Mr. Policeman is your friend

When I was little, we were told that the policeman was our friend and that if we were ever lost or scared, we should go to a cop for help. And the NYPD makes an effort to look friendly by doing things like playing cricket to build bridges with desi muslim populations.

At the same time, I’d find their friendly face a bit more convincing if they didn’t throw arrest obviously wrong people, (allegedly) call them “sand nigger” and (allegedly) throw them in the clink without giving them the phone call they’re entitled to.

Recently, poet and professor Ravi Shankar was arrested and detained for 30 hours for a crime that had obviously been committed by somebody else:

I hadn’t been read my rights or granted a phone call. After an hour my arresting officer returned — but only to take me for a mug shot and digital fingerprinting. Eventually he showed me my arrest warrant. It was for a 5-foot-10, 140-pound white male. I happen to be a 6-foot-2, 200-pound, Indian man. I pointed out the discrepancy. “Tell it to the judge,” he said. [link]

The music world is lucky they didn’t pick up Norah Jones’ dad on that same warrant. I mean, we all look alike, even when some of us are white.

Shankar was stopped on a routine sobriety test, which he passed. From his account it seems he was caught up in a sweep, part of a quota of arrests to be made, no matter how good or bad these arrests turned out to be afterwards. He also claims they said, while arresting him:

The officer turned to his partner. “Always a good day when you can bag a sand nigger.” [link]

Shankar does admit to having a 4 year old unpaid speeding ticket from another jurisdiction, but that’s not the sort of thing that you usually get held in jail for. We can see this by the fact that the judge’s reaction, when she finally saw him:

At noon, I was called to the judge. She stared down at me as the public defender reviewed my charge, noting that the warrant was for a 5-foot-10 white male. Yes,” she said, “he’s clearly not white. Dismiss that.” She then did a double take on my file. “Why does this man have a public defender?” [link]

If accurately reported, this confirms the fact that not only did the cops lock him up on something that would clearly not stand, but also that he had been denied a phone call to counsel and only given a public defender when he walked in. To me the abrogation of his rights is far more disturbing than the policeman’s alleged casual racism, and easier to confirm.

I’m sure many of you will defend the cop, saying that Shankar shouldn’t have had the speeding ticket. Really, is this what you want your tax dollars going to? You want to keep people locked up and waste a judge’s time over a moving violation and an obviously false bust?

I’m with the libertarians on this one, cops abuse their discretion routinely and the public accepts it rather than calling them to task.

The same thing happens with judges too: one judge sentenced a bystander in his courtroom into jail for 6 months for yawning loudly, another threw 46 people in the courtroom into jail when a cell phone rang and nobody would admit it was theirs. And yet the comments under these news stories are full of people applauding the judges.

It’s very simple. In America, the founding fathers believed that authority confers responsibility and that when governmental power is unchecked, it corrupts. Many years later, Zimbardo confirmed how quickly it can corrupt. Minorities are disproportionately the targets of such behavior but this is an issue for all Americans not just a few.

44 thoughts on “Mr. Policeman is your friend

  1. Most Americans are incredibly deferential to authority (and with good reason; police can effectively get away with murder). Yet it wasn’t always like this, even at the heights of police impunity in the early 20th century….

  2. I don’t know what kind of idiot will defend the cops in this instance. I’d actually appeal to the community to take serious action and persist until the said cops are suspended. Ravi Shankar ain’t lying.

  3. Most Americans are incredibly deferential to authority (and with good reason; police can effectively get away with murder). Yet it wasn’t always like this, even at the heights of police impunity in the early 20th century….

    Well, most upper-middle class, affluent, White Americans at least.

  4. Very believable, and I’m not one to play the race card lightly. But you are right, it’s not just race. The danger is allowing “discretion” to people who were high school bullies

  5. Many of you may recall the famous Stanford Prison psych experiment that shows most people are deferential to authority. I don’t think this is true just of Americans but is a more basic human trait.

  6. When I read the article and the link, it seemed to me that the unpaid speeding ticket identifies the poet correctly.

    The arrest warrant that speaks of a white man seems to be a different issue, nothing to do with a speeding ticket.

    What exactly was the charge that this white man was said to have done?

  7. Reread the post please. He’s arrested and detained for what he didn’t do, not what he did.

  8. Aren’t Indians Caucasian by definition?

    The alleged protocol followed seems flawed. Can Ravi Shankar can prove it in court? The NYPD departmental policies such as “100-collar competition,” lack of access to a lawyer, 30-hour detention, etc. strike me as unconstitutional.

    Isn’t that how it should work, resolve it in court? That’s how we got Miranda rights in the first place.

    The readers of this blog seem to encounter police primarily in a speeding/ticketing role.

  9. So why does Prof. Gates’ arrest end in a beer summit and Prof. Shankar’s episode get relegated to our lowly blog? How are we to usefully channel our outrage?

