Dare to Ask: Do cops act tougher in poor areas?
By Phillip Milano
The Florida Times-Union
I grew up in a middle-class community, and when I encountered police, they
were always polite and friendly. Later I lived in a poor area. I saw police
often, and in interactions with them, even the most innocuous, they were
consistently insulting and threatening. I'd like to ask law enforcement officers
to explain this difference in attitude. -- Laura, 37, Baltimore
When I patrolled in a mostly blue-collar urban environment, I "lowered" my
vocabulary and mannerisms. A police officer must often get people to do things
they ordinarily would not. If I want a subject to stop, turn and place his hands
on his head, I don't want that lost in translation. If he balks, my voice and
mannerisms will become more demonstrative and generally include foul language.
This usually works because the person respects strength. "Sir, please stop
walking and place your hands on your head" is an invitation to violence. --
M.D., 32, Houston
Unfortunately, police ... have fears and prejudices based on their
experiences in a given environment. They perceive the threat of their
surroundings in much the same way you might. Do you behave in the same manner in
a community with drugs and violence that you do in a white suburb? -- Dee, 46,
There are more "bad" people in poorer neighborhoods. They are hostile to all
types of authority. Most do not respect or respond to cops unless the cop swears
or does something else to establish his authority. -- Anonymous, Michigan
Yes, police are more threatening and aggressive in poorer, high-crime areas,
according to years of studies of citizen complaints and police officers' own
Policing expert Wesley Skogan, professor in Northwestern University's
Institute for Policy Research and author of "Police and Community in Chicago,"
said cops want to gain the upper hand from the get-go.
"If police perceive danger to self or being unable to control an interaction,
they feel they must be aggressive right out of the box," he said. "They want the
public always responding to them, not the other way around."
A prime goal is to get compliance rapidly before a crowd gathers.
"If a crowd starts yelling, they won't be silent. So you want to move it
along quickly," he said. "I'm not saying it's the smartest or right thing."
There are often better ways to manage encounters, training shows.
"Show a little respect, let the person retain a shred of dignity -- instead
of 'Shut your mouth, mother-----, and up against the wall,' " Skogan said.
The problem is that rookies, often assigned the nastier beats in town, hear
veterans' tales and assume a threatening style works best in certain situations,
he said. But research shows verbal abuse or unsnapping a gun's holster just
create more suspicion and lack of trust.
"Be firm but professional," he said. "And don't pretend to talk the language
of the street."
ADD OR READ MORE COMMENTS
This is your column. You can help it grow! If you like "Dare to Ask,"
please call or e-mail your favorite newspaper or web site and urge them to start
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
column comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also hear his