Friday, January 16, 2015

The Police

My first job in Finland, when I finally got one, was as an English teacher. Specifically, I taught English as a second language in one of the several commercial schools catering mostly to Finnish businessmen. This was back in the day when my native tongue wasn't nearly so ubiquitous here as it is today, and many of my students were sent by their companies to improve the English they sometimes needed in their work.  

Because I am an American, I would sometimes be assigned to give lessons to students who were about to embark on their first business trip to the States. In addition to helping them brush up on their English, I was also expected to give them a little orientation on how things work in America, for example how to identify coins that have no numbers on them (maybe a uniquely American approach to money), or how to make long-distant calls on pay phones (this was, after all, a long time ago), or why it’s often okay for drivers to make a right turn when the light is red. 

One piece of advice I remember passing on to these America-bound Finns concerned what to do if stopped by the police. If they are ever pulled over by a cop in America, I would tell them, first of all keep your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t reach for the glove compartment. Don’t get out of the car. To do otherwise, could be extremely dangerous. You could easily get shot.  

I’m sure to my blue-eyed (in every sense of that word) Finnish students, this all sounded like an exaggeration, unnecessarily alarming. And maybe the only reason it occurred to me to give this particular piece of advice is a small incident that took place in a little college town almost a decade before.

After high school, I attended a tiny junior college nestled in a North Georgia valley, almost in the shadow of Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest peak. There wasn’t much to the town of Young Harris, other than the college of the same name, a Methodist school with a student body of only 600 or so. The highway running through the town passed under a single blinking yellow, not even red, traffic light at the one intersection with another highway. It was, quite literally, less than a one-stoplight town. 

I don’t think I ever knew the real name of the town cop, but to us cheeky outsider students, he was “Barney”. Not that, I guess, anyone would ever have called him that to his face. This was, of course, a reference to Barney Fife, the hopelessly inept and self-important deputy sheriff in the classic 1960s American TV series “The Andy Griffith Show”. Besides being comically bumbling, the TV Barney, unlike the show's wise Sheriff Andy always, seemed overly eager to one day, someday, finally, use his gun. He was portrayed as a fool. 

Apparently, my fellow students didn’t hold the local constabulary in much higher regard than Barney Fife, though to be honest, our collective worldview was probably pretty narrow. Looking back, our isolated mountain campus wasn’t often much different than high school, and we students may have been a little excitable and impulsive. Epic impromptu water balloon fights would sometimes erupt between dorms.  

One night, a drama developed after midnight when one of my fraternity brothers took off from campus, apparently in a poisonous state of mind over a break up with a girl or some other romantic trouble. Whether he was about to do himself any harm in reality, I can’t say. But his friends were concerned enough that the alarm went out among the frat brothers to go look for him. 

Several of us were dispatched around the valley to different spots we thought he might have gone. With a friend, I headed off in my VW beetle for “The Mountain”, one of the places where students went to party off campus. It was a Methodist school, after all, and strictly “alcohol-free” even in those days when 18-year-old college students could legally drink. Other popular spots for swigging beer under the stars were “The Dam” and “The Beach”, sites no doubt still fondly remembered by aging alumni.  

Maybe the best of all of these places, The Mountain was an airy ridge top on a broad, wooded mountainside crisscrossed by some gravel roads a property developer had built to potential house sites. Probably, it’s some kind of gated community today.  

After climbing the steep road in my VW, we arrived at The Mountain to find that not only was it completely deserted, but the surrounding forest was on fire. Well, maybe not “the forest” exactly. A campfire from that night’s party had gotten out of control and set ablaze the nearby forest floor, the thick layer of dry leaves on the ground that was now burning in a widening semi-circle. Maybe alcohol, young people, and an open fire don’t always mix well.

My friend and I jumped out of the car and started stomping out the flames, not even bothering to turn off my headlights, which in any case gave us enough light to see what we were doing. It took us a little while to get the blaze completely under control. When we were finally satisfied there was no danger of the fire reigniting, we got back in the car to leave. No such luck. The battery was dead, drained by burning the headlights too long.  

There was nothing else to do but start walking back to campus. We hadn’t gone far down the road in the dark when we were met by a car coming up the mountain. A police car. It wasn’t Barney the city cop, more like a county deputy sheriff, I think. I assume someone had noticed the fire and called the police. If he deputy had any suspicions that we had set the fire ourselves, he must have dismissed it. He gave my friend and I a ride back to town, the only time I’ve ever sat in the back of a police car. Unless I’ve sanitized it in my memory, the whole encounter was friendly enough.  

