To Press The Button

Making a phone call to the police shouldn’t be a moral decision in America. For me it is and in my recent readings I discovered that I’m not alone. Let’s explore.

I recently finished reading Chris Hayes’ new book, A Colony in a Nation. The last sentence of the book is: “I took my phone out, held it in my hand, and considered whether to press the button.” It took me back to an experience I had several years ago in Clearwater, Florida where I had to make the same decision that Hayes did. I can tell you what I decided; Hayes leaves his readers in suspense. Our dilemmas were identical.

It would be accurate to describe both of us as white liberals who care about inequity under the law. We benefit from white privilege and realize that many of our fellow citizens do not.

On a Sunday afternoon some ten plus years ago I was driving in the right hand lane on Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater when I stopped for a red light. Another vehicle pulled up in the left hand lane. It contained several young people. This was near the somewhat upscale gated community I lived in at the time. That section of town was diverse; it was majority white with a significant Hispanic (mainly Cuban-American) population and a representation of blacks. One of the gifts I seem to have in life is that I usually can’t tell the difference between Caucasians and most Hispanics by sight. I am literally racially colorblind at least to that degree. Therefore I would have to guess that some or all of the passengers in the car in the question were people of color.

As the car stopped the male in the passenger seat opened his door and hollowed out a cigar. I am neither a drug user nor very knowledgeable of the drug culture but even I knew what was going on. A car is a closed environment where everyone literally breathes the same air. If one person is smoking dope the driver effectively is also. For public safety I don’t want impaired people driving. I took my phone off my belt, flipped it open (it was some time ago), thought about what I was about to do and decided to return it to its clip on my belt.

Had I called the police and they arrested the occupants of that car they would have most likely received a prison sentence and with it a mark on their record that would have closed doors to them for the rest of their lives. I feel the punishment must fit the crime. What would amount to a life sentence for doing stupid kid stuff is neither morally right nor in the best interest of society.

Had these young people been arrested the local prosecutors would have been looking at several slam dunk felony convictions. For a prosecutor who is rated and retains their job (or gets promoted) based on the numbers they rack up that is too tempting a “prize” to pass up. Elected judges need to look tough on crime when reelection comes so there isn’t much hope for our youngsters there either.

If the kids are rich and white they have a chance of obtaining (Daddy buying) leniency in the system. (Note white privilege is much more likely to play in your favor if you also come from wealthy and/or power.) The car in question was older and not high end.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of friends in law enforcement over the years, but I’m a liberal who also sees the police officer’s dilemma. This is another case where the kids’ only chance was if the responding officer(s) let them go. It is simply unfair to put all the pressure on an underpaid, inadequately trained patrol officer. They have a difficult enough job as is without asking them to be sociologists, law professors and moral philosophers at the same time they are keeping peace and order! They trained to be cops not society’s panacea. While sitting in plush chairs and air conditioning, state and federal legislators pass laws that don’t serve society and they had all the time in the worlds to study and debate them. We are asking a street cop under stress and often in danger to make up for their errors in judgment in a matter of a few minutes. How does that make sense and best serve society?

Chris was in a New York City park and the perpetrators in his case were young black kids on bicycles. I don’t know what he did. If I’m ever fortunate enough to meet him I’ll certainly ask. Years later I hope I made the correct decision and the odds are I did. The issue is that neither Mr. Hayes nor I should have to make a moral decision because our legislators failed us.

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