An ordinary flatfoot in a quiet residential section had his hands full. In a single day, he might have to put out a couple of kitchen fires, arrange for the removal of a dead mule, guard a poor epileptic having a fit on the sidewalk, catch a runaway horse, settle a combat with table knives between husband and wife, shoot a cat for killing pigeons, rescue a dog or a baby from a sewer, bawl out a white-wings for spilling garbage, keep order on the sidewalk at two or three funerals, and flog half a dozen bad boys for throwing horse-apples at a blind man.
That’s H.L. Mencken, one of my favorite word-artists, in “Recollections of Notable Cops, 1900-10.” As a young beat reporter, he relied upon the Baltimore city cops for information, education in street lore — and entertainment. When the city board in charge of the police force first set up an entrance exam, there was widespread contempt among the force: “... all the cops in town predicted that it would quickly contaminate their craft with a great horde of ... ‘professors’ ...”
Mencken preceded me by 55 years, but my early memories of city cops are similarly old-fashioned. When I was little, in Albany, Prohibition had been repealed only a few years earlier. The notorious (too notorious for his own health) gangster “Legs” Diamond had been killed (probably by the Albany cops) at a rooming house at 67 Dove St. We lived at 57 Dove. The cops, in many ways the personal enforcers of Democratic political boss Dan O’Connell, as well as guardians of the public weal, drove dark Buicks with fascinating little circles in their windshields that could be opened to fire at fleeing vehicles. They never visited us or my grandfather’s pharmacy. Our family were all staunch Dutch Reformed Republicans; Democrats, Catholics, Irishmen and cops were personae non gratae.
My second home, Syracuse, was, in 1943, in retrospect, also a bit quaint with regard to law enforcement. That’s not a negative criticism. It’s with a sigh of relief that the local cops — at least in our lily-white Irish Catholic neighborhood — knew us all, if not personally, at least by reputation. Relief because, as adolescence and a fast bicycle began to foster delinquent proclivities (and talents), I did not end up in Attica.
My buddy, David Ryan, and I had been out one evening committing minor infractions: igniting piles of dead leaves stacked by curbs for pickup, leaving burning brown paper bags of dog poop outside front doors and ringing the doorbells, and bombarding the Strathmore bus with rotten crabapples. We parted cheerfully with a good evening’s work behind us, and I headed home.
As I climbed the front porch stairs with my bicycle on my shoulder, I started at the presence of a very large, shadowy figure in one of the porch rockers. It was Officer Garn. “Billy,” he said very softly, “I think it’s time you and I had a little chat.”
It was our first and last chat. Whenever we saw each other again, we gave little waves, like drivers passing on the road. His own house wasn’t far away (I learned last night after a Google search of court records and GoogleEarth). During the winter, he turned up at the large skating rink in Onondaga Park, togged always in heavy coat, jodhpurs and black figure skates. He cut graceful little circles around the inside of the revolving ring, with an occasional grand spiral, arms spread wide. You have to see a red-faced, square-jawed, 6-foot Irish cop doing a spiral on skates to get a sense of true kinetic beauty.
Which is a main reason I find today’s images of municipal police forces so jarring. We’ve changed so much in 70-some years as to be in many situations, unrecognizable. I cherish the scene I watched a couple of years ago when an AR-15-toting man, walking purposefully toward an anti-gun rally in front of the Vermont State House, was quietly intercepted by a pair of Montpelier cops, gently (I presume) dissuaded from his mission, and walked alone back to his truck. But often now, we see photos and videos of phalanxes of faceless, battle-clad warriors in black, backed by those hideous Star Wars vehicles recycled from military patrols in Afghanistan, with machine-gun turrets on top. The ubiquity of cellphone cameras ensures we see ever more instances of terrible messaging, miscommunication and misunderstanding resulting in the deaths of black people. Clearly, the culture of government-sponsored policing has changed.
Somewhere, the cultures of the police and the policed diverged. What was once a job performed by our fellow citizens has been transformed in many parts of America into a weaponized paramilitary force. I have no idea how to get back the sense that they are not, as Dickens puts it, “another race of creatures bound on other journeys,” but, rather, from among and of us. In any case, the time for committees, commissions and dialogue is over. It’s time now to try some new ideas, tools and techniques — and maybe new people.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.