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Essay: Neely Tucker on the Police Issues in the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. found himself in the right place -- his own home -- at the wrong time: facing police suspicion about his actions.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. found himself in the right place -- his own home -- at the wrong time: facing police suspicion about his actions. (By B. Carter -- Demotix Images)

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One of the common-sense rules of life can be summed up this way: Don't Mess With Cops.

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It doesn't matter if you are right, wrong, at home or on the street, or if you are white, black, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim or whatever. When an armed law enforcement officer tells you to cease and desist, the wise person (a) ceases and (b) desists.

The End.

Like Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., I am interracially married, currently live in a predominantly white neighborhood, have a healthy respect for armed men wearing uniforms, and have had the police come to my house in a confrontational manner, doing the job they're paid to do.

It happened when our house alarm went off at 2 a.m. a few months ago, on a night the electricity was off and the neighborhood was dark as pitch. WANH!! WANH!! WANH!! It sent my wife and me leaping out of bed. I sprinted downstairs with a baseball bat, our Rottweiler and a flashlight to confront any possible intruder. I checked all the windows and doors, the dog yawned, and it quickly became apparent that there was a short circuit from a rear door.

My wife called the alarm company and gave them the code for a false alert.

Then two cops showed up.

The first thing they did was ask me to step outside. The second thing they did was to ask me for my identification, to prove that I lived there. They were demanding and they were not friendly. They kept their flashlights in my face. They did not take my word for it that it was my house, though I was as white as they were.

Once I showed them my driver's license with the address, they asked if anyone else was inside, and then they asked if they could look around the place.

I was irritable in that middle-of-the-night kind of way, but it did not occur to me that they might be picking on us, the salt-and-pepper couple on the block. What occurred to me was that they got a call about a home alarm going off and they had to secure the premises before they could leave. And I was thrilled to have them search the entire house, because my wife's 9-year-old daughter was murdered in a home invasion in Silver Spring six years ago. The police came running then, too, but it was too late.

So I told them about that, and they then politely told my wife what they were doing, and they swept the house, room-to-room and closet-to-closet, and then walked the back yard as well. They came back to the front door, these young white cops, and assured my African American wife that there were no bad men in the house or on the property, and that we were safe.

And then they left.

I tell that story to tell this one: The guy who owns the house across the street, another white guy, rents out the place. One time when it was empty, he went over there late one night to do some work on the interior, turned on all the lights. A neighbor noticed the lights on in the empty house and called the police, who pulled up a few minutes later.

He got angry at them for asking them to prove he owned the place. Yelled. They yelled back. Threatened to arrest him. Only the intervention of our next-door neighbor, vouching for the guy, ended the situation.

America can be a funny place, and it can be mean and hard. Bad things happen to good people who are white, black, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim or whatever, and some of those things are caused by people breaking into houses. The police, when they show up at a residence or a liquor store, don't know what's what or who's who. The good cops are there to have people (a) cease and (b) desist. The bad cops still have a badge, a gun and the legal authority to haul your butt downtown.

So you want to make friends, join the glee club. You want to yell at people who are lousy at their jobs, go to a Redskins game. But, all things considered, Don't Mess With Cops. It usually works out better that way.


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