The painful spectacle of events in Ferguson, Missouri have once again focused the attention of our country on the issues of race and law enforcement. I’ve been watching, listening and waiting. Waiting because it’s necessary. Speaking out without the facts helps no one, regardless of one’s point of view. In my experience, making a judgment before having all the facts only means that you’re cherry-picking the facts to support your own pre-conceived notions. Sadly, that’s what we do in our society for the most part nowadays. Whether it’s politics, music, or conversations, we only want to engage with people who think just like we do; we don’t want a debate or dialogue—that might require us to think, or <gasp!> see the world through someone else’s lens.
Last night, I attended a candlelight vigil on the fifth anniversary of my friend’s murder. Mike was a police officer doing his job on the streets of Tampa when a seemingly routine encounter suddenly turned violent. At the end, our friend lay bleeding in the street from a gunshot wound to his chest. My wife was the K9 officer who responded to track the suspect, and last night when we arrived for the memorial, she recalled the events, pointing out the way she searched and the yard where she eventually found the shooter hiding in a woodpile. We gathered to remember Mike, and even in our quiet reflection, the events in Ferguson, Missouri were present. Mike’s widow made a simple observation: “I know the public seems very negative right now about what you do, but keep doing your job. Because even those folks want you to respond to keep the criminals from their doors.”
That’s my lens. Ten months after Mike’s murder, another friend of ours stopped a car for an expired registration. The passenger in the car shot our friend and his partner in the head and left them dying in the street. That shooter is in jail as well. Neither suspect was shot. I just wanted to say that because, no, not every officer shoots every person of color they encounter, even in the direst of circumstances. I say that also acknowledging injustices and crimes that have been committed by other officers who don’t deserve to wear the badge, or may even deserve jail time.
After two and a half decades of policing in a large metropolitan city, I’ve seen a great deal. Police officers are not all good or bad. We are products of our environment, just like the citizens we serve. I have learned that communication is the greatest tool we have as we do our job. Beyond the big felony crimes such as murder, robbery, burglaries, or aggravated assaults, all the grey area issues fester. Arguments, loud parties, traffic problems, drunkenness, fist fights, domestic violence. These are the areas we mostly wade through, like a stagnant, muddy pond obscuring what’s brewing beneath its surface, the underlying social issues that society refuses to adequately deal with are dumped at the feet of the street cop. Frustration builds because there is no way to solve poverty and inequality from the seat of a patrol car, yet we are the only face of government most ordinary citizens see.
Dialogue. We need to have conversations in this country about our biases. Plain and simple. We all have prejudices, so there’s no point pretending we don’t. For all of the attention on the details in Ferguson about the unarmed black man, nobody seems to notice the depiction of law enforcement as a whole as a bunch of racist, jack-booted thugs. It’s as offensive to me as the African American honor student who is watched with suspicion in a store. Are some cops racist? Undoubtedly. But so are those who decide that just because the officer was white, he’s a murderer, and we have to have the courage to acknowledge both opposing beliefs.
All sides have to be open to honesty and facts, regardless of the outcome. Events such as these don’t happen in a vacuum. At every point in the timeline a choice is made by each individual that propels them into the confrontation, and even then, choices still dictate the outcome. When the tragedy unfolds and either the unarmed black man or the white police officer is dead, we must have the courage to search for the truth head on, despite our pain. For all of our differences, ironically, the culture of silence and mistrust are our most common traits. Snitching is taboo whether you’re black or wearing blue. Both groups vilify the other for exactly the same thing.
I don’t pretend to have the answers. I only know that we must have the courage to have a conversation or to speak out. All of us need to own our responsibility in solving the larger problems of the community, for we are all part of it. I’ve angered my peers by saying that I believe Trayvon Martin was actually the one standing his ground. I look at my young, bi-racial nephew and worry that could be him in ten years. I also recall stepping out of my patrol car in the projects and smiling at a little brown-skinned girl who waved at me. As I started to bend down to talk to her a man appeared behind her and screamed, “Don’t you ever talk to the police!” The little girl’s face morphed into fear and she ran. His lens of experience filtered out my humanity, reducing me to a perceived abusive cop. The problem was his attempt to prevent that little girl from having a different picture of me.
I said to the man, “You don’t even know me.” He growled, “I don’t have to know you. You’re a fucking cop.”
If the conversation never gets beyond that, we will never bridge the gap.
Thanks for reading~LM