recall my editor telling me. Then, most of the blacks that they encounter are on the other end of handcuffs or at the point of a gun. The life experiences of these officers give them a way of looking at people that automatically puts folks like you and me in the "criminal" category.

That same attitude is what might have landed Donovan Jackson and his dad in the criminal category, when police rolled up on their car at a gas station in Inglewood, a city with a police force that is mostly white and a populace that is overwhelmingly black and brown.

Deputies reported that 16-year-old Donovan looked at them "with an angered expression" when he saw them questioning his dad about his expired auto registration. When they ordered the boy to stay away from the car, he began "breathing hard" and "intently staring," they said.

But did that reflect anger or merely confusion? His family and friends say the he suffers from speech and hearing problems that make it difficult for him to understand commands and explanations. The police didn't know that at the time, of course. Their inclination was to regard his reluctance not as bewilderment but defiance.

And it doesn't surprise me that when they closed in on him, barking orders, Donovan struggled and resisted their efforts to take him into custody. He has had life experiences too. And just as the officers feared what he might do, his experiences may have convinced him that whatever was about to happen at the hands of police could only be bad news.

In this case, both sets of expectations seem to have come true.

In the 10 days since the videotape aired, complaints have been pouring in from folks claiming that the cop Jeremy Morse, who punched Jackson, has cursed, threatened or beat them too. Morse's lawyer says that the alleged victims are merely trying to profit from the publicity.

Maybe, but the more likely reality is that they recognize that now the videotape gives them credibility. Reporting police abuse is too often like whistling in the wind. Complaints are made, then disappear. We don't believe it until we see it on TV.

My sister-in-law is a small, serious and soft-spoken college professor, a product of Harvard, with a PhD. Ten years ago, she led the procession at her college graduation with bruises on her face from an encounter with police.

The night before, she'd been stopped in Boston as she dropped a classmate off at a housing project. Her license tags were from out of state, her registration had expired. Police ordered her out of the car, and when she asked why, an officer grabbed her, pushed her up against her car and slammed her face into the roof. Just as in Inglewood, two more cars arrived as "backup." She was handcuffed and hauled off to jail, ostensibly for resisting arrest, though no charges were ever filed.

And when she tried to press a complaint--with the police, civil rights groups, the ACLU--no one would take her case because she hadn't been hurt badly enough, hadn't lost time from work or hadn't miss her graduation. What happened to her happens all the time, they told her. "You're lucky it wasn't worse."

I guess Donovan Jackson is lucky too. The videotape of his beating promises accountability. But it also offers us an easy out, a way to dismiss the problem as one rogue cop or random act of police brutality. Why is it that only when a camera is rolling that we take police abuse seriously?

Sandy Banks column is published Tuesdays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is

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