An Idea about Law and Order

My husband and I are creatures of habit. Since we have been empty nesters, unbelievably it has been 13 years since our younger child left for college, there has been a certain predictability to our routine. After Gary gets home from work, we have dinner sitting on the couch in the family room, with the TV on. When we finish eating, we replace the dinner plate with our laptops and the TV drones on. We aren’t watching it exactly, we are doing our respective things on our computers, but the television is providing some background noise. I scroll social media, do crossword puzzles and edit blog posts. Gary reviews patients’ labs, catches up on email, surfs the news and writes his daily missive to the kids.

As background noise, Gary’s preferred TV choices include sports, episodes of Law and Order, World War II documentaries and Seinfeld. The thing all of those have in common is that he can half pay attention and still follow along, he knows them all already (except live sports; baseball, in particular is perfect for watching while doing something else). I can tolerate most of those, though I get tired of all of them (except sports, but even with that I have my limits). I have, in more recent years, gotten him to expand his list to include House Hunters. We do have more then one television. Sometimes I go upstairs and actually watch something else. But since we don’t spend that much time together – given his work schedule and his need to review labs and paperwork in the evening – I more often than not choose to sit with him. We chat here and there; it sustains our connection.

The pandemic is testing the limits of this routine. We have been home together more often for more extended periods of time. Before coronavirus, the routine was interrupted here and there by brief overnight trips I might make to the city (New York City, that is), or helping out with our granddaughter in Connecticut, or  consulting assignments or plans with girlfriends. All of those activities have been suspended these past four months.

Gary and I get along great – but even we were getting on each other’s nerves. Gary got angry at me the other day for failing to lock the door between the garage and the house. I got annoyed with him for flipping channels relentlessly and not getting back to Jeopardy in time for the beginning of the second round. Nerves are getting frayed.

His limited viewing options were also getting to me. Since there has been no live sports, SNY (the New York Mets’ station) has been replaying the 1969 and 1986 World Series and other winning playoff games. Gary shows no signs of tiring of them. I, on the other hand, have had enough. Though I am a Met fan, I’ve seen the ball squirt through Bill Buckner’s legs one time too many.

In an effort to broaden our horizons, we decided to watch a TV series that we missed the first time it aired. Our son highly recommended The Wire, a show that he thought would appeal to both of us. We would not treat it as background noise, we would actually watch it. Our daughter joined us beginning in season 3 – we watch at the same time, in our respective homes (she is in Somerville, MA). It has turned out to be an interesting choice to make during this season of unrest and Black Lives Matter protests.

The series, which was originally broadcast beginning in 2002, is a case study of systemic racism. The toxic relationship between the police and the poor, drug over-run Black community in Baltimore is on full display. The lack of trust, the brutality, the disregard for Black lives is evident in episode after episode.

The series explores the impossible choices the characters face and illustrates how people lose their way, disregarding morality for expediency or quick reward or pressure from those more powerful. We are almost done watching all five seasons, we are in the middle of its final season. I hope it offers some glimmers of hope when it wraps up because it paints a pretty bleak picture. While the quality of The Wire is beyond reproach, it may not have been the wisest choice from my mental health perspective. I don’t know that I needed reminding of our societal ills at the same time that they are playing out on the streets of our country. Not surprisingly, I have been reflecting on issues of law and order; particularly the role of the police.

It all reminds me of a course I took in college called Public Law. While much of the material that was covered has receded into the mists of memory, I do recall that it was the first time I heard an argument for ‘defunding the police.’ That wasn’t the phrase the professor used, but essentially, he made a case for it – not for precisely the same reasons as we are hearing today – though racism played a role.

We examined the role of the police in society, exploring its structure and relationship to communities. This was in 1978. The ‘60s era of protest, campus unrest and clashes with the police was over. My fellow classmates were focused on their GPAs and preparing for the LSAT; they weren’t as liberal as the students who preceded us. Our professor, Tom Denyer, had a different agenda. He made the case that the police and the criminal justice system were, in effect, casting people out of society unnecessarily; that we entrusted the system with too much power. As we came to learn by the end of the semester, our professor was an anarchist. Much to his dismay, he wasn’t successful in convincing the class of his position; as I recall, students vehemently rejected his argument. I certainly wasn’t convinced. I believed then, and I believe now, that humanity is not capable of policing itself. There are evil people in the world, and there are also troubled, misguided ones. Society needs to be protected from those who can’t abide by civil society’s rules.

