King holiday still fights for respect

I’m old enough to remember when the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin L. King, Jr became law. In September, 1989, after a couple of years of debate and rejections, the Tampa City Council finally approved a measure to rename Buffalo Avenue as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr Drive. Controversy around the name change was fierce, but time has a way of blurring details and obscuring facts. As I perused a Google search this week, much of the explanations focused on objections from businesses and concerned citizens as to the cost of new street signs and business stationery.

Oh, but I remember those days.

article_3_hires_rm_corbisIn 1989-90, during my first year as a police officer, the debate raged. I distinctly recall how many of my colleagues stated emphatically their refusal to say Martin L. King. Many used it as a badge of honor, purposely putting themselves out on calls along the road just to say Buffalo with emphasis, and some dispatchers gave calls out in the same fashion. In contrast, African American officers and dispatchers said the name of the street with pride evident in their voices.

By 1992, I bought my first home in a suburb east of the city and I traveled sections of Martin L. King Jr. Blvd on my trip to and from work. Many residents east of the city limits continued to refer to the street as 574, the state route number, and for years it was commonplace to see the street signs vandalized or missing as I drove around. My friends with the sheriff’s office acknowledged that many in their agency used 574 instead of Martin L. King Jr Blvd.

Sometimes I heard the excuse that Buffalo or 574 is just shorter and easier to say, particularly on a police radio. Fair enough. But, other streets in the city have long names that were shortened for expediency, while maintaining the reference to the honoree. John F. Kennedy Blvd is a prime example. It’s commonly called Kennedy. Those of us who simply wanted a shortcut did almost immediately start calling Martin L. King Jr Blvd, MLK for short. That, at least, didn’t feel like a refusal to acknowledge the name.

Obviously, my co-workers didn’t have a financial beef with the street name change. It was defiance to the idea of honoring Dr. King—defiance to honoring a black civil rights leader. To my recollection, nobody in police leadership ever made it clear that Buffalo was unacceptable. The stark divide played out every shift and went on for years, fading eventually as most grew accustomed to the name, leaving only diehards still holding out, their bigotry refusing to yield. I wonder how that felt to my African American brothers and sisters in blue or to citizens of color who may have heard them.

When I hear people say that issues of race were settled long ago, that slavery and Jim Crow are ancient history, and they personally treat everyone equally, as a way of dismissing the frustrations of African American citizens, I think of the examples of subtle bigotry like the streets dedicated to our greatest civil rights leader. Acronyms with racial undertones for learning streets in public housing. Endless slurs directed at the President and First Lady with primate references. Ugly social media posts, unabashedly racist. These experiences are certainly not ancient history, nor are they uncommon. They are the realities of daily human interaction where bigotry lives if not refuted.

So, this year, in the wake of a contentious political season that openly challenged political correctness, ignored open shows of racist behavior, yanked the lid off a simmering anger by all sides who feel they are not being heard, I’m imploring us all to look inside. We can do better in addressing bias. More whites than blacks say that our government policies and laws treat both races equally, but once again reality casts doubt on the way race truly plays out, often in less obvious ways (at least to whites). Facts about the MLK holiday provide a useful example.

In 1983, President Reagan signed the MLK bill into law after 15 years of Dr. King’s supporters fighting for passage following his murder. Did you know the last state to fully ratify the King holiday was not until 1999? Again, not ancient history. If that’s not bad enough, the saddest facts of all are that four states, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, to this day, recognize the date in conjunction with Confederate heroes such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. What does that say to African Americans in those states when the day is called Robert E. Lee/Martin L. King Day? Or to see the rise of white nationalists and hate crimes in the wake of this last election? Our fellow citizens of color must interpret our deafening silence and refusal to call it out as tacit support or at best, indifference.

Martin Luther King spoke extensively about moral justice. His was a movement of nonviolence, which also spoke truth to power in order to shine a light on injustices of race, social justice and poverty. His legacy has never been more important than in our current national discord and rupture along fault lines of party, class, race, or religion. Dr. King called us to live up to the ideals of our founders and strive to overcome our differences in the name of justice for all. We have opportunities each day to reject the small-minded slurs and hard hearts of bigotry if we summon the courage to stand up. Hate in any form has no place in our world. The change must first come from our hearts.

This was the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King.

 

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Runaway Bandwagon

I had a talk recently with a good friend that weighs heavily on me. My friend is a cop. She is honest, dedicated, and brave. So, when she told me that the current climate of ant-law enforcement has her wondering about her career, I was stunned. I wondered how many other really good cops are so beaten down by today’s messages—and yes, hateful climate—that they are second-guessing the job they’ve been called to do. That makes my heart hurt.

I want to have honest conversations, but we can’t until we regain a bit of balance. The rhetoric has reached such a fever pitch that it seems impossible for reasoned dialogue right now. The police-are-evil bandwagon is going to run over us all if we’re not careful. Those of you blindly forwarding inflammatory posts by so-called journalists who have their facts wrong, or quoting so-called witnesses that flat out lie are throwing gasoline on the fire. And it has to stop. I’m sick of hearing the cop bashing without considering all sides. How is it that we cannot see that judging an officer by virtue of his profession is no different than judging citizens by skin color? How is tearing at the fabric of legitimate policing beneficial to our community? For those in law enforcement: How can you not see that purging our bad apples is one way to regain some community support? We must be willing to listen to different perspectives if we are ever going to make any difference.

