When a bullet came flying through the window of my house years ago, I dialed 9-1-1.
Six shots had been fired in total: one left a dime-sized hole in my window, two more had hit the right side of my truck. The officer who showed up was calm, thorough and informative. It appeared to have been a running gun fight probably from a drug-related beef, he said. He parked his patrol car nearby and stayed in the area for quite a while. It was a scary night and the sight of that patrol car helped me get to sleep.
As I watch events unfold in Ferguson over the past two weeks, I think of a different encounter with police -- this time at the Largo City Hall, when a cop violently attacked me. He didn't like that I was there to support the city manager who was being fired after she was outed as transgender. It was a terrifying and surreal feeling to have my arms twisted behind my back as I was slammed to the ground by a seething, out-of-control cop. It knocked the wind out of me and, with Largo police kneeling on my back, I couldn't catch my breath. I believe two things saved me from greater injury that night -- the flash from a St. Pete Times photographer's camera and a lobby full of people who'd witnessed everything as I was pulled into a more secluded area. I was pinned to the ground unable to breathe and I recall one officer finally intervened. "Get off her. Let her get some air." In the end, the police chief apologized, the City Council apologized and the absurd, bogus charges against me were dropped. But that officer is still on the job and he works right along side officers who privately told me he was a "bull in a china shop" and they do their best to curb his excesses.
So I have a complicated relationship with the police. I have witnessed the casual heroics of police officers and I have seen the cruel humiliation some of them eagerly inflict because they can.
When I was a police beat reporter for the Tampa Tribune I saw police officers reach into their own pockets to buy food for a family with a nearly empty fridge. Some of the best, most honorable and courageous people I know have worn that uniform and they did not hesitate to risk their lives for absolute strangers.
And, I have seen some of the pettiest, got-something-to-prove, bigots and racists I have ever encountered. It may be that police are no better or worse than the communities they serve, that there are as many bad eggs among short order cooks and cable installers. Or it may be that the nature of the profession -- the ability to exercise such control over people and to detain, to arrest and to use force -- has a corrosive effect over time. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and too many police believe their power in any encounter is absolute. What might be annoying in other professions becomes lethal in this one.
So what to do when you depend upon police and you see ample evidence -- anecdotal and empirical -- to fear them especially if your skin is brown.
Here's what I do believe right now.
Bad cops make the job less safe for good cops.
We need to stop the militarization of our police force.
We need dash cams and body cams to provide an objective account for everyone's protection.
We need more community policing.
We need more communication.