My dad spent almost three decades as a cop.
I grew up feeling part of the police family. My mom founded the local Fraternal Order of Police Ladies Auxiliary chapter, back when women supported their husbands as cops instead of joining the force themselves. The sound of a police radio is as familiar to me as the smell of a summer barbecue, since Dad would put his radio in front of him on the dining room table when he came home for a quick dinner, hoping he wouldn’t get called to a crime scene or car crash before he finished eating. My dad proudly showed me around the police department, where his colleagues would show me how the lights of a patrol car worked or how they handled emergency calls in dispatch, and he invited a police dog trainer to our house to show off what a highly trained German Shepherd does.
As a result, I always felt confident and comfortable that if I was in any danger, my best plan was to find an officer in uniform.
It would be many years before I fully realized that wasn’t everyone’s experience, learning the phrase “driving while black,” and about racial profiling, for example.
Then the arrival of dashcams and smartphones would show me instance after instance of police violence against black people. The names Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray entered the lexicon, and began to blur together with dozens of others in part of an all-too-common trend.
My heart aches with each new death. I feel each one deeply, personally, because I feel a part of the police family. How would you feel if your sibling killed someone?
Police have killed at least 148 black people in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Guardian’s The Counted project. A tally from the The Washington Post says 131 black people killed. The Killed by Police database lists 641 people who have died at the hands of police this year.
To compare, Officer Down lists 68 law enforcement deaths in the line of duty so far this year. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund shows 67 deaths this year. Officer.com doesn’t provide a count, but does offer a collection of stories about cops who died on duty, from those who had a heart attack on shift to those hit by drunk drivers to those shot.
Every time my dad went to work, I understood he might not come home. But no matter which numbers you believe, cops have killed about twice as many black people than the number of cops who have died on duty this year.
I have heard the theory that everyone does what he or she thinks is right — most people do what they feel is necessary to protect themselves or make their community better or whatever else motivates them. Whether that’s spanking your child or giving flowers to your mother or shooting an intruder, you very likely believe what you are doing is justified.
So maybe cops who have killed black civilians believed they were doing what they had to do, to protect themselves and their communities? Do their peers agree?
Police officers swear an oath to protect and serve. It’s a beautiful pledge that speaks to a noble calling, and I believe in my heart that most cops really feel this:
On my honor,
I will never betray my badge,
my integrity, my character,
or the public trust.
I will always have
the courage to hold myself
and others accountable for our actions.
I will always uphold the constitution
my community and the agency I serve.
What if the cops who believe it’s not right to kill a man who’s not threatening their lives read that line “I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions,” and lead a change from inside? Could they call for better hiring practices so hostile, violent people don’t get a badge, better training to ensure cops feel well prepared to subdue and arrest someone with the least amount of force possible, and better oversight to ensure any officer who harms a civilian is held accountable if it proves excessive?
What if all those good cops and their families speak out against abuses, like Nakia Jones, a police officer in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio?
It’s a brave move. The phrase “thin blue line” refers to the tight-knit community of police officers, and to speak out against one of your own can be seen as a betrayal — potentially of the very person you need to come to your defense in a life-or-death situation.
Maybe rooting out rogue cops is also an action of self-defense?
The more hostile the relationship between law enforcement and the black community gets, the more I fear danger for everyone. If black citizens are afraid to call 911 or assist a police investigation, criminals in their communities can operate unchecked. If the police do get involved, they probably arrive wary, knowing they’re unwelcome.
Cops have been killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge in recent mass shootings. I was afraid of my dad going to work as a kid, but I would be terrified now, worried he might die in retaliation for what another cop did.
Dr. Brian Williams treated the police officers who were shot in Dallas. In a press conference, he said, “I want Dallas police also to see me, a black man, and understand that I support you, I will defend you and I will care for you. That doesn’t mean that I do not fear you.”
If anyone believes that no law-abiding citizen has any reason to fear police, or that the only people hurt by cops are criminals who brought it on themselves, listen to the pained voice of this doctor describing his feelings as a black man.
This is where we are as a country today. This is a complicated problem. I’ve started and stopped this blog post for weeks because I don’t for a second pretend to know first-hand what it’s like to work as a cop in a country with a high per-capita rate of shooting deaths, nor what it’s like to live in the U.S. as an African-American, with issues of race and class tangled up in our long, ugly history of racism.
The police uniform has always signaled authority to me. And like a teacher or parent, I believe being in authority means keeping a cool head in difficult situations and not responding to anger or disrespect or even physical threats in kind but instead setting the tone for the kind of interaction you expect. I have watched cops calmly de-escalate tense situations with hostile suspects and I’ve been so impressed with their ability to let anger bounce off them. I know it’s not easy but I know it’s possible. I have seen it.
Maybe a first step is empathy. I am absolutely certain it’s hard to be a police officer and it’s hard to be black in America, so maybe those two groups can find compassion?
Black country music singer Coffey Anderson drew criticism for a video he made suggesting how black drivers should behave when pulled over by police. But the thing he says that I loved is that the driver and the cop have a shared goal of going home safe. That idea that you might have something in common, instead of being adversaries, is powerful.
Race is a fraught issue in the U.S. and it’s hard to have the overdue conversations without fear of offending someone or appearing racist. I’m neither black nor a cop and I’ve felt hyper aware of every word coming out of my mouth for months.
But it’s time for all the good cops to ask tough questions, of themselves and their colleagues, even if it’s difficult. Especially because it’s difficult. Are we OK with pulling over black drivers more often? What’s causing the skyrocketing incarceration rates of black men? How can we begin to ease racial tensions? Do I act from race biases I’m not even aware of? After spending my work days interacting with people at their worst, how do I counteract the natural tendency to see everyone as a suspect?
If you are a police officer and you’ve stuck with me this far, with all love and respect, I ask this of you:
I grew up believing you would keep me safe and that we should trust the cop in that blue uniform. I saw the badge as meaning your utmost goal was to protect everyone from harm. I grew up proud to be part of the police family because I believed you were the good guys.
Please show the world I was right.