Taking measure by police standards

Unlike millions of the generation immediately preceding mine, as well as my own, I didn’t  see police as a monolithic entity as a youth and haven’t as an adult.  Maybe because we moved quite a bit and I traveled early and fairly widely, my perception of local police is rather like that of local weather and public building architecture (only, in North America, with guns–rather a drastic “except”): there’s a basic set of descriptors that matches across forces and a whole lot of subtle differences that, when summed, make each unique.  I’ve lived in places where the police strive to be faceless and intimidating in the way that large trucks can be intimidating, whether you step into their path or not; places that seem to be harkening back to Opie’s hometown, sporting fresh-faced fellows who called me ma’am when I was not yet 30 but already substantially older than they; places where they were lazy, not for lack of possible application of the responsibilities of office; and in that strange west coast burg where they conduct themselves, now in the 21st century,  as the part of the fabric of the civic community that they are there and can be, given good education.

Some years ago, when my son was 12, he was the victim of a serious crime.  He was away from home at the time and it was quite a few hours later when we eventually were able to speak by phone.  His first words to me were: “Mama, the Mendocino sheriffs are nothing like the Berkeley police.”  He was not complimenting the former force.  And yes, I wondered about why he had such a sense of what the latter force was “like” at the age he then was, until I thought about the fact that he actually had opportunity to chat with cops on a regular basis, not because of any criminology issues or a flare on his part for uniforms (he never had one), but because his own local cops were present, engaged with people before the civilians were in need, and educated to a degree that they had opinions about culture that were individuated, personal considerations.

This is not to say that the entire force there is ideal, only that it is approachable, non-monolythic. They are cheek-by-jowl next door to a force in a smaller town where, when we lived there, were demonstrably different: less well educated and thus more prone to groupthink, less diverse in both heritage and outlook.

Years in Central LA and Boston in the mid-1970’s have given me opportunity, if that is the right word, to experience big city, big force cop cultures. Like the weather, and the public architecture, the reach of such cultures expands well beyond the presence of actual working members of the force.  County buildings in tornado country have shelters in their basements, even between instances of funnel clouds, of course.  Municipalities who rely on police to maintain a level of civic order without delving into what issues in the civitas could indicate disorder that can be healed or addressed beyond its symptoms have a specific feel, even with no uniform in sight at the moment.

Policing, it seems, is a state of civic mind, whether you are a policeman, a civilian, a criminal or potential criminal, a victim or a witness.  And, like other attitudes–whether on the personal or socio-political level–we can’t assume a matchup between mine and yours, yours and theirs.  It’s a pinpoint of evidence that the only certain sameness among us is diversity.


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