Crime and Embarrassment: A look at law enforcement, here and elsewhere

When people learned that I had been mugged, they assumed I was walking late at night in a bad area. After I informed them that I had actually been held up at 54th and Dorchester at 9pm, they figured that I must have had blinking twenty-dollar bills strapped across my chest. When telling them that I had in fact been carrying nothing but my keys and a pair of dirty gym shorts, I was usually asked why I had not stood up more forcefully against my attacker. Yet even after disclosing that the man had been carrying both a knife and a gun, the reception towards the news of the crime still resulted in my embarrassment. Almost everyone who had been told about the experience assigned a semblance of idiocy to me.

This feeling of humiliation is certainly old hat by now. Yet the run-in with Muggy Joe (the mugger’s affectionately-established nickname after the fact) conjured up an odd combination of familiarity and strangeness. It was like experiencing life from an entirely different point of view. Growing up in a rural area–complete with the kind of small-town culture John Mellencamp has so readily exploited in order to write lame music for Chevrolet commercials–I witnessed a completely opposite perspective of crime, criminals, and policemen.

The general advantage of life in a small town is that crime is less violent, less severe, and less frequent. Usually, crimes are nuisances such as someone’s truck being too loud, someone’s truck being too fast, or someone’s truck being too-much-in-someone-else’s-front-yard. These offenses are always dealt with swiftly and likely result in a guilty party having to pay a fine to the county. For this reason, crime actually contributes positively to small town life as an extra source of municipal revenue.
Assigning these fines is usually all that is asked of small town police, and the most apparent source of this annuity is the town high school. To little surprise, local police regulate this reserve quite well. In fact, most high school-aged kids feel as if the police do this a little too well.

This was certainly the case in my experience. My friends and I viewed the police presence as unnecessary and overbearing. Almost every encounter with any sort of legal agent led to one of us asking, “Doesn’t that person have something better to do rather than hassle us all of the time?” This question was typically posed self-righteously, even though it was usually apparent what an enormous luxury it was for the answer to be “no.”
I was certainly no exception to this hypocrisy. Despite not owning a souped-up truck, my experience was no exception to the norm of police interaction. My late grandmother’s 1988 Cadillac De Ville definitely did not have ground effects, mudding tires, or a Confederate flag in the back window. And even though I rarely took the car over sixty (to get the best gas mileage–sue me), Deputy Morstatter had no qualms about pulling me over in the school zone right in front a twelve-team track meet, a baseball practice, and a banquet which were all taking place simultaneously at my high school. Of course, this was all because it was the end of the fiscal quarter.

There were other instances, as well, such as one time when I was driving a friend home late at night. I was going at my usual leisurely pace when another police car pulled me over, this time claiming my license plate had expired. However, this officer quickly became more concerned with the description that I happened to match. It seemed that earlier there had been reports of other teenagers firing off paintball guns around town. Not being completely sure whether or not I had a choice in the matter, I quickly found myself having my car and my person searched in the middle of the street while the neighborhood, likely awoken from the police sirens, glared. After the policeman failed to find a paintball gun in my pants, I remember ignorantly suggesting to my parents that I had been oppressed.

It has only recently become apparent that this was not a response to a cerebral ideal of social justice as much as it was a reaction to a visceral impression of self-worth. Perhaps most people who have attracted similar attention from the police empathize with the lasting ramifications these encounters have on one’s dignity. In the process of being made aware of one’s subservience to the law, it is easy to acquire the side effects of inferiority, whether administered publicly through flashing lights and loud sirens or privately by stern warnings and intense searches. One becomes a victim to the demonstration of power.

Initially, I assumed my hometown police had embarrassed me solely because there was nothing better to do (and because they were kind of pricks). Yet when I sought police assistance after meeting with Muggy Joe, it became apparent that while the American police system is based partly upon the demonstration of power, the shame and embarrassment caused by the tactics of domination are neglected.

After dialing 911, I was soon riding around in a campus police car looking for Muggy Joe with the authorities. Within two minutes, we had conglomerated with several other police officers outside of Washington Park. At this point, the police began to escort those gentlemen who happened to match my description of Muggy Joe in front of the car so I might be able to identify him. This certainly did not go on for long, but enough time passed for me to realize that with an incorrect identification I had the power to seriously cripple an innocent person’s life. Yet, perhaps some semblance of damage had already been done, as each man appeared noticeably shaken throughout the ordeal. Though the police have been incredibly helpful and determined, they have yet to put Muggy Joe through a similar distress for the offense he committed against me.

After recalling the specifics of the encounter with Muggy Joe, it remains to be seen whether a demonstration of force and a display of power are always necessary to humiliate a criminal. Joe seemed embarrassed enough as it was, and could barely keep his voice from shaking. His reluctant demeanor was strange and unsettling, and it honestly seemed as if he wanted to mug me even less than I desired to be mugged. The look on his face when he realized how little I could give him that night suggests that having to mug someone is far more embarrassing than being mugged, and perhaps even more shameful than being caught.