In the 1949 Oscar winner “All the King’s Men,” about a small-time southern politician who ascends to the governor’s office before really muffing it, there is an early scene in a small-town cop shop that caught my eye.
It very likely would not have hit many people in 1949 as it hit me when I rewatched it a couple of years back. I don’t remember the specifics, but it seems to have been meant as a lighter moment in an otherwise rather dour account about small time politics among the poor and dour. In the scene, a telephone call comes into the station and the cop who answers it seems to blow it off. “Just (some guy) beating his wife again,” he explains, and they all shrug and go about their business. Some chuckle. Maybe somebody goes to drag the guy into the drunk tank? All in all it seems to be a laff riot.
Funny or not, it’s a scene you can believe of small time cop shops well before anybody even conceived of a “Violence Against Women” Act. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it continued today when the boys are having a little joke among themselves.
So I wonder what the scene is like in the cop shop of today when another unarmed black man is killed. Do the white officers joke around about the killing in front of black officers, just to see their reactions? Or do they wait until they’re alone in the locker room or down the bar? Do they go over the reasons for the killings to reassure themselves that yes, this one was necessary? Or do they just keep repeating the mantra, “He didn’t comply”?
Or do they just not mention it at all, hoping that this one too will fade away.
Because they have to be aware now, don’t they? After the Chauvin trial, they have to be aware that the cop shop won’t protect them anymore, don’t they? What was the atmosphere in cop shops across the nation when the names Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, and Adam Toledo flashed across the cop shop TV in the week after the Chauvin verdict?
I haven't spent any time to speak of in a cop shop, but I have one good example of cop shop thinking. It’s not a killing. It’s a case of abuse that, much like in “All the King’s Men,” was inflicted by a man upon a woman. In this case, a black woman, a citizen of the US born in Nigeria with a heavy Nigerian accent and a slight issue with syntax. People who hear her have thought she was Jamaican. She had gotten involved with a con man, a Native American guy who could easily “pass” if he needed to for European American. A tall pretty man with a bit of flash about him.
They all knew him down the cop shop. When she finally escaped from the room he had locked her in one day, she called the cops and he ran, but when the cops showed up and she told them his name, they all laughed. “Oh, yeah. That guy.” They found him and brought him in, but did not tell her they had done so and released him for lack of evidence. Then somehow her house caught fire and she had to move to a motel. He found her there and raped her, but the police dismissed the charge because she did not follow it up until several months later and there were no witnesses. “Oh, yeah. That guy.”
I sat in with her during one deposition with a police officer who remained standing and responded to her, questioned her, as if he were trying to trip her up, as if she was a suspect instead of a victim. When she started crying, he looked at me with a “see what these people pull?” look on his face, as if I, a white woman, would get the gist of the thing. She saw that look. The moderator had to take her out of the room to calm her down. Once we were alone, I looked at the cop and asked, “Why don’t you just sit down and listen to her?” “Why don’t you stop telling me how to do my job,” he said.
The ex is still out on the street doing petty crime here and there. He’s known at all the cop shops. I won’t be surprised if I find he’s been shot and killed at some point when his charm has worn off. When the boys down the cop shop get bored with his low life antics. They shoot white guys, too.
It is relatively easy to legislate, to compose sophisticated training programs, to put more or fewer cops on the street, and to turn down offers of fancy military gear that make policing seem more like cosplaying Fast and Furious than Serve and Protect. I said relatively easy, because compared to changing the dynamics of the cop shop it’s child’s play. Away from the eye of the instructors and the reporters and the protest marches, I can still see the cops taking a phone call about a fracas in the ‘hood and good-naturedly joking about who’s gonna resist arrest today. Because that’s just plain human nature. Sure as shootin’.