The uproar engendered when a black Harvard professor was arrested by a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer amazed me, particularly when President Obama condemned the officer's actions without knowing the facts. Personally, though, the most eye-opening reaction was that of the media — the stuff you read in your newspaper, non-law enforcement trades, other magazines and news sites around the Web. I also had a chance to hear what other writers had to say about the incident. Let me put it this way: It wasn't pretty.
On one writers' list to which I belong (and this list is not affiliated with any professional organization), writers of varied backgrounds and skill levels mingle online. Many work for top national newspapers, magazines and Web sites. Others are mid-career, and there are a large number who are trying to break into the writing business.
A lively discussion of the events, as we knew them at the time, ensued as the story broke. A few of those writers have ties to police — one's father was a career officer, another is married to an officer. And there were a couple participants in the discussion willing to give the officer the benefit of the doubt, especially since the whole story wasn't known, but we were definitely in the minority.
Most of the writers in the discussion asserted police in general are overwhelmingly racist. And once that ball started rolling, charges also emerged that cops are violent bullies who routinely disregard the law in order to entrap and abuse innocent civilians.
One writer who has authored a number of stories involving police (think magazines that print true dramatic accounts) held forth as an expert at interpreting police reports and dispatches because she has read a lot of reports. Seriously. Her take: The officer was wrong and the professor a shining beacon of honesty.
Others chimed in. The level of undisguised hatred for police was disturbing and at the same time, predictable. Remember, these are people who write about police for a national audience.
While you will find good souls on some of those beats, especially with local courts and cops reporters, many in the national media genuinely loathe law enforcement. Some of it is political, some of it reflects their upbringing, and a small bit of it is earned. I have personally observed abuses of power, prejudice and unfriendly treatment of the public by officers — local, state and federal — who are ignorant, impressed with themselves and barely a notch above the criminals they arrest.
But the vast majority of police are decent, hard-working people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. The question is "What can we do to regain public confidence in a world where everyone has a camera phone, access to 24/7 news, an instant audience and personal bias?"
Here are my suggestions:
• Continually remind officers that they are being observed, recorded and photographed; that their reports, transmissions and behavior are studied and parsed over and over by an unfriendly media.
• Make them understand that what seems like a good idea at the time, sometimes isn't. One example: The tendency for police to pile on after a chase. It doesn't take 20 cops to physically subdue one suspect. Supervisors need to use their brains on this one. A pile-on looks like an overabundance of force, even when it's not. In this world of a million eyes always watching, it's important not to get caught up in the moment.
• They should know the difference between command presence and brusque behavior. Nothing hurts public relations like having a citizen ask a question and receiving a rude, condescending response.
• And last but certainly not least, encourage your officers to openly embrace the people on their beats. Getting to know them as individuals and families, business people and residents will help win over those who count the most, one attitude at a time.