A number of years ago I went out a couple of times with a cop.
He was an unusual guy to be a sergeant in the NYPD. He had not only a college degree but an MA. He was a writer, a very good one. So he was not an obvious mismatch for me, even given my eerie ability to choose badly on the love interest front.
He arrived at my place carrying a gym bag which he put on the floor as we did our initial greeting stuff. I did not then realize that in the bag was his gun.
We went out for hamburgers a few blocks from my apartment. As we headed out into my famously safe and serene neighborhood, he moved me to his left side, to the street side, rather than the inside, where men possessed of old-fashioned values usually place women with whom they are walking.
The gun. He was a rightie and he needed to be unencumbered on his right side so he could reach for his gun if it were necessary.
I found his hypervigilance — and the presence of that gun he was mandated always to carry — discordant and alienating. I fully understood his position. Professionally a pessimist, he was trained to see menace everywhere. I am genetically an optimist. This wasn’t going to work out.
I’ve thought a lot about this since, about how we seemed to come from different countries instead of different boroughs in the same city. There was in my pre-consciousness a future conversation about which one of us was going to move to the other’s territory. Neither of us was.
It was about the gun.
Years ago I worked on a civil rights lawsuit that made me cry. White cop shot Black Navy man in the back on a subway platform and killed him. It was the Fourth of July. Levi Gaines. That was his name. He had a beautiful smile. I know this because one of my tasks was to copy some documents Levi’s mother had brought to the office. One of them was a photograph of her son, with his arms stretched out playfully, and he was smiling. That’s when I cried.
During the investigation of the case, I became aware that NYPD employed at least one psychologist to interview and test policemen for potential emotional and cognitive problems and prejudices that could and should cause the Department to deny them admission. The cop who killed Levi Gaines had had previous complaints for excessive force. I believe it was known he was a racist. Yet that man was a cop and was on that subway platform with his gun.
Unusual case because the cop went to prison. That doesn’t happen often in New York. It’s now glaringly obvious it doesn’t happen often anywhere in this country.
I do what I can not to believe that men are attracted to the police department because they are violent and/or racist, that a police department’s uniforms, badges and other appurtenances of officialdom offer a haven and a vent for such people.
I don’t really succeed. The overwhelming power emitted by the appearance of a fully accoutered cop gives him an ubermenschlich shimmer that is inherently intimidating.
A man with a gun is more powerful than I am. A man carrying a gun is not a keeper of the peace. He is inherently violent.
I believe the gun is a magnet to people who want to join the police. I believe it’s the primary reason they become cops: guns.
The impassioned country-wide debate going on now about police violence is producing some intriguing ideas about changing the culture of police departments. One idea — about sending people more trained in social work than in police procedures to deal with non-violent situations — is smart. But possibly the smartest thing about it is that social workers would not, I presume, carry guns.
But the major change would be restricting gun access, as other countries do, only to police squads going into situations that promise to be violent. Until then, guns would be locked in precinct armories.
If police are to be a force that fulfills the Preamble’s promise to “insure domestic Tranquility,” i.e., to keep the peace, then they must be out on our streets with the expectation of peacefulness, not deadly danger. A cop shouldn’t have within a moment’s grasp an instrument the purpose of which can only be violence.
I was glad to see this article in The Atlantic, “The Overlooked Role of Guns in the Police Reform Debate,” by Derek Thompson. I’m joining the debate.