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Joan King: We learn there are hard truths behind the badge
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The spotlight has been on the police lately. Are they really shooting innocent people? Is police brutality something we should worry about?

This has become personal. In the last 10 days, the police have stopped two different members of my family.

One was my son, the other my 19- year-old granddaughter. Both were upset by the incidents. They felt threatened. My granddaughter was stopped in a roadblock. My son was stopped for walking in his own neighborhood at 10 in the evening.

These are very different cases, but they share a common denominator: an ordinary citizen who had not done anything illegal was confronted by a police officer, not as a “good guy” doing his duty but as a bully using his uniform and badge to harass another individual.

Start with the roadblock. It occurred less than a mile from our house and was set up to catch drunk drivers. If my granddaughter was drinking and driving I want her stopped. I’m her legal guardian. I need to know. But she had not been drinking. She did not have alcohol in the car. But she was frightened. Why?

The other incident involved a 55-year-old man, a known member of the business community, walking less than mile from his own home. Why stop him? The officer said he’d been drinking and told him to go home. There was no other reason. He was not loud or disorderly. He was not staggering or in distress, just walking!

In both cases the police were perceived as “bad guys.” This is unfortunate. The men and women in blue put their lives on the line every day. The job involves long hours, sometimes boring, sometime dangerous, sometimes involving decisions that must be made in microseconds. They need our support.

A nation is defined by the relationship between those empowered to use force — the police or military — and those they’re supposed to serve. Is the nation a democracy or is it a dictatorship? Do these empowered groups serve the general population, or some select group of individuals? Have our police really become threatening?

Before answering, consider the Stanford Prison Experiment. A group of ordinary college students were asked to take part in a study of prison behavior. They were all volunteers. Some of them were asked to play the role of prisoners; the rest were assigned to be guards. The study was to last two weeks. It had to be called off in six days because the “guards” were abusing the “prisoners.”

This experiment took place in 1971 and is explained in detail on the Internet under the name of its author, Philip Zimbardo. The students who took part in the study were pre-screened to rule out any sadistic tendencies. The part of guard or detainee was chosen at random. These were ordinary young men who agreed to role-play for the good of science.

What happened? It was Zimbardo’s contention that it was the prison environment, not the innate nature of the prisoners or guards that triggered abusive behavior. This is the same conclusion made by many who have studied Abu Ghraib and other cases of prison abuse.

Zimbardo believed that a lot of prison abuse is “... the result of the politicization of corrections ... politicians vying for who is toughest on crime.”

Do we have a similar situation in regard to abuse of police power today? Are we encouraging our police to “be tough,” and then blaming them for harassment when they do just that?

Whatever the answer, those encounters between police and family members have increased my sympathy for black and Latino youth who become aggressive or defensive when confronted by the police. On the other hand, you can’t train an officer to “take command” of a situation by being a “tough guy,” and then turn on him when it goes terribly wrong.

The police need better training and oversight. The public needs more tolerance and education.

Joan King is a Sautee resident.