In reflection over the response to the grand jury decisions acquitting Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson which led to an onslaught of protests, a litany of tweets, and blog posts (including mine) with commentary questioning the justice of these decisions I have heard people confused, not understanding why and not knowing what they can do or how they can initiate change. Let your voice be heard. This is activism. Speak out, with an opinion, with a perspective, and with hope the voice of many will peacefully bring forth understanding, awareness, and change.
Why have we come to a time where the police are often seen as intimidating, authoritative figures separate from the communities where they serve and live? Rather than a division of people against police, in which both police and the citizens are on guard, can we rebuild trust? Aggression begets aggression. Trust begets trust. Rather than enforcing an armed wall against protesters, why not invite the people to a civilized discussion? Rather than angrily protesting, posing a threat to the community, why not calmly bring your discussion to a forum? I'd like to see police initiate town hall meetings where they present a panel of police officers and civic leaders, inviting the local populace to attend and discuss. Is this credulous and an altruistic ideal? The police are critical members of our communities in which they live and work. Change starts with dialogue.
They are called peace officers. Yet, why do they illicit feelings of ill ease, tension, power play, or actually confrontation?
I'd like to share two personal stories of my interactions with police.
I often cycle on a quiet, one-lane residential street that is mostly a well-ridden bike lane. There are stop signs at intersections to keep motorists from using this neighborhood side street to bypass traffic on the busier, adjacent two-lane road. Routinely, cyclists do not stop at the stop signs -- some may slow down rather than speeding through them, as I did recently. Regrettably.
Passing through this lane, I was overtaken -- more precisely, cut off -- by a police car with flashing lights. I thought to myself, "Whoa, this is aggressive enforcement for a cyclist stop-sign violation." I abruptly braked, clipped out of my pedals, anticipating my lecture on bike safety. Instead, the police officer stepped out of his vehicle, shut his car door without even glancing in my direction, and went off at a waddling pace holding a gun in his hand. I don't mean touching his holster, where his gun should have been. I mean he was wielding a gun in the air as he ambled toward the white picket fence in front of his parked vehicle. There he stopped and looked intently, rather nervously, at the house.
I realized then that my stop-sign infraction was not his objective. And as comical as the scene might be to recall -- chubby cop, waddling like a toddler toting his weapon -- it really did concern me. If he believed there was imminent danger, his first action should have been to warn me to stay back from a potentially dangerous situation. I feared for any cat that might cross that yard -- the officer appeared ready to shoot at anything.
As I cycled away, I could feel the entire scene had frightened me. I considered returning to get the officer's information and report him, but then the thought of reporting a police officer frightened me even more, the prospect that I could be targeted as a troublemaker. Feeling bothered, I quickly pedaled home.
I am not writing this to ignite more fury against police officers. It is one encounter with one cop. In the larger scheme, I deeply respect the risks that police are willing to face in the line of duty to maintain order in our communities. I surmise they hold one of society's most stressful jobs. No, I would not prefer to live in a lawless society. I have never been faced with a dangerous, life-threatening experience, and if it were to happen to me, I would like to know the police were there to protect me.
To get a wider perspective, I did a Google search for how many officers die in the line of duty and how many suspects are killed in police pursuit annually. Finding no reports, I inquired from a friend, a magistrate judge, who provided a precise list of officer fatalities, but could not find a good source for suspects who have died while in pursuit by officers. These two links offer some statistics, here and here.
Police are intended, ultimately, to make us feel calm and safe. They are public servants paid with our tax dollars to ensure peace within a community. But why is it that when I ask anyone, of any age, "How do you feel when you encounter a cop?" they all admit to feeling guilty or nervous. Is it naive to expect a feeling of safeness?
It is not that I long for the days of Mayberry R.F.D., a fictional time when life was simple and the sheriff never carried a gun. But I would like to see and read more heartwarming stories where the officer of the peace maintains a calm, friendly vibe.
Not too long ago, I was traveling in Jamaica with my son. We hired a driver to take us to the rural, "road-less-traveled" side of the island to visit seaside villages and local farmers markets. Our driver wanted to take us to his favorite restaurant in Port Antonio. Unfortunately, all the vegetables were in the markets and there was nothing on the menu for me, a vegetarian, to eat. We decided to drive further along the highway to Boston Bay, known for the best jerk chicken on the island. Our driver, worrying we wouldn't find any fresh plantains, yams, or ackee, waved down a police car to ask the officers if they knew of any restaurant where we might find both jerk chicken and vegetarian cuisine. The officers chatted amongst themselves, made a call, and sent us on our way.
Apparently, they'd phoned their favorite jerk chicken spot to inquire if the cook could prepare a meal for me. When we arrived the restaurant knew who we were (the only tourists) and we didn't even need menus. They prepared our lunch, and it was delicious! Later, the two officers stopped by to see how we liked our lunch. With Flavor, Police Officers Assist Tourists in a Delectable Lunch. Wouldn't it be nice to read more headlines like this? True, they provided an unforgettable experience and a happy tummy. More importantly, I'll remember their "Yah mon" calm.
I would like to read more journalistic reports akin to my Jamaican story. I know there are many where police lent a helping hand without aggression or violence. We can reframe our perspective on police officers. The media can illuminate stories of police officers aiding and abiding citizens in a positive manner. I know they exist and are newsworthy.
Mostly, I'd like to see an end to hashtags reading "shootthepolice" or a need to assert that "blacklivesmatter" -- we are in a time when we know ALL LIVES MATTER.