Thursday, September 22, 2016

My Police Story

I'm really broken up about this seemingly impossible situation we've got brewing. There's no controversy over the problem - statistic bear out that black people in the US, especially black males, are far more likely to be shot by police, arrested, and convicted of crimes than white fellow citizens. There is a numerical discrimination. That is indisputable.

Of course, there is dispute about how intentional this might be and, sadly, even whether or not things need to change. I find myself uncomfortably on the outside of that conversation. I want to be involved, but I am not black and I am not, in any real way, connected to police officers. In fact, I believe strongly there's no justification for shooting anyone ever - even for cops and soldiers. As much as I'm willing to talk about that view and why I hold it, I don't feel like I really have any place in the discussion of people who's actual lives are on the line and are attempting to delve the murky depths of violence's grey areas.

At the same time, I am a citizen of the United States. I live and love my community - which is no more immune from these problems than any other. I believe each of us needs to be a part of the dialogue, moving forward with grace and trust for one another as week seek to make changes that will matter. I talked about my specific position on this issue in a number of previous posts, including this one - if you want more depth there.

At this point, I feel like maybe it's just important for everyone to hear where everyone else is coming from. So I'm going to take this space to share a few life moments that shaped my understanding of this situation. I am not making any claims or arguments based on these experiences, but telling them as stories. I'm not looking to have some "expert" debunk them for me or invalidate them as real or meaningful. I would be open to questions and dialogue about your experiences and why you see things differently - that's a productive conversation that can help get us closer to where we need to be.

There are three major interactions with police in my life that resonate as formative. In elementary or middle school, we had a police officer come address the class about his job. (This wasn't the DARE program, although I did participate in that as well.) I know he talked a lot about the great variety of things he does, but what stands out is how he took special care to speak to us about his gun - specifically he gave what seems like a lot of detail about how he uses it and ways we can stay safe around police officers. The man outlined the requirements he has to fulfill in order to shoot someone.

Let me set a little background - this is rural Vermont, and it's 25 years ago. The Vermont of my childhood was a largely responsible gun culture - almost everyone had guns and there was no real talk of fear or self-protection that comes along with the gun culture I'm exposed to now. It really was a different time - I'd say "for better or worse," but it was definitely better, at least in that aspect.

He talked specifically about means, motive, and opportunity - I don't think he used those words, but that's what he was explaining. Someone had to have a gun - I remember him specifically saying it couldn't be a knife (unless he was close enough to throw it) - there had to be a weapon with a reasonable chance of harming the officer. There also had to be some reason the officer might suspect the guy would try to harm someone. Then he said something that seemed shocking (and still does), but this is my most clear memory of the event. The office said, "Even if the guy has a gun and wants to shoot me, I can't shoot him unless he points the gun at me."

Now, I'm sure he was trying to simplify the rules of engagement for kids. I'm sure there are more complexities that weren't discussed. It's also very apparent to me now how easy it would be for a lone office to testify to those things with not witnesses; we're much more ready to hear and believe "he had a weapon; I was in danger" especially from an officer. I recognize it's not simple - but that guy believed it. I think that's what stuck with me and allowed me to have such respect for the police for much of my life - the one officer I had close contact with really seemed to believe that these rules were important and was willing to put his own safety, maybe even life, on the line to follow them.

Maybe this guy was wrong. Maybe this isn't true everywhere. Maybe this guy is abnormally committed to the job, to virtue. Regardless, this experience has shaped how I see shootings and police action now. It feels like the cops involved are far less concerned with the life of another than with their own - that cuts against the image of the police I was given at an early age.

The other difficulty comes from the other two formative experiences. I've shared both on the blog at some points, so I'll try to be brief. They're similar. The first happened in Indianapolis during the Church of the Nazarene's 2005 General Assembly - it's a meeting of Nazarenes from around the world that happens every four years. I was working for the denomination's headquarters at the time and thus the event. I was pulling like 18 hour days in the convention center and organizing various events, etc.

