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Thick Skin

July 25, 2009

Today’s New York Times reviews the widely varying attitudes of police officers toward the verbal abuse they often receive when performing their duties.  Surveying cops in many cities and assignments, the authors find that opinions about how to deal with such situations not only vary among departments, but also among officers who work together closely.  In a culture where loyalty and brotherhood are prized and celebrated, it should come as no surprise when officer’s actions are at odds with their values.

Officers who supported Sgt. James Crowley’s decision to arrest Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for disorderly conduct in his own home last week indicated that tolerating expressions of anger and verbal abuse, especially in the presence of others, put fellow officers at risk because it signaled an inability to control the situation.  Officers who suggested Crowley may have acted hastily, especially in light of the evidence that Professor Gates had acted lawfully in forcing his way into his own residence before the confrontation, suggested that keeping their cool and resisting the temptation to respond in-kind to heated remarks was itself a sign of composure and control.

Police officers face many challenges in their work, not the least of which is the fact they routinely encounter people in situations when they are not likely to be performing at their best.  This was clearly the case with Professor Gates, and only serves to underscore the need to train police not only to respect racial differences but also to defuse heated situations, especially when no obvious danger of physical violence exists.

One cop went so far as to suggest that “thick skin” was a prerequisite for becoming a police officer.  I would not take it that far.  Cops, like anyone else, can and do have bad days.  But because they have the legal authority to deprive someone else of his or her liberty, or even their life under the most dire circumstances, they must learn to act with calm restraint under less than ideal conditions.

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