But Dr. Denyer opened my eyes to ideas that I had not considered. I rejected his notion that the police weren’t necessary, but the question of how to do it in an effective, equitable way, and at what cost, was clearly very complicated. It was also clear that the system was flawed. One of the costs that I had not given thought to before was the toll taken on cops themselves. We read articles about the incidence of alcoholism and suicide among police officers – it is higher than other professions. It was also the first time I thought about what exactly we were asking cops to do – solve crimes? prevent crimes? help people in trouble? keep order in the streets? All of the above? Was that reasonable?

I was forced to consider the impact of the fact that police generally see citizens at their worst. Drunk, violent, abusive, carrying weapons, selling drugs, threatening…the list can go on and on. And, even if the 911 call doesn’t involve menacing behavior, they are often seeing folks at their weakest or most vulnerable. What is the impact of that? Day after day, year after year? How does a police officer not become jaded and/or racist?

Recently, as I revisited that issue, I had an idea. Could we restructure the job so that cops rotated to play other roles in the community? Would it be possible for them, as part of their job, not as volunteers, to run recreational programs? Mentor kids? Help with community gardens? Help seniors with technology? (or other structured, concrete, viable community service efforts). My notion is that by bringing police officers, as part of their required responsibilities, into contact with community members on an equal footing, on positive projects – so that they don’t lose sight of the residents’ or their own humanity, maybe the dynamic can be changed. Maybe if, as part of their job, police officers collaborated with citizens, they wouldn’t get so calloused. Just one thought among many that might be considered if we are going to find a better way to approach law enforcement. Thoughts anyone?

Bittersweet

NOTE: I have changed the names out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

April 20th marked twenty years since the tragedy at Columbine High School. It was a watershed moment for many reasons. It is one of those times where I remember exactly where I was as the horror unfolded on live television. We were in the living room of our friends’ home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Memories come flooding back…bittersweet memories.

Memories:  Of flying kites on the beach, where we could count on a stiff wind to make it easy to get the kite to lift off, almost taking our children with it!

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Leah and Daniel on one of our early trips to the Outer Banks circa 1992

Of Daniel assuming the pose of a martial arts master to slay the waves. He also had a penchant for chasing sand pipers. I was so relieved when they flew away beyond the grasp of his small hand.

Of taking Leah and Christine, our friends’ daughter, to the pool – as older girls (four and six) they could swim. They amused themselves in the water for hours.

Of sunny early mornings, before anyone else was awake, sitting on the deck facing the ocean and reading whatever novel I had brought with me. Our time on the Outer Banks was often my only chance to read a book for pleasure and I relished it.

Of walking with some combination of our kids the couple of blocks to the shopping area where there was a donut shop. Breakfast was often coffee and a donut.

Of retreating from the midday sun to the cool of the air-conditioned house for an afternoon nap.

Of Gary, legs coated in sunscreen and sand, building elaborate sand castles with the kids.

Of quickly packing up everything and evacuating ahead of hurricane Hugo – which actually missed the Outer Banks and made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, but we couldn’t take chances with our children. We drove inland through the night and went to the Martins’ home in Maryland.

When we first went to the Outer Banks in 1989, we rented a house near Duck, we loved the name of the town. Wild horses could still be seen by the roadside. We drove down from Albany, an arduous trip, in our Camry station wagon. It was the first car Gary and I ever bought and we didn’t get air conditioning, thinking we didn’t need it living in upstate New York. Plus, we would save a lot of money, which was still very tight. That was a serious mistake and we paid for it in a myriad of ways, including on those trips. Neither Leah nor Dan appreciated hot air blasting through the open windows as we made our way south on the Jersey Turnpike.

I vividly recall arriving at the rental house that first time. It was a beautiful home – weatherworn shingles, with multiple decks and, of course, the smell of the ocean coupled with the unique scent of the Carolina lowlands. We went inside and I nearly burst into tears. There was a long staircase to get to the main living area. There were glass coffee and end tables. We had a 7 month old (Dan) and Leah was two and a half. A week of keeping Leah and the other kids safe from falling down those stairs, or banging into the glass tables flashed before my eyes. Gary and Evan, his buddy from medical school, ushered me outside while they quickly moved the tables and did as much baby-proofing as possible. I practiced taking deep breaths.

It turned out to be a great week and the beginning of something we would do for more than ten years.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 we were a few days into our spring break from school and our friends had, years earlier, bought a house in Whalehead (a newly developed area on the northern edge of Outer Banks). We were fortunate enough to be invited to continue our tradition of vacationing with them.

That afternoon, having spent the morning riding bicycles and playing mini-golf, we were hanging out in the great room on the top floor.  We happened to have the television on, tuned to CNN. We watched as events unfolded in Littleton, Colorado. After leaving it on long enough to understand that it was a school shooting, we turned it off and went about our activities. We didn’t want our children to be distracted or troubled by the images.

