Thursday, December 4, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson, Staten Island, and Police Brutality from an Officer's Child

When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I assumed that something must have happened to cause Officer Wilson to use lethal force. I knew what it would take for the law enforcement officers I knew to pull a trigger. They would have to be in danger of losing their lives. Now I am not so sure what happened in Ferguson. I don't know how a police officer telling two young men not to jay walk turned into deadly use of force. The documents don't make sense to me. Something is not right.

Then Eric Garner was choked to death by an officer in Staten Island, and I don't know how that happened either.  I don't get it. That should never have happened. If the police were arresting him, then all they needed was to put handcuffs on, and if he was resistant, there are ways to get him into the back of a patrol car that don't result in death.

I have been listening a lot to my black colleagues and classmates recently.  Listening, but not saying much, because it's hard for me to take it all in.  It's hard to figure it out.  It's not the picture I have in my mind of the police force and I grieve what I am hearing and learning from my colleagues.

My father was a police officer in small towns for years. When I think of a white police officer, I naturally think of Dad coming home at the end of the day in his uniform.  When I was 10, he became a probation/parole officer at a men's residential facility, and he proudly talks about helping men to examine their lives, to take actions to avoid years in prison and to live successful lives. When he runs into former clients, he is usually greeted with a smile and a handshake.

I have grown up for years hearing stories about Dad's law enforcement friends, people like the officer who refused to put tickets on the cars left in front of the bars at night because he wasn't going to penalize people recognized that they couldn't drive and found other ways home.

Recently I married a former police officer, and he boasts of how he had the lowest use of force rate while he was on the force. He always tried to talk to people and did everything he could to resolve situations without using force.

These are my images of the police force, and these are the images that I want to be the norm for every person residing in the United States. Sadly, more and more I am learning that my image is not the norm, especially for people of color, and that is not okay with me. I don't want people to be afraid of the police, I don't want to see them as enemies or as brutal people, I want them to see people like my father and my husband and the thousands of other wonderful people who are and have been law enforcement agents in the United States.

To change the image, we need justice. We need people standing up and saying this is not okay.   It is not okay to shoot a man for questionable reasons and leave his body laying in the street for four hours. It is not okay to choke a man until he dies.  It is not okay to let the questionable and corrupt actions of some law enforcement officers slide. Not only do these actions deny the value of the lives of black people, but these officers are not living out their duty to protect and serve the people in their communities.  It is not okay for them to get away with not doing their job. We cannot let that slide.

My father is currently on the Citizens' Police Review Board in his community. It is a group of citizens assigned to examine complaints against police officers in their community and to make recommendations about what actions should be taken. It is a way that the community can hold the police force accountable.  Though the board has no direct say on what happens to police officers who fail to protect and serve, they can be a voice against corruption. I want a Citizen's Police Review Board in every city across the United States. I want the board's demographics to reflect those of the community the board represents, and I want their voices to matter when it comes to reprimanding officers or taking cases against them to trial.

Perhaps it is also time to ensure that those who examine cases brought against police officers are not connected to the police department or the community those officers serve. We need impartial people reviewing the actions of police officers and deciding what actions need to be taken. The grand jury system doesn't appear to be working, and we perhaps need a different way of reviewing cases against our law enforcement officials.

Most importantly though, we need to connect the police force back to the community. We need to focus on training officers who can not only enforce the law, but also serve the people. I want law enforcement officers on the streets who genuinely care about the people they protect.
Ideally, they should be from the community itself and reflect the community's demographics.

I don't want to live in a world where people put up their hands in a gesture to say "Don't shoot".  I don't want to live in a country where people of color are afraid of the police.  I want a police force like the one I learned about growing up. I want men and women who are passionate about protecting and serving their communities patrolling the streets and I want officers who use force in inappropriate ways to be reprimanded accordingly. I want communities to be invested in their officers and officers invested in their communities.

This is not a lofty goal, but it takes commitment. We have to take seriously the critiques of persons of color against police officers and train our police force so they can serve all the people in their communities, not just the ones that look like them. We have to take seriously the actions of officers who use their force in inappropriate ways, especially when their use of force results in death.  We cannot stand for corruption within our police force and law enforcement system.  We have to commit to improving it. I want the primary image of a police officer in every community to be that of every wonderful and dedicated officer who puts their life on the line to protect and serve their community. I want them to imagine people like my husband and my dad.