Police departments issue their officers Kevlar vests to stop bullets, and thick helmets and even shields to protect them from bottles and bricks. But there is nothing in the equipment room to give an officer thicker skin.
That tool — as vital to an officer’s safety and the public’s as anything clipped to his belt — is developed in training, and its strength differs from one officer to the next.
The police say Professor Gates was arrested and briefly charged with disorderly conduct after he ignored warnings to stop haranguing an officer who had asked him for identification inside his home.
Though Professor Gates said he was not abusive and was the victim of racism, the police report said he told Sgt. James M. Crowley, “I’ll speak with your mama outside.”
Several officers interviewed in four cities on Friday said they tried to ignore such remarks. Others said they had zero tolerance for being treated disrespectfully in public.
The line of when to put on handcuffs is a personal and blurry one, varying among officers in the same city, the same precinct, even the same patrol car.
A mounted police officer who has been with the Los Angeles Police Department for 25 years said that taking verbal abuse was a regular part of his job.
“We don’t get to tell people what they want to hear,” said the Los Angeles officer, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being quoted on duty. “Whether we’re giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we’re not dealing with people at their best, and if you don’t have a tough skin, then you shouldn’t be a cop.”
The officer said he recently confronted a woman walking in the middle of the street and asked her to step out of traffic. She refused and became belligerent, using a string of four-letter words and ethnic epithets. He said he wrote the woman a ticket and went on his way.
But in Brooklyn, a 24-year-old officer, with three years on the force, seemed less inclined to walk away from verbal abuse.
“We say, ‘Back down,’ ” he said. “If they don’t back down and start making direct threats, that’s an offense. They don’t get a free pass.”
He said that threats could be defined in different ways, and he preferred to talk people down, but that the rules changed if a crowd formed, which was routine in New York and also occurred during the Gates incident.
“I wouldn’t back down if there’s a crowd gathering,” the Brooklyn officer said, in part out of concern of sending a message of weakness that could haunt another officer later. “We’re a band of brothers. We have to be there to help each other out. If there’s a group and they’re throwing out slurs and stuff, you have to handle it.”
A 13-year veteran of the Denver police force, who did not wish to give his name, said likewise. “We’re not going to take abuse,” he said. “We have to remain in control. We’re running the show.”
But Robert Anderson, with the same department five years, said he tried to “let people vent” if they grew irate. “People usually aren’t happy to see the police,” he said. “They’d rather see a fireman.”
In New York, State Senator Eric Adams, a retired New York City police captain and co-founder of the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, said the rules for dealing with someone differed by setting.
“If it’s their house, they’re allowed to call you all sorts of names,” Mr. Adams said. “A man’s house is his castle. If they’re in the street, and they don’t listen to the officer’s warning, ‘Sir, you’re being disorderly,’ you can lock them up at this time.”
Not that the officer necessarily should, he said.