Ferguson and painful truths

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

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7 thoughts on “Ferguson and painful truths

  1. Thank you, Lynette Mae.
    For this blog and for your service to our country.
    I respect our men and women in uniform, in the military and especially in public service as a police officer.
    People sometimes forget that police officers are more than their uniforms and that they are all are human.
    I understand this from a different perspective and we all do have our perspectives, individually.
    We see people at their worst and are expected, and rightly so, to take that into consideration as we do our jobs everyday.
    Yet it’s impossible and dangerous, to forget our life experiences. Our in the job experiences teach us lessons that are impossible to learn in a classroom.
    When you’ve been kicked, punched, spit on, puked on, screamed obscenities at and in the case of some police officers shot or at least shot at to be asked to forget those experiences would be dangerous and counterproductive. Although how an individual processes those experiences is vital to their ability to do their jobs well it is also seen as a weakness if they need assistance processing all those experiences.
    Communication and openness are our best tools and as a society and as a nation we need to all come together to solve or at least decrease these tragic events.
    Again, thanks Lynette Mae !
    Your words struck a sincere note with me this morning !

    • Thanks, Jaynes. I hope we can begin to have more of these discussions because that’s the only way forward. I truly do appreciate that people of color feel targeted by law enforcement, but except for the few bad cops (who I agree should be weeded out), the reason for the disparity appearance has much more to do with economics and the resulting issues in society. I happen to know that the good people living in the projects or other poor neighborhoods want the police there to keep a lid on the criminal element that preys on them daily. I spent my career trying to keep the innocent safe, regardless of race. Thanks for stopping by and for the good work you do.

  2. Well written and well-said, my friend. And oh, so very true. Would that everyone saw things as you do, we’d have far fewer Ferguson’s on our hands and hearts.

    • Thanks, Lynn. I’m only one of a majority of law enforcement professionals who fight the good fight, or at least try. Even though Sandy and I just retired, I’ll always be a cop in my heart and I want to live in a better world. Be the change you wish to see, right? Take care my friend.

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