One frigid morn, a deputy friend and I stopped for breakfast at a local cafe. We were BS'ing over our meal when a diner at a nearby table joined in our conversation. The man was not only pro-law enforcement, but blessed with good humor and a sharp wit—a trifecta on the endangered species circuit. The banter that followed was free and easy and by the time we'd finished, I felt like we'd not only had a great breakfast but made a new friend, one who made the experience one better by paying our bill.
Warmed by our meals and good chat, Tony and I thanked our benefactor and then got up to leave. Walking out the back door, Tony lit up and we loitered for a bit in the overcast dawn before putting ourselves back in service.
Our fellow diner joined us on the rear patio just then and commented about how much he enjoyed the meal. We readily agreed and with this spirit of newfound fraternity an exchange of introductions commenced, our new friend going first.
Tony noted the last three letters of the man's surname: "-ian." His expression changed.
"Isn't that Armenian?"
The man smiled warmly, visibly pleased that Tony had recognized as much. "Why, yes it is! Are you Armenian?"
Tony didn't smile back.
Tony's name tag had been obscured by a heavy jacket, and it seemed the barometer plummeted another 40 degrees just then. Everything about Tony's body language, voice, and demeanor changed and whatever warmth that had initially been shared between the three of us was gone, replaced by an air of guarded defensiveness that coat-tailed our frosted breaths.
At the time, the significance of their ethnic backgrounds was lost on me (I was, and remain, a product of public education). Still, I felt like I was intruding on some very personal territory just by being there. The sudden and utter transition in mood was among the most surreal and unpleasant I've ever experienced.
For his part, the Armenian gentleman finally offered an awkward smile.
"Well, that was a long time ago," he said, alluding to some event that only he and Tony knew of. "I don't want to have such things bother me now."
By unspoken mutual accord, we gravitated to our separate cars and drove off.
Tony never said anything more to me about the episode. Indeed, he never made any mention of his ethnic background before or since. Still, my curiosity about any residual hostilities between Armenians and Turks found me doing some looking into the matter.
What I found provided some context for what I'd witnessed that morning. But as I had no dog in this fight, I was only saddened that such DNA-rooted hostilities could so effectively eclipse what had been a convivial mood.
Suffice to say, I've since become more familiar with the Armenian genocide issue, as has Barrack Obama.
Are there Armenians and Turks who get along great with one another?
But all things being equal, I'd just as soon not run the risk of having an Armenian cop deal with a Turkish suspect, or vice versa, if one could help it.
Profiling? You bet your ass.
Profiling with the intention of trying to avoid needless heartache for all involved? Yep.
Throughout history, there have been groups of people that by and large and for a variety of reasons are fundamentally predisposed to having as little to do with one another as possible: Crusading Christians and Extremist Muslims. Pro-choicers and pro-lifers. MADD and Spuds Mackenzie. Editors and associate editors.
Inconceivably, here in Los Angeles County there are segments of black inmates and Hispanic inmates that don't want to be housed together. The always helpful ACLU believes otherwise, and has sued to get the two commingling against their will, resulting in grievous injury all around.
Such are the hazards of trying to shoehorn idealism in the real world: It assumes unrealistic expectations of people to always transcend their bias, even under threat of litigation.
And for all our profession's work at promoting diversity and tolerance in house, the community at large remains largely immune from stifling their personal preferences. Their personal values color their emotions, and finds voice in protests both civil and not. At its best, this voice becomes manifest in acts of peaceful civil protest. At its worst, it finds dealerships set ablaze, bombs in mail boxes, abortion doctors assassinated.
These people constitute part of the demographic we deal with daily. Already pissed off about something—a landlord, a tenant, a spouse—these people may be itching for a fight. We've all been there. Just being on the tall side has found me unwittingly escalating situations. Recognizing when I was dealing with someone who maybe had a bit of a short man's complex, I either reassured him ("Look, you could probably kick my ass up about my shoulders, but this isn't what this is all about…"), or I'd get some deputy of similar stature (but hopefully more secure disposition) to deal with the man. Or, woman. Whatever.
Because someone once gave me some good advice, advice I'd act on even more if I could: Don't treat people the way you'd want to be treated. Treat them as they want to be treated.
This isn't always easy to do. For all the cultural sensitivity training we're required to sit through, for all the tolerance we may espouse, we may just not be able to relate to some of our contacts as well as others might. That's why you should consider using a fellow officer of a similar persuasion, if possible. Or, a good Samaritan, if they're so disposed. By getting someone who speaks the lingua franca of one's background, you're more apt to get buy-in, whether it's comforting a victim, getting witness statements, or calming a dispute.
That's why in pairing off citizens with cops, my preference was that certain masculine femmes would deal with lesbian cops, effete men with gay deputies, loners with motor cops, and crazed wackos with…well, with me.
I fully believe that part of cultural sensitivity is acknowledging that our own values may occasionally preclude the success we'd hope of every citizen encounter, and that we may want to take an extra five minutes in identifying those who can best act as our advocate in getting people to help us help them.
Maybe somebody could have brokered a peace accord on that back patio between Tony and the other diner. But I knew I wasn't the man to do it, and as my name isn't Jimmy Carter, I wasn't foolish enough to try.
If we are, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder claims, a nation of cowards when it comes to race, perhaps it's because we tend to get bitch-slapped when we do discuss it. As such, I wonder if it's sometimes just better to let like handle like.
This is no guarantee. I've seen black officers get called "Uncle Toms" just for wearing the uniform. But then, you should hear some of the names I've been called.
Ultimately, we should just acknowledge that there may be those who can deal with certain people better than we can. And if they're willing to do so, we should let them. Besides, it might even encourage some cops to start treating some of their peers with more respect. They never know when they might need them.
Besides, ask me if I wanna deal with the French…