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Police and ‘Professional Courtesy’

line of NYPD officers face protestors in Times Square
photo by Paul Silva

Cops rarely get speeding tickets.

They get pulled over about as often as the rest of us, maybe even more. But usually a display of a badge, the simple statement “I’m on the job,” or a request for what is known as “professional courtesy” is enough to end the encounter with another officer from a different jurisdiction, even in a faraway state.

You could fairly call this exchange professional respect - a small kindness extended to someone who knows and shares the perils of your line of work. Or you could call it petty corruption, a symptom of the mentality that not only are cops different from the rest of us, but also better, or at least entitled to special treatment. The first label may be too gentle; the second possibly too harsh.

The fact remains that police see themselves as a fraternity that must stick together in the face of any perceived threat or attack from outsiders. It does not matter whether that outsider is an armed and dangerous criminal or a member of the public with a cellphone camera who gets a little too close.

The fury that erupted in city streets from Manhattan to Berkeley over the death of Eric Garner and the more recent failure of a grand jury to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked him to the ground and caused his death, was predictable. It was the result of thousands of meritless stops and frisks per day of New York City residents by the police over a period of many years. The police felt entitled to stop and physically handle any nonwhite person on the street, especially black men, if police deemed them to be of questionable aims and modest means. At least they did, until the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, insisted that the practice stop when he took office at the beginning of the year. (It had already begun to diminish under his predecessor.)

So Pantaleo was not trying to frisk Garner, because he was no longer entitled to do so. Instead, he was trying to arrest him, ostensibly for selling untaxed cigarettes.

I work in the tax world. When the authorities have a dispute with one of my clients, I expect them to handle it with paperwork, not handcuffs.

Pantaleo and his fellow officers could have written a citation, handed it to Garner and walked away. But he evidently needed to show his power over a citizen who objected that he was merely standing on a sidewalk. “I was just minding my own business,” Garner says in the video of the incident. Yet since Pantaleo’s power now meant arrest rather than frisking, he felt entitled to use physical violence on Garner, just as officers feel entitled to drive whatever speed they want on our highways.

When things went wrong, Pantaleo evidently sought, and received, the “professional courtesy” of being allowed to walk away unpunished from what he had done.

Of course, it is not professional courtesy when an officer is allowed to go free without a trial after he gratuitously resorts to force and a citizen dies as a result. Yet Garner’s death clearly also was not premeditated murder; there is no reason to believe Pantaleo intended for Garner to die. Fellow officers may take offense at slogans like “Black lives matter” because they believe they put their own lives on the line every day for fellow citizens regardless of color - and this is true. But these same officers frequently act as though a grateful citizenry ought to therefore tolerate police conduct that is unacceptable from anyone else.

Officer Pantaleo did not mean to cause Eric Garner’s death, but he certainly intended to show Garner, and any onlookers, who was in charge of the situation on that Staten Island sidewalk.

The police fraternity rallied to Pantaleo’s defense. For proof, consider Pantaleo’s fate in light of that of the man who famously filmed the encounter on his phone. Ramsey Orta, the man responsible for capturing the footage of Garner’s death, is the only person present at Garner’s death to be indicted. Orta was arrested a month after the incident on a weapons charge that he has said was fabricated by police in retaliation for his video.

Cops look out for one another. Professional courtesy is real, and it means the same rules don’t apply to cops as to everyone else. It won’t stop until the rest of the citizenry demands it.

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