Saturday night in 1-D, riding with Officer Pete Barlow, who after eleven years on the Metropolitan Police has seen most of what there is to see.One-D has a little of everything — bad projects, upscale stores, small parks that are home to the homeless, regions of offices that lose their population at night. If I were teaching a sociology course, I’d send my students to ride here. They’d lose a lot of their ideals.
A call came: People undressing in public. It’s not really that uncommon.Reasons vary. A common one is ingestion of PCP, which makes people think they’re hot. What could make more sense than going naked? Another reason is that a lot of seriously crazy people live on the streets. I mean schizophrenics who ought to be in an asylum, but who aren’t, because it would cost too much. And there are the homeless, who have to change somewhere.
We got there. A small park. Several people were there, black, maybe late twenties to mid thirties, not doing anything wrong. Friendly enough. One guy had no shirt, but that was the best they could do for being naked. Their worldly possessions lay in the grass in plastic bags. Trash was everywhere, but I don’t know whether they had anything to do with it.Barlow chatted with them a bit and we left.
Why, I asked, had they been reported as taking their clothes off?
Well, he said, so many people have cell phones these days, and they call in things they see. Sometimes they call without really having gotten a good look. Maybe that had happened.
Cell phones are a mixed blessing from the police point of view. Not infrequently someone with a cell will be the first to see, say, a bad accident on the highway. The call saves lives. In one incident that I was part of, a driver in Arlington actually tracked a criminal’s at a safe distance until the police got there. But you get false alarms too.
We drove to Sursum Corda, a project that produces a lot of calls for such things as drugs and shootings. Low buildings, lots of people on the sidewalks, kids running around in droves. It is the kind of place that makes you wonder what the country is doing, and whether there is anything it could do better. Sursum Corda is entirely black, crime-ridden, with unemployment verging on total. Ride through, and the young men stare with undisguised hostility. It’s easy to understand why: They deal in drugs, and so they’re at war with the police.
What is hard to convey, and most disheartening, is the sense of isolation from the rest of society. The problem isn’t poverty per se: People here have plenty to eat, housing, television, what have you. But they don’t have jobs, or in most cases enough education to understand the nightly news, or much interaction with the society at large. The thought that comes to mind is, “This is another country.”
What to do about it, I don’t know. But it’s not good.
Barlow talked about the difficulties of policing in Sursum, and in indistinguishable projects nearby.
“They don’t like the police. If we tried to arrest somebody, you’d get a lot of people gathering around, real fast. It makes you uneasy. You don’t do it without backup.”
I’ve had that happen elsewhere. You have one cop, or maybe two, and thirty angry males crowding around, some of whom are guaranteed have gun or knives.If they jump you, you’ve had it. Show any sign of nervousness, and they have the psychological advantage. They make a point of getting behind you.The danger is that one will make a fast move for his pocket, maybe just to alarm the officer, and get shot, because he succeeded.
The Sursum Cordas of the country are flash points. You police them, or you don’t. If you don’t, they fall completely into the hands of the gangs.That can’t be the right answer. If you do police them, hostility grows.The police can be good, bad, black or white, or some of each as in most cities. The people will still see cops as an occupying army.
I haven’t the foggiest idea what to do about it. Neither do the cops. Theysee the problem as well as I do. They’re in it every night. But they don’t have any magic solutions either. All I know is that sooner or later it’s going to bite us.