I remember being angry – at the gunmen of course, but also at the media coverage. They didn’t know what was happening. They were broadcasting live coverage from a helicopter – but the reporters didn’t understand what they were seeing, so they could only speculate. Like a car wreck, it was hard to look away, fortunately we did, eventually. I remember thinking that the speculation of the reporters seemed reckless.

That tragedy was a watershed moment in many ways. It was my first real understanding of the power and problems caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Since I was a school board member at the time, it represented a major change in the way we thought about school security. And, though it was entirely coincidental, our times going to the Outer Banks were also coming to a close.

Our children were growing up, beginning activities that would take time and commitment. The Martin children were doing the same. We would need to make difficult choices about how to spend our limited vacation time. There were always some stresses and strains between the kids, and in our friends’ marriage, that sometimes interfered with the fun. Those rough patches were outweighed by the laughter and adventures.  But then tragedy truly struck and things were permanently altered.

In April of 2003 the Martin’s oldest son, at age 15, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gary and I visited them in early August and found them shattered by the devastating prognosis. I came back and spent a week at the end of October, to help with their two youngest children (their oldest daughter had started college), so Evan and Amy could tend to their son. It was beyond painful. He died in January of 2004, just shy of his 16th birthday.

Not only had they lost their son, but their family was irretrievably broken.

While April of 1999 was not our last time vacationing together, we had one or two more trips, it felt like the beginning of the end of something. Somehow the terrible events of that day and the subsequent tragedy for the Martin family are forever linked in my mind.

 

Reality v. Entertainment

fullsizeoutput_d1cI just finished reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, for the second time. Since I don’t remember much about books I read, it may as well have been for the first time. Anyway, it is a coming-of-age story of a girl, Dolores, which begins when she is about 4 years old. Her first vivid memory is of that age because a television was being delivered to her house, a momentous and exciting event. Her family hadn’t owned one before.

The television comes to play a significant role in her troubled life as she uses it as an escape. Dolores retreats to game shows and soap operas when her own life became too painful. The book isn’t about the role of television in our lives, but it got me thinking. While I don’t relate to her behavior exactly, I do know that House Hunter’s International and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show got me through the Bush Administration, Dubya’s that is.

I have established a rule for myself in this new retired life I lead. I won’t turn on the tv until after 5:00 p.m. I think it is a good rule. I’m still not always productive, after all now social media can be a tremendous time waster, but knowing that I can’t turn to television makes the odds better that I spend my time constructively.  It is too bad I didn’t think of that rule when my kids were little (and there was no social media). Sometimes when I felt drained and unmotivated, I sat and watched talk shows, watching a whole day slip away. And, after watching, I felt yet more drained and unmotivated.

Thinking about television brought up another issue: the messages we are fed. My view of myself as a woman was certainly affected by the images presented. I have written about this before (here). I certainly couldn’t measure up to the standards of Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas – though I don’t blame them personally. We were inundated with unrealistic views of women (and men, too, I suppose) in programs and advertisements. I don’t know how much that has changed, though I think there has been some movement to offer more diversity.

But there is something else in the images that television offers that troubles me. We have read a lot about violence on tv and in video games and how that may desensitize people. But, we haven’t read, or at least I haven’t, about the portrait of the criminal justice system – particularly the police.

Gary and I, especially Gary, are fans of police procedurals – like the original Law and Order. We watched Hill Street Blues back in the day and NYPD Blue.  These days Friday nights are spent watching Hawaii Five-O (actually I just keep Gary company for that one, I do crossword puzzles) and Blue Bloods. I know that these shows, all of them, are not depictions of real life, though the better episodes can make me feel real emotion. I have been thinking lately about whether they do damage in how they manipulate you to feel that it is okay to rough up a suspect. They are counting on you to root for the cop, even as he (and it is most often a he) physically and/or mentally abuses a suspected perp (I picked up on the lingo over these many years).

I know we aren’t watching documentaries. But how much license are they taking? I realize that the writers are putting together a 60 minute episode (far fewer minutes with all the commercials) where everything has to be resolved. Actual cases take years to move through the system. That license, to compress events, is less troubling to me.

I don’t know which is worse. If the way interrogations are portrayed is realistic, then we have major problems with police abusing their power. If the picture painted is fabricated, then what is the impact on people’s beliefs about the police? I think the ideas we have about our world are shaped to some degree by the entertainment we consume. Attention, though not enough, has been given to stereotypes of women, African-Americans, and other minorities. Studies have been done on the impact of violent content. But, I’m not aware of discussion of this – is the depiction of the way the police do their work done responsibly on television and in movies? And, if it isn’t, what is the cost of that misrepresentation?

By the way, She’s Come Undone, where I started this blog post, doesn’t get into this question at all. But like all good books, it spurred lots of thought.