One tragic thing occurred and one tragic fact was laid bare as a result of the Princeton professor’s arrest and subsequent saga that ended yesterday with her quietly paying her fines. She both succeeded in cheapening future legitimate charges of racism, and highlighting the deterioration of society’s opinion of our cops. Specifically she attempted to ameliorate her humiliation not through accountability but by blatantly fabricating mistreatment by police officers – while invoking the charge of racial motivation. Both the dishonest act itself, and the ease with which the charge might have been accepted as legitimate – had there not been incontrovertible evidence proving otherwise – are tragic. The professor was pulled over for a legitimate charge of speeding and treated with deference and professionalism by the Princeton police officers. The officers were obligated to arrest her when they became aware that she had habitually ignored parking tickets and notices that her license was suspended. Rather than be thankful for the truly sympathetic and decent treatment she received, she lashed out at the officers in a Facebook rant that could have ended the officers’ careers and Fergusonized the reputation of the Princeton Police department for years. She trashed the officers, pushed all her chips into the pit and threw down the race card. Only problem was, the whole, genteel interaction was caught on tape. The crashing sound you here is the complete and utter destruction of the professor’s credibility and integrity – no matter how much she might try to put the toothpaste back in the tube. That’s not the only unfortunate truth revealed through this ugly incident.
Our country has come a long way. Today a charge of racism is looked upon with legitimacy and sincere concern by all but the smallest percentage of Americans. The long ugly wrestling match over our country’s soul that started with slavery and progressed through battles with racism and segregation has made us particularly aware of, and sympathetic to, the plight of those subject to race-based judgement and abuse. We are not the great, sensitive, sympathetic and tolerant country we are DESPITE our history. We are who we are BECAUSE of our past admittedly horrific behavior. We’re a flawed people, but we’re good learners.
When someone tries to take advantage of our sensitivity it diminishes the credibility of those truly worthy of our decency and vigilance. That is an attack on our best aspects – long and painfully formed. It is an attack on the very people who need the protection of our sensitivity – in this case all those whoever have, or will be, victims of racism. We must condemn and hold accountable those invoking false claims of racism as much as we do racists themselves. We cannot permit the severity of the charge of racism to be diluted by the self-serving or by those who assume racism every time the skin color of people involved in an altercation is two different colors. Just because the skin color of people involved in an altercation is white and black, doesn’t mean the facts are as well.
Another unfortunate truth was highlighted by this incident. It is alarming that in today’s world many peoples’ first reaction to the claim of racist and abusive cops is to accept it. It is wonderful that many folks stepped up for the officers, but without that tape, how many would be inclined to assume they were guilty as, fraudulently, charged? The image of police officers in our country has been so methodically destroyed that perhaps the majority of our populace finds it easy to believe that police are inclined to behave offensively. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. As a kid I took for granted that police officers were invariably there to help. Tragically, that isn’t a given in the eyes of too many people today.
And whose fault is that? The enemy is us. We have bastardized the role of police by too frequently turning them into defacto tax collectors. “To Protect and To Serve” has tragically evolved into “To Apprehend and To Punish.” Local elected officials regularly post random, irrational speed limits and pit officer against officer in a contest to write tickets – and generate revenue. All in the name of “safety.” Some localities blatantly flaunt ticket quota prohibitions and taunt departments with threats if “they don’t produce.” The victims of these essentially random taxes blame the guy handing them the ticket – not the guys twisting his arm behind the scenes. The damage this does to police officers’ image is corrosive. I should note there is no evidence of any of these practices in the stop in Princeton that fomented this story.
To be fair to local officials there are those few members of law enforcement who independently view their roles as punitive ticket machines. And I’m sure there are a few racist cops too. But those misguided officers are few and far between. Most just want to do their jobs – help people in need, educate people to be more careful and make the communities in which they live and work better and safer places – while employing punishment only when it’s really appropriate.
We must collectively insist cops be left to do their jobs without political interference. We must insist that traffic laws be set according to sound engineering criteria – not the whim of elected officials. And most importantly – we must not tolerate those who exploit the charge of racism. Our communities will be better, safer and more just for the effort.
Declan O’Scanlon is a Republican Assemblyman from the 13th Legislative District.