  10. Re:Caucasian. Even if the three race theory were not bunk, I doubt that it would buy dark skinned/non-Iranian phenotype Indians like myself or Shankar any sympatico with the NYPD.

  11. So why does Prof. Gates’ arrest end in a beer summit and Prof. Shankar’s episode get relegated to our lowly blog? How are we to usefully channel our outrage?

    Start an investment bank.

  12. I think cops/governmental operations often mess up and disregard rules – regardless if you are indian/white/black etc. Tahts what I love about the history of the US – that powers cannot be UNCHECKED.

    If thats true that the warrant said looking for a white guy and yet arrested an Indian guy…then obviously the cop is stupid and foolish and its not a race thing.

    You can’t believe everything you read/hear. But yeah, after haivng worked in many government run systems, the employees often dont give a shit…but there are true shining angels too…so i guess its whatever luck you get.

    And I love when people quote Psychology…I’m in a graduate program for psychology and if we wanna discuss studies, we would never end debating. But true, Zimbardo is quite famous.

  13. I think we should should stand on our feet for 100 years. The moss will grow on us,the local potentate will have fevered dreams. Animals will behave strangely. Dog will mate with cat and chimps will no longer enjoy being dressed up as if for golf outings. Indra will come down and offer us a boon so that we suspend our austerities and restore order . We should then ask for a special mantra that makes donuts taste like dogsh*t and renders tasers ineffective.

    Either that or start a new investment bank as suggested by Townhall. My suggestion is “Mani & Kashkari”. Outside of that I’m not sure how we can get justice

  14. One of the best ways to prevent judicial responsibility to the public is by have elections for all judges (as opposed to appointees who don’t feel beholden to the public).

  15. Great observation Kundi…. seems some arrests warrant more attention than others….???

    It’s time for America to realize there are more than 2 “races” (black/white) which are meaningless social constructs (as sui_generis questions, Indians are technically classified as Caucasian) and become more conscious of ethnicities and issues stemming from racism towards them.

  16. @ 9

    Aren’t Indians Caucasian by definition?

    @ 12

    Not according to the Supreme Court. In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, a unanimous court held that Indians are not caucasian or white.

    Actually the Thind case held that Indians are Caucasian but NOT White (read European Caucasian). While a related case Takao Ozawa v. United States ruled that the Japanese may be white skinned but not caucasian (read European Caucasian).

    In the 1970 it changed and Indians were considered part of the White race but Indian groups lobbied to have Indians placed under Asian, for the simple reason, during the 60s the Civil Rights era, putting Indians now into the White category was more about limiting any benefits Indians could get as a minority now that there were some, in the same way Indians were held not White initially – prevent them from receiving benefits accorded to White people when there were no benefits for being non-White.

    “…Earlier Census forms from 1980 and before listed particular Asian ancestries as separate groups along with White and Black or Negro.[10] Previously, Asian Americans were classified as “other”. [11] But the 1980 census marked the first general analyses of Asians as a group, combining several individual ancestry groups into “Asian or Pacific Islander.” By the 1990 census, Asian or Pacific Islander (API) was included as an explicit category, although respondents had to select one particular ancestry.[12][13] [14]

    The US Census Bureau definition includes people who originate in the original peoples of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. In 1930 and 1940, Indian Americans were a separate race, Hindu, and in 1950 and 1960, they were racially classified as Other Race, and in 1970, they were classified as White. Since 1980, Indians, and all other South Asians, have been classified as part of the Asian race[15]. Sociologist Madhulika Khandelwal “described how, as a result of activism, South Asians came to be included as ‘Asians’ in the census only in the 80′s. Prior to that, many South Asians had been checking ‘Caucasian’ or ‘Other’.”…”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_people

  17. I (a white female) was arrested while photographing an animal rights protest in college, and when I pointed out that I wasn’t one of the (supposedly trespassing) protesters, but a reporter for the student paper, the cop said “tell it to the judge.” It took a night in jail, several trips to court and my mom paying a lawyer for them to drop the charges, as someone else’s video footage proved I wasn’t one of the protesters. Police are a law unto themselves.

  18. It was for a 5-foot-10, 140-pound white male. I happen to be a 6-foot-2, 200-pound, Indian man. I pointed out the discrepancy. “Tell it to the judge,” he said.

    So, now you are knocking the cop for being blind to race? Can’t the police ever catch a break?

  19. Your reference to NYPD got me thinking. I got handcurffed searched and questioned once by two plain clothes officers of the NYPD in a subway station for doing nothing except watching two other people get arrested from a distance of about 10 feet, not obeying orders quickly enough, and asking questions in a polite voice. I was told that I was being detained for ‘Obstructing public administration.’ Luckily, New York has an independent review board for the police, so when I filed a complaint, the police officers were censured and the matter became a public issue. I filed a complaint witht the Civil Complaint Review Board and they agreed with my account of the story but felt that the police had acted properly.

    I will say, though, that when I moved to London I was working under the assumption that all police are the same. My experiences with the regular police in London have been fine, thoguh they stop and search Asian people at twice the rate of White people, and Black people at 7 times the rate of White people. But I would take a London cop anyday over NYPD or London riot police (who are assholes whose red eyes look like those of the zombies in 28 days later and have slightly less rage in my experience).

    Thank God for Giuliani ;)

  20. American are thick bar stewards and NYPD what do you expect? Since 9/11 brown = bad guy. What on earth is a Sand Nigger?

  21. Indians in US are Causcasians?HAhah, in UK you would be laughted at, as thats what goray are. In fact Caucasians are from the caucases

  22. So why does Prof. Gates’ arrest end in a beer summit and Prof. Shankar’s episode get relegated to our lowly blog? How are we to usefully channel our outrage?
    It’s time for America to realize there are more than 2 “races” (black/white) which are meaningless social constructs

    the glib point about investment banks (where is Manju when you need him?) was to draw attention in a way so subtle that it was missed, to “some” POV’s that civil freedoms/respect can all be overcome with the power of a $$. Lets say that everybody knows how accomplished your other “not one of the 2″ race is,[as a group, within America], you know the number of Dr’s/ business owners etc? That didn’t protect Prof. Shanker from being mistreated. The US definitely has more than two racial groups, however if its one group that for a myriad reasons, historical , structural etc treats all other groups as less than. so what?

    Until you can see the mistreatment of another person as a bad thing, even if they aren’t in your group, as a problem for all citizens, you are just propping up a bad system.. or hoping to reprise a “buffer” race role. I just hope you have your US birth certificates at the ready.

  23. I had a student about 8 yrs ago who was in the Atlanta police department; we became more or less friends (he was very close to my age); he was also one of the few asian guys (I think his parents immigrated from Laos). Some of the stories he recounted were eye opening (I mean I could imagine them happening in theory or in the abstract, but finding out out how commonplace they were was something else); and he was a pretty sympathetic–to the police–raconteur. Totally brought home Nietzsche for me ( “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”). He was the one who told me about the myriad ways in which the police could essentially get away with murder……

  24. Finally an Indian Dude with some height and weight. 6’2″ and 200 Lbs. Someone’s been eating their tandoori chicken.

  25. More Police abuse. When will it end? The answer is just blowing in the wind.

    I always thought Vincent Price was real creepy.

    I am assuming the sudden spate of reports on this is just a devious BO strategy to provide a stimulus to the beer industry.

  26. There is a CLEAR and EASY way to limit these types of misunderstandings- start recruting MORE minorities for PDs around the US! If the local beat cops looked like them, more ppl would go to cops for help. NYPD looks pretty diverse to me (lived there 4 yrs), but are minorities in EVERY level of decisionmaking?

  27. “When I was little, we were told that the policeman was our friend and that if we were ever lost or scared, we should go to a cop for help. And the NYPD makes an effort to look friendly by doing things like playing cricket to build bridges with desi muslim populations”.

    Growing up in NYC, I never felt safe around cops and had an intense dislike for them ever since witnessing my father’s racist encounter with one when he was pulled over for a speeding ticket. A friendly NYPD is news to me!

  28. Emma – minority cops can act like assholes too. There’s the racial aspect of this story, but there’s also the police-civilian power differential which will exist without race. This is why we need accountability, not just diversity.

  29. are minorities in EVERY level of decisionmaking?

    Well there’s a billionaire, publicly straight, White man as Mayor. He’s a member of a pretty distinct minority :)

    Anyway, in practical terms, I think your proposal would help A LOT (though I would change the wording to ‘disempowered groups’ because that’s the relevant and more accurate term – e.g. having women police officers is VERY impotant for things like rape cases, DV, etc.). However, Ennis has a point as well about the total lack of accountability that NYPD has to many/most of the people it’s allegedly serving. I think this is a direct function of the choice of the government of NYC to not enforce any accountability.

    I did a google search on policer accountability and NYPD and came across this cool project on the issue.

  30. 26

    Thanks. It’s not a term used in the UK. Here all and Sundry from Indian Sub Contient are simply called Pakis

  31. I hope this story gets some serious coverage. Obama was slammed for suggesting the police aren’t always fair to minorities, yet here they are, at it again. Although right-wing whites will find some way to justify it of course…

    “Hmmm, Shankar does look suspiciously brown… he must have done something. You know what those people are like.”

  32. I wish I were 6’2″ and 200 Lbs. I would love myself more.

    Easy now, that could cause blindness and “wookie hands”

  33. Is this being investigated at all – is he pursuing an official complaint ? This is just insane.

  34. @at midwestern eastener You were in the same general area as the protesters so if they were tresspassing, you were as well. Plus, being mistaken as a protester, especially if most of them were white (which i’m assuming was the case), pales in comparison to being arrested for crimes committed by not only a completely different race, but aslo by someone with a completely different body type.