Police Disturbances

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A couple of days ago, I witnessed a cop patiently trying to deal with a person who was talking gibberish yet demanding attention. The officer told the man that he did not understand a word being uttered, which seemed to agitate the fellow even more. I did not stick around to see the final outcome, but I noticed that the cop was standing his post trying to do his job. Police, or anyone, with patience during encounters like this must be applauded, particularly since in New York City these frequent encounters can test the humanity of the most benevolent among us.

Police behavior is under the microscope these days, notably in light of all the videos showing abusive officers. In the earlier part of the 20th century police were not held to the same behavioral standards as today. Policing meant wielding a billy club as an instrument of enforcement, though not always in the name of the law. By the 1940s police departments started to come under harsher civilian scrutiny and white papers were written advocating more humane procedures. In 1960 The National Association for Mental Health produced the first edition of How to Recognize and Handle Abnormal People, a manual for police on how to identify and behave with every type of “abnormal person” from the mentally ill to civil protesters (see the table of contents).


The authors note that “Handling a mentally disturbed person is not easy. You must do three things at the same time: Protect the public, safeguard your own life, and treat the mentally disturbed as a sick person.” They go on to say that every good police officer is a pretty good judge of human nature, but knowing who is or is not disturbed requires a crash course in this manual. And there are many lessons herein: “Don’t Let Him Get Your Goat,” “Avoid Excitement,” “Take Time to Look the Situation Over,” and more.

Most curious in this 1974 edition is the chapter on “The Sex Offender,” which begins, “Many normal people experiment with unusual types of sexual stimulation, particularly couples who have been married a long time. And they usually do so in the privacy of their home. But if they should be caught in the act, their behavior would be a misdemeanor in some states. … From a medical point of view, those people who may be normal in all respects except sexual behavior are said to have distortion (or perversion). …” It makes for fascinating reading.


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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →