A few years ago my daughter and I were in Rome on a Sunday morning having breakfast outside a little cafe. The morning glowed in warm sunshine, blue sky framed the wide-open piazza. The only blight on the scene was a middle-aged, pot-bellied drunk (or lunatic) about 30 feet away. He staggered around in baggy pants and a long-sleeve, grey (formerly white) shirt with rolled-up, uneven sleeves, half a shirt-tail hanging out, waving his arms and raging in gravelly, venomous Italian. No one paid any attention, but I kept my eye on him, worried he’d wobble close to us.
Then a little Italian car drove up and four policemen poured out. I’d already noticed that Italian men are handsome, and these were no exception. Tall and thin, wearing light blue shirts and dark pants, these men looked mighty fine with their olive skin against those blue shirts.
When they approached the drunk, he started yelling at them, shaking his fists in a threatening way like he was going to hit one of them. I put my teacup down. “Oh no,” I said to my daughter. I expected these policemen to slam the drunk to the ground, and he’d hit his head on the pavement and he’d be in a pool of blood while they cuffed him, all four of them pinning him down with knees on his various tender parts. Shots might even be fired. I was ready to bolt.
The four hunks, I mean policemen, formed a circle around him, but a few feet away from him. I waved to our waiter, “Check please!” If we hurried, my daughter and I could duck into the church across the piazza before the bullets started flying.
The drunk lunged at one of the policemen, but to my astonishment he stepped sideways, dodging. The drunk lost his balance and stumbled to his knees. He got up even angrier. He shook his fists and screamed what was probably the Italian version of the “F” word many, many times. He cussed and fumed, lunged and staggered; they dodged and sidestepped, pivoted and turned. I almost thought one of the policemen would call out, “Ole!” Other people having breakfast watched while sipping their espressos, but no one congregated around and no looked afraid, so I relaxed a little. Maybe these fine specimens, I mean policemen, weren’t going to become violent.
Then the drunk reached into his pocket and the pastry in my hand stopped midway to my mouth. “Oh crap,” I said, because I knew what would happen next. The police would think he was going for a gun and they’d shoot him, all four pumping him full of bullets, because that’s what American policemen say when they shoot someone sixteen times. “I thought he was going for his gun.” But these Italian policemen just stood, hands on hips, never talking amongst themselves, never speaking to the man, just watching. He pulled out a set of keys and threw them as hard as he could on the pavement, spewing and punching the air with new vigor. One of the policemen went over and picked up the keys and held on to them. From what I’d observed, Italians only know one driving speed – pedal to the metal. Maybe they’d asked him for his keys so he wouldn’t drive in his condition, or maybe he was so mad he just wanted to throw something.
For at least 20 minutes the police calmly surrounded him, not touching him, not taunting him. They just moved away as he waved his arms and cursed them, patiently keeping him from doing harm to himself or others.
It was time for us to leave for church. As we walked across the piazza to the cathedral, I looked back and saw the man, out of his mind from booze or drugs or mental illness, still ranting, and those four fine looking policemen, patiently serving and protecting.
I have thought about that scene often, and it makes me feel sorry for our police in America. I think some of them behave like bullies because of their uniforms. Most of them have to wear those harsh black shirts and pants and vests and guns and holsters. Maybe the black makes them confuse “serve and protect” with “judge and sentence.” After all, American judges wear black, too. Think about it. If I pitch a fit with the person selling me meat at the grocery store, does he try to harm me? No. Because the meat-counter person is wearing white. But if I argue with an American cop, I could be injured or even killed.
We need to change our police uniforms to a good-guy color. Not white – it shows too much dirt, but I really do like that Italian light blue. And for added insurance, I think during their training they should watch at least two seasons of The Andy Griffith Show on Netflix. Sheriff Taylor treated everyone with patience, dignity and respect, from Otis the town drunk to the assorted bank robbers and criminals who came through Mayberry.
Yeah, yeah, that’s small town TV and this is big city reality crime, so I agree it’s not the same thing. And maybe it’s not just the uniforms – but what logic can explain why our police kill someone in their beds or for some petty crime like selling individual cigarettes. Perhaps they need a refresher course at the Sheriff Andy Taylor School of Humanity, where they’ll be reminded to respect all people, not just the ones whose color they like. It wouldn’t hurt to reinforce that they didn’t sign up to wear black robes. And might as well mention that, according to some old dusty document, we’re all supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
And please, for heaven’s sake, give them good-guy uniforms. Even the khaki that Andy wears would be better. But I sure do like that Italian light blue. Oh my my my.