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Here’s what I know after 25 years of policing. For every cop who does something wrong, there are thousands who are doing good. For every arrestee who is shot, there are hundreds of thousands who are arrested without incident, even after some attempt to injure or kill the arresting officers. Recently, I’ve read many articles making light of the threats officers face in their daily work. We hear about one officer shot on a traffic stop, but not the thousands of other daily incidents where officers are attacked and thankfully survive due to their training or better equipment. In 2013, FBI statistics show 49,851 officers were assaulted on duty. Imagine that you might be randomly attacked physically or with some weapon every time you step out of your car or knock on your neighbor’s door. How might you respond to the world differently if that was a constant possibility?

People are outraged when police officers shoot a person—especially a child—who is armed with a toy gun. Killing a person is not easy for a cop, and shooting a child is horrific. Let’s set that record straight. It is tragic. No cop is celebrating. But instead of piling on the critique in your holier-than-thou fashion from your living room couch, let’s talk about why even the most basic, common sense laws can’t be passed that might help prevent such a tragedy. By illustrating the reality, maybe you can see what an officer is up against.

Which one is real?
Which one is real?

Quick! If someone points one of these at you, tell me inside of 5 seconds, in the dark, under stress. Which one is real? Impossible to tell. What do you do? No citizen, not even a cop, is required to wait until the lead flies out of the muzzle before defending themselves. No one.

Today, Congress finally passed a piece of legislation. A bill requiring that all law enforcement agencies catalog police shootings. My former department already does, but a standardized national system would be good. But listen folks, a database isn’t going to address the real issues. Most police agencies put cops in the areas of statistically higher crime. That, unfortunately, is currently in the poorer neighborhoods, which also unfortunately have higher populations of people of color. THAT is what puts police into contact with higher numbers of minorities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 31.4 million citizens called for police service in 2011. They go where they are called. But it’s far easier to bash the police and pass a bullshit bill, than to tackle meaningful gun legislation or to work on real ideas to reduce poverty or crime in poor neighborhoods.

Most people don’t interact with the police unless something has gone terribly wrong in their lives, and officers carry the weight of witnessing the horrific things that humans do to one another. I still get choked up when I think about the little girl who was beaten for twenty minutes straight by her mother’s boyfriend because she cried when he tried to shove a cookie in her mouth. I still see the man shot in the head at a robbery where the suspect got fifteen dollars. I recall the child I pulled from the river and gave CPR until I handed him over to paramedics. I cried when I learned he died at the ER. I’ve watched my fellow officers’ blood pool on the street and attended the funeral of too many friends, black and white wearing blue. Officers have these kinds of memories and many worse. Those invisible wounds never heal. Still, when someone is kicking in your door, stealing your purse, or robbing your bank, and you duck behind the counter to dial 9-1-1, the police officer runs forward, toward the threat. Be thankful they do.

There are endless reports detailing the economic disparities that exist between White and Black Americans. Cops don’t need reports to know this. They work in the most challenged neighborhoods of every city in this country. Ask a street cop about the link between poverty and crime and they’ll tell you: “If a person feels no hope, they have no self-respect. If they can’t respect themselves, then how can we expect them to respect the police or anyone else?” The citizens in those neighborhoods know they need the police. In fact, those neighborhoods generally represent the vast majority of the calls for police service. A citizen calls about a group of kids hanging on a specific corner, which they know frequently escalates into violence, and the zone officer responds. Once the officer arrives, the details related by that citizen caller, combined with the actions of the individuals he’s approaching is what dictates his/her response. If the caller has mentioned anything about violence or weapons, certainly the officer will take steps to lessen the threat to himself and others around him. Wouldn’t you?

NY mayor DeBlasio jumped on the bandwagon to speak about how he worries that his own biracial son might become victimized in a conflict with a cop. I’ve spoken to friends about my own biracial nephew, and my fears. My fears are that some out of control neighborhood vigilante like George Zimmerman might stalk and harm him, or that an over-zealous store security person will target him, but do I fear his contact with real, professional police? No. And do you know why? Because the real statistics tell us that only 1% of police interactions involve uses of force and 92% of all force used is not excessive. Perceptions are very different, mostly due to biases. Questionable statistics that combine shootings of black males with “armed vigilantes” and security guards, equating them with professional police officers, is both dangerously incendiary and offensive to police officers. My sister and her black husband don’t tell their son that the police are his enemy and will mistreat him just because of his skin color. I know lots of people aren’t going to like that assessment, but if you’re going to say police training makes them predisposed to racial fears and biases, then you also have to acknowledge what happens when young black children are told from day one that the police will harm them. Both of these examples of perpetuating bias factor equally into the sad state of affairs today. The anti-police rhetoric, made worse by public officials condemning “the police” in tragically sweeping terms, have kept the anger bubbling, and now college professors are hurling rocks and garbage at police officers doing nothing but escorting peaceful protesters. We’ve officially spun out of control folks.

So, please, instead of throwing stones at the profession, remember that the police are human, just like you. If one does wrong, then they should face the consequences. No question. I am open to discussions about specific reforms or improvements in community relations. Bring on the bodycams. I believe they will prove the vast majority of cops are doing a great job. But I can’t abide the continued irresponsible rhetoric. Just like most of folks in minority neighborhoods are good, hardworking folks, the majority of cops who wear the uniform are good people who do their job with honorable intent. Let’s take a breath and have an adult conversation instead of hurling insults and twisting statistics.

Reaching out makes a difference
Reaching out makes a difference

I thank every man and woman who still dons a uniform to serve their community, even while the storm of hatred swirls around them. Continue to do good. Know that you are needed in these times of unrest and mistrust. Your example shines as a beacon of hope to citizens everywhere. Our most vulnerable, law-abiding citizens want you in their neighborhoods. Do we really want the good cops to leave because they fear there is no longer support for the dangerous and difficult work they do? Let’s stop this harmful rhetoric before it’s too late. The absence of professional policing is something none of us should want to contemplate.

~Peace, LM