Memories of the Police

Oh, boy. When I was a kid in Nassau County, Long Island, the police had such a foul reputation that everyone I knew was terrified of them--and we were middle-class white kids. Imagine how much fun it must have been for black and Hispanic folks. These cops have maintained their reputation over the years for corruption, assault, murder, and God knows what else. Remember the businessman (black) who was dragged off his motorcycle and beaten to a pulp just because some Nassau County cop didn't like his looks? Every business had to pay protection money--not to the mob, but to the police. They strolled in to any restaurant or store and took what they wanted, while no one dared protest. This was in the 60's, and, oddly enough, NYC cops were seen as highly preferable.

When I went to college in Rochester, the force was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mafia. The "candy store" we had to pass in order to get from the dorm to the class buildings had exactly one dusty box of candy in the window, and was full of old men in suits and hats who arrived in big cars and sat around at a table inside. One early morning we heard what we thought was a whole lot of backfiring, but when we walked up the block we saw the proprietor of the candy store nonchalantly hosing gouts of blood off his sidewalk into the gutter. No cops. No nothing. No mention in the papers.

But one night a few of us decided to skip down Main Street. That's all. We were sober, legal, and quiet, but we just felt like skipping. In about 45 seconds, a cop car careened to a stop and one of them jumped out, shouting at us that were disturbing the peace and he was going to arrest all of us. He eventually decided not to, probably because there were too many of us to fit into the back seat, but he called us some choice names before leaving.

A neighbor of mine, and the boyfriend (briefly) of my best friend was a plainclothes detective on the Rochester force. He was always an outsider, loved rock'n'roll, thought Republicans had their heads where the sun don't shine, believed in general civil rights, and refused to participate in the departmental extortion schemes. He was a good guy. He drove a beater whose trunk had not locked in recent memory and whose lid was held down loosely (it bounced about an inch as he drove) with a twisted wire coat hanger. One day he was grabbed by IAD and accused of possession of marijuana with intent to sell. Guess where they found it? In the trunk, of course. How stupid do you have to be? Why don't you just put a big sign on it saying "plant"? When they tried to prosecute as well as fire him, Chuck said that they should go right ahead, as he would enjoy telling the court everything he knew about what was going on, including names, dates, and places. (He was a brave man.) They dropped all charges, expunged his record completely, and he resigned with a clean slate.

In NYC, I've been called nasty names by a cop just for the crime of being fat and ugly on a public street. I've been threatened with grievous bodily harm as well as arrest by a coked-up cop (yes, it was that obvious) for the crime of being white in Harlem. We made official protests which were conveniently lost, not once, but several times. I've called the police because someone was on my fire escape, and had the desk sergeant laugh and hang up.

Before someone says it, I know there are good police officers. I've met some of them. One saved my behind and my car when I got stuck in the sand at Jones Beach (a road had washed out and I didn't see it in the dark). But there is such widespread abuse that it has become institutional. Qui custodiet ipses custodies?

© copyright, 1999, Melissa Miles
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