After midnight one evening I was tired and hungry and not willing to wait for the line at Steak and Shake, basically the only place in downtown Indy to eat that late. I walked a mile or so towards, let's say a "less touristy" part of town, to White Castle, where I got some food to go. It was late, so I got way more food than I needed, because that's what 24 year-olds do after midnight. On the way back to the hotel, what I presume to be a homeless man fell into step with me. We had a conversation about the convention, my life, his life. At no point did he ever once ask me for something - it felt implied, but only because of the situation, not because of anything he said. It was a genuinely enjoyable conversation, during which we shared some food (I offered).

When we arrived at the hotel parking lot, we were saying goodbye when a police car came flying up, screeching to a halt half in the road and half in the parking lot. The lights were flashing and an officer jumped out, screaming at the man.* He was telling him not to panhandle and screaming about him staying away from the hotels. Real screaming - top of your lungs, profanity-laced rage. The guy was angry.

Because I'm a white male, with the (lack of) experience with police I had, I stepped in between the man and the officer and explained - I know I had to eventually yell, so the cop would calm down and listen - that this man and I had been talking for a while, he wasn't bothering me and had done nothing wrong. Then the police officer began screaming at me, "How can you give these guys money - they're just going to waste it," "this just encourages them," etc. I hadn't actually given the guy anything, but a slider or two at this point, but because of that exchange, I pulled a ten dollar bill from my wallet and exaggeratedly handed it to the homeless man, telling him to get some food at the Steak and Shake, staring at the police officer the whole time.

Eventually the party broke up and I waited on the sidewalk to make sure the cop left and the guy got into the restaurant two blocks down. I know I wouldn't take the same tact anymore, but I was 24, with a lot of righteous indignation, and, surprisingly, defending the defenseless seemed to come pretty natural to me. I don't remember thinking through any of those actions, but I sure thought a lot about them afterwards. That encounter definitively shaped how I see police officers.

As did my third story. About five years later, in Kansas City. I was volunteering every day at the Kansas City Urban Youth Center, working with kids in their after school program. We had a little building we used - next to it was a small side street, followed by an empty lot, and then an old church, which we also sometimes used. One afternoon - like 3:00 or 3:30, in broad daylight - I was walking with a group of guys, maybe 5 or 6 of them, middle schoolers - 5th through 8th grade. We were walking the 200 yards from the center to the church. We'd made it to the side street. Literally twenty feet from the building, when a police car pulled over on the side of the road.

I don't know if the office didn't see me or didn't care, but he saw five or six black teenagers walking together and he got out. The kids were immediately apprehensive, looking around, nervous. I was still pretty oblivious, you know, since we were an after school program, helping these kids get an education, learn life skills, be productive members of society - all that jazz - plus we were walking, in broad daylight, 200 yards down a sidewalk.

My Indy experience kicked in, though, pretty quick, so only a few words came out of the officer's mouth before I stepped up and into the middle. They were suspicious, disrespectful words, demeaning to these kids that I loved and cared about - exemplifying the very types of things we were hoping to convince them weren't actually the way most of the world worked. We moved away shortly after this incident, so I don't know exactly the lasting effects of that encounter on those boys, but I know one negative interaction like that can undo a whole host of positive ones.

This is just my life. These are experiences I lived. They shaped me. This is why I tend to hold police officers to a high standard and also why I don't ever expect them to meet that standard. Every cop who's ever pulled me over has been nice and polite; I've been the same to them. Every cop I know in personal life and interact with off the job is generally kind and considerate. Some of them have been quite jaded by the work they do and could probably use more support, but none of them are bad people.

At the same time, I'm nervous whenever I see a police officer; it puts me on edge. I think largely because, in our culture, police can often do just about anything that want and we're hesitant to hold them accountable. Of course, I also know they're asked to do a near impossible job with limited resources and without the kind of support necessary to remain healthy in the midst of it.

I don't know exactly what to do about it, but I do think sitting down and hearing one another's stories is vitally important. Again, not questioning them or disputing them or making excuses (either for cops or the people they interact with), but just listening and seeking to understand the mind, life, and experience of another person - and taking action where we can.

That's how we get through this. I don't think there's any other way.

*I later found out that earlier in the day, the Indy police had pulled up a paddy-wagon outside the convention center, rounded up the homeless from the city center and dumped them several miles out of town so us convention goers wouldn't see them - I guess this cop was made this guy had wandered back or missed the sweep. There's a whole lot wrong with that scenario, on many levels, but regardless, it doesn't excuse the policeman's behavior.

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