Not so for another encounter that took place that night. While I had gone to The Mountain to search for our friend, my roommate Pete was among those who were frantically rushing around to other locations. The car he was riding in, tearing down the empty highway in the middle of town, didn’t escape the notice of Barney. He was on the case in an instant and, after a short chase, pulled my friend's car over. As Barney stepped out of his cruiser to approach the stopped car, my roommate Pete, filled with the urgency of the search for our missing friend and not wanting to delay it for a mere speeding ticket, jumped out from the passenger side to explain to Barney why they were in such a hurry. It was a mistake. Barney immediately pulled his gun, pointing it at Pete. At least, that’s how I remember hearing about it later.

Luckily, Barney didn’t shoot. Luckily, he wasn’t as trigger happy as we might have thought. Still, he was twitchy enough to draw his weapon on a young college student springing out of a stopped car in the middle of the night. The fact that this could happen to someone I knew made a deep impression on me.  

(And to be fair to “Barney”, it had been only a year earlier that the county sheriff at the time had been shot to death during a similar traffic stop at a lonely crossroads in the middle of the night. Maybe, Barney had reason to be nervous.) 

Anyway, this little incident has been on my mind in light of last year’s rash of high-profile killings by American cops.  

I have a British friend who a few years ago expressed his concern that if he traveled to the US, he could be killed by the police. I was surprised by that. This was around the time that two British tourists had been murdered in a seedy neighborhood near Tampa, Florida, a story that apparently got a huge amount of alarmed coverage in the UK press.  

I would have thought that my friend instead would have feared American criminals, not American law enforcement. Maybe he had already been seeing on the Internet some of the stories of police abuse that have now become depressingly frequent.  

I have no idea whether hasty shootings, justified or not, of citizens by the police were as frequent back in the 80s as they seem to be now. What I do know is that my roommate didn’t get a bullet to the chest on that night. In the current environment, that almost seems amazing.  

Some might chalk that happy outcome up to “white privilege”, by which a white man -- especially in a rural mountain town -- isn’t reflectively seen by the police as a “real” threat in the same way that an African-American might be. I’m willing to believe that things might have been different if Pete had been black. 

Still, maybe those were just simpler times. Something that I think contributes to the way recent encounters with the police seem to escalate too often to tragedy is the pervasive gun culture in America. When cops can rightly assume that anyone they meet on the street might be armed, it’s perhaps no surprise they become trigger happy.  

That doesn’t mean they aren’t even more trigger happy when encountering blacks, but the underlying climate of lawlessness and fear is certainly a dismal background to begin with. Add to that the general animosity between black communities and the police, and the climate becomes even more toxic.  

Not that animosity toward the police is solely an issue for African-Americans or liberals. Some folks on the far right are also no fans of law enforcement. 

When Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was illegally grazing his cattle on public land, resisted police attempts last April to confiscate the cattle, he was lauded as a hero by some conservatives, while the police officers confronting him were vilified.  

That armed standoff, ended peacefully when the police backed down and allowed Bundy to continue committing his crime. Though, in the long run, perhaps not entirely peacefully. A couple of months later, two anti-government extremists, a married couple who had joined Bundy’s standoff with the law, murdered a pair of Las Vegas police officers, unprovoked and without warning, much like the recent ambush killing of two patrolmen in New York by a deranged man outraged over the recent highly publicized killings of unarmed blacks. 

Meanwhile, in Finland police last year discharged a total of six bullets while on duty. In the whole country. For the whole year. And three of those were warning shots. If that sounds like a more civilized society, it is. 

And I believe this is true, despite the sad fact that this week poliisi in Oulu were forced to use their weapons against a maniac with a hatchet who had just murdered two people. The man died, the first police-related killing since 2009 and the second since 2000. Though not a good way to start off the year, it's clearly a much rarer thing in this country than in America. 

That is something I hope never changes. 


  1. Far, far, far, far more civilized. It's not even quantifiable how much more.

  2. So interesting to read. I have always feared the American cops probably becuase of films but some reality too. Whereas in England where I grew up a "bobby" was someone to keep you safe. In those days they didn't even carry weapons although they do today. I think though that they have never been trigger happy.

    1. Thanks Masha! There seem to be huge differences in the attitudes of British and American police. A case in point is the way London police handled the man threatening people with knives at Buckingham Palace last year. In America, he would probably have been shot.