Say what you want about last weekend's incident in New Orleans. Just spare me one word.
Please do not say "stress."
For those who missed it, here's the scene: It is Saturday night in the fabled French Quarter. Police are arresting one Robert Davis, a 64-year-old former schoolteacher.
As an Associated Press camera records the episode, an officer on horseback moves into the frame, apparently to block the camera's view. But the camera operator, shooting over the horse's flank, captures officers pinning the old man to a brick wall and one apparently delivering vicious blows to the head. Davis is then wrestled to the ground, several officers on top of him. Another tape, this one shot by CNN, shows him writhing handcuffed in a pool of blood. When he tries to roll over, an officer's foot shoves him back.
Police say he was arrested for public drunkenness, battery and public intimidation. Davis later told reporters he had simply asked an officer on horseback about the curfew time when another officer barged into the conversation. Davis called that officer unprofessional and walked away at which point, he says, the cop hit him from behind.
Which brings me back to that word I don't want to hear.
Actually, I'm hearing it already. Observers are explaining what happened by pointing out that New Orleans police have suffered great hardship since Hurricane Katrina. We are reminded by reporters and civic leaders that they've been working 12-hour shifts and that most are homeless. Daniel Winn, who works at a bar, told the New York Times, "Look at what these cops have gone through. Sleeping in their cars, lost their families. They can't control their behavior."
If that's true, heaven help us all. So before we cue the violins consider three things.
One: Davis, though arrested for public drunkenness, says he hasn't had a drink in 25 years. He apparently wasn't tested for blood alcohol, but if the man's been a teetotaler since the Reagan years, it should be easy to prove. Which would blow holes in the stated reason for his arrest.
Two: The image of out-of-control cops painted by Davis is supported by footage showing one officer cursing at and roughing up an AP producer after the arrest.
Three: You don't generally try to block people from seeing what you're doing, as the officer on horseback did, unless you know what you're doing is wrong.
Three officers have been arrested on battery charges and suspended without pay. I have no idea what will happen to them in the court of law. I fear the verdict in the court of public opinion.
That fear is rooted in the fact that we are often loath to hold police accountable. Indeed, some of us are still making excuses for the miscreants who bashed Rodney King's head in. Some folks just find it convenient to look the other way as extra-legal "justice" is dispensed. They assuage conscience by assuring themselves the bad guy must've had it coming.
And stress is such a convenient excuse. Who doesn't understand stress?
Problem is, explanation dishonors every harried cop in the Big Easy who somehow manages to do his or her job professionally. Heck, if stress is an excuse, everyone in town should get a free whack at somebody.
I am not without sympathy for the burdens borne by New Orleans' finest. For that matter, I have sympathy for Davis, who, before he was beaten, had enjoyed a free dinner served to those left homeless by the storm.
But sympathy is not a blank check for misbehavior.
"It's a difficult time, but it doesn't excuse what our jobs are supposed to be," police spokesman Marlon Defillo told a reporter.
I couldn't have said it better myself.
- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.