Two recent occurrences, one national and one local, have brought this popular 1975 Statler Brothers refrain to mind: “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott riding the train alone? Whatever happened to Gene and Roy and Tex and Rex, the Durango Kid?” This song, aimed at the deterioration of time-honored values in the movie industry, is easily recognized as an indictment of a similar degrading of common sense and courtesy today.
For the benefit of readers who might not be familiar with both, the incidents in question are the arrests following verbal and physical confrontations of Harvard Professor Henry Gates at his home in Cambridge, Mass. and of Carl Alan Giles outside the Cafe Berlin in Columbia. While the circumstances leading to the arrests were dissimilar, they shared at least two common attributes.
First and foremost, one confronted by a police officer in performance of his/her duty is expected to practice sound judgment in affording the on-scene officer the benefit of the doubt — that there is a valid reason for that police presence and that it behooves one to be attentive to that authority. I am not so naive as to believe that law enforcement officers are incapable of wrong. Physical or verbal confrontation, however, will only result in the arrest of the person of interest.
Regrettably, the second similarity is one that happens with unerring regularity — the inane, knee jerk reactions by persons who were neither at the scene nor have any knowledge of the incident other than unfounded rumor or their own preordained conclusions. In the former, President Barack Obama embarrassed himself unnecessarily by offering an opinion without being a party to the facts. In the latter, one who purports to be a journalist, used this very medium to exercise an overt distrust of police officers and deliver an uninformed indictment of guilt from across the Atlantic.
As an opinion writer, far be it from me to deny anyone their inalienable right to an opinion and the privilege of expressing it. Nevertheless, to be relevant, the sentiment must be an informed and an objective one. While the president, because of his official stature, should have been more circumspect in his response, one might be induced to give him a pass inasmuch as he was somewhat blindsided by a subject not in context with the subject he was addressing.
In all fairness, I cannot afford former Missourian reporter Paul Weber that courtesy. An objective journalist does not cherry-pick isolated incidents and conclude therefrom, “a pattern of police aggression where officers systematically transform a nonviolent situation into a violent spectacle” or allude to, “The disturbing reality that there are certainly countless other cases when people weren't around to watch.” These are quotes from Weber's previous commentary. Admittedly, police officers are not immune to lapses in judgment and occasional excesses of force, but they have to answer for them while those who second-guess and cheap-shot do so for free.
The lesson from the Gates and Giles incidents, and their subsequent arrests, is one the majority of us learned at home, in school and in church — that of behaving oneself and of treating those obviously in authority with respect. Professor Gates, regardless of fatigue or racial overtones, is a tenured university professor and a respected member of the community and should have realized that Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley had a reason for being at his residence. Accordingly, he could have complied with the ID request and, if he believed the intrusion to have been untoward, taken it to higher authority for redress.
As for Mr. Giles and the altercation at Cafe Berlin, it appears that had he merely complied with Columbia Police Officer Jared Fielding's instructions, the incident would not have escalated to physical activity. If, as the officer describes, Giles became uncooperative and aggressive and would not stay in place, Fielding had every reason to use necessary restraint for self protection and to control Mr. Giles. And, anyone who fails to realize the folly of resisting and wrestling the handcuffing officer to the ground has no business experimenting with adult beverages outside the home.
Admittedly, I have something in common with many who have chimed in on this and other arrests — none of us were there. I understand that much of the altercation was captured by police car dashboard cameras and am confident that this episode will be fully and fairly investigated by the Columbia Police Department. There is a process for reporting and handling of complaints of police malfeasance — it does not include resisting apprehension nor reaching conclusions without facts.
Columbia, as with most other municipalities, is host to a smattering of individuals, organizations and special interest groups inclined to find fault with the police in almost every controversial incident and also to disbelieve the results of any investigation suggesting otherwise. Regrettably, these factions gather the most media ink, while those responsible to "preserve and protect" and place themselves in harm's way are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.