Yet another division has arisen between the Champaign Police Department and the citizenry of Champaign. Over the summer, a young man was stopped for jaywalking after leaving a bar. He was mouthy. For his sins, he was pepper-sprayed and, perhaps, choked. I say "perhaps" because, after viewing the video of the incident, it is unclear that he was in fact choked. Regardless, it was a rough time. It's doubtful either the police officer or the young man made a new friend that night.
The incident has only now come to light because, well, it's all a bit confusing. I've read the articles in the local paper about what happened, and the best I can make out is that the suspect's attorney only recently became aware of what had exactly happened on the night in question, viewed the video of it, and then showed it to the State's Attorney, who subsequently dropped the charges. The matter was then turned over to the Illinois State Police for review. The ISP determined that the officer appeared to act within the policy guidelines of the Champaign Police Department. City officials now want the matter looked into by the Feds. A hot-blooded debate is being had in newspaper comments sections, on local blogs, on Twitter, and at local churches. The community is, once again, boiling over.
Not to be too academic, but what is happening in Champaign is indicative of a greater issue society as-a-whole seems to have, and that is block-blaming and group configuration. These are part of being human, it seems, but I wish we'd work on understanding it a bit more. It's a mental/emotional disease wherein folks take isolated incidents and blame an entire group. They also use lone figures to symbolize a greater whole. Both practices are fraught with peril.
Group configuration has its pros and cons. Sports teams, for example. How often do people rally around a particular team, often because of geography? Someone from Champaign is typically an Illini fan. Someone from St. Louis very likely supports the Cardinals. A Chicagoan probably likes the White Sox, or, if they're into sadomasochism, the Cubs. And when these teams win a game, or are having a good season, you'll often see the fans walking around elated, almost as if they were the ones who had been on the field playing the game. Most of the time, this is ok. But it can get out of hand.
This seems to happen whenever a flare-up between police and community occurs. Some folks will rally behind the community member's team, while others will rally around the police department, as though it's some sort of championship game, and we have to choose either/or. But it isn't like that. A possibly mis-treated person doesn't -- and shouldn't -- represent an entire community (or minority), and a possibly rogue police officer doesn't -- and shouldn't -- represent an entire police force. Yet, we seem to want to have our teams. We just have to get behind one team or the other. Unfortunate. And counter-productive.
And what of block-blaming? Perhaps a handful of police officers, over the course of time, cross the line, and then some community members come down on the entire police force like a ton of bricks. Why? What does that solve? Likewise, some folks assume the role of police apologist, and paint anyone stopped by the police in a broad brush stroke as 'probable criminal who had it coming,' and then makes an across-the-board statement along the lines of "I support the CPD." Ok. Good for you. Most of us do. But that doesn't meant there aren't some bad apples.
To folks on both sides of this issue, who have stirred-up veritable hornets' nests, I say this: Get over yourselves. Seriously. We need to quite picking sides, and find a way for our voices to be heard without always attacking an entire swath of people. The Champaign Police Department is, on the whole, great. I've had mostly good encounters with them. So have a lot of others. Some haven't. They aren't pariahs. They aren't liars. Some of them aren't even criminal. If they have a complaint, they have a right to be heard. But their advocates need to be aware that, sometimes, you catch more flies with honey.