When police need to be abusive

Gregory P.Kane

April 30, 1993|By Gregory P.Kane

EARLIER this month, about a dozen men were shot in the 500 block of East 21st Street. The shooters apparently were disgruntled losers in a craps game allegedly held on a regular basis in that block.

From news accounts, we were able to learn several things:

1. Street-level craps games have now joined street-level drug dealing as a problem in the inner city.

2. There's a severe problem in police-community relations on East 21st Street.

3. Residents of the East Baltimore neighborhood have a problem with "verbal abuse" by police.

It was this last charge that brought me up. "Verbal abuse" by the police? How, exactly, is that a problem? When I was in basic training in the Air Force, my butt was chewed so often and so harshly that my drill sergeant could have been accused of cannibalism. I survived. I am no worse off for it.

My drill sergeant and his assistant did not heap verbal abuse on me because of racism or a lack of respect. They abused me and 39 other raw recruits because they had a difficult job to do in a very short time. It was to train all 40 of us to adjust to military life in six weeks.

Police officers have an even more difficult job. They have to confront, arrest and otherwise neutralize a criminal element that grows more dangerous every year. Their job requires that their manner be direct and forceful, even to the point of brusqueness.

And that's the way we should want it. Imagine, if you will, some bumpkin of a cop sauntering up to the riffraff shooting craps on Greenmount Avenue and saying in equal parts Gomer Pyle and Beaver Cleaver, "Golly, jeepers! I sure would appreciate it if you fellers would vacate this corner."

We don't want cops like this on the street. We want tough cops who are going to control the streets. The alternative is to let the drug dealers, crackheads, gamblers and yo boys control the streets, and these guys can't control their own lives. Any complaints they would have about being verbally abused by police would be prompted by their agenda: They don't want any police on the streets.

Police are a bother. They make drug dealing and smoking crack and gambling and mugging and burglary so much harder. Pulling them off the streets, or decreasing their effectiveness by making them less zealous in their work would make the city streets a thug heaven.

But surely not all of those complaining about police verbal abuse are criminals. There may be some law-abiding citizens caught up in the vortex of police-criminal activity, as one young black man indicated in a newscast.

"Not everybody in this neighborhood is a drug dealer," he claimed, "but police treat everybody as if they were." The statement is no doubt exaggerated, but we should not miss the central point. It is practically a rite of passage that most black men will have an encounter with police sometime in their lives.

My first came when I was about 16. I was walking on Charles Street with a Johns Hopkins University athletic bag. Two white cops in a patrol figured I must have stolen it from the university book store or from some poor white guy at Hopkins. No black kid had the intelligence to get into Hopkins.

After I explained that the bag had been given to me for my exemplary academic performance in an Upward Bound program the university, they let me go on my way.

My second encounter came when I was in college in Lancaster, Pa. I was jogging through the streets when a police officer stopped me even though I was running toward a crime scene.

I've minimized those two encounters over the years by adhering to some rules: Stay away from drug dealers and users. Don't get too cozy with anyone who's adopted criminality as a way of life. Get away quickly from any situation that smells fishy.

I've tried to pass this advice on to my son, who hasn't fared as well as I -- three encounters with police in about a year. "Be careful of your friends," I tell him. "If police see you hanging around a known thug, they could justifiably assume you're one, too." Most of his friends are average black male teens. None is what you might consider Phi Beta Kappa material. But a few are definitely Phi Jaila Birda material, and I'm sure police will stop him less frequently if he cuts those particular pals loose.

In the final analysis, the problem of violent street crime is far more serious than the "problem" of verbal abuse by the police. Maybe those complaining about mean cops simply need to grow up.

Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.

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