I respect cops—but I’m still afraid of them

Over the last few weeks, people have asked me for my thoughts on what is currently happening in Ferguson, Mo. I can honestly say I am torn in my feelings. On the one hand, I understand “don’t commit a crime,” “don’t fight with the police,” “obey the police officer’s commands,” and so forth. I have the utmost respect for law enforcement. Full disclosure—for many years I had plans to have a career in law enforcement on both state and federal levels. Many of my closest friends and family are current or retired law enforcement professionals.

On the other hand, I understand the frustrations of the people in Ferguson. I understand the firing of your pistol in self defense while being attacked in your vehicle; but the further firing when your life is no longer in imminent danger puzzles me. Like I said, I am torn.

The ruling that came down in New York is a different matter. When someone can utilize a maneuver that is strictly forbidden in training and procedure and kill someone with it, that is a problem. But even still, that is not what has me frustrated. What does is the apparent lack of compassion to check on him once he was subdued; to allow him to suffocate to death is unconscionable. The motto of most police forces is “protect and serve”—once you have him in custody, you have protected the community. Criminal or not, it is still your responsibility to ensure the safety and well being of all citizens, including those under arrest.

This is where my frustration comes into play. We are all taught to respect the police. The problem arises when you respect them, but don’t trust them, and you don’t trust them because they don’t seem to respect you or your humanity.

Those who knew me when I was growing up know I am about as far from a “thug” as you will ever see. Even during my “militant Afro-centric rebellious” phase, I was more apt to dress like Dwayne Wayne than Ice Cube. I would listen to KRS-One more so than NWA. I was a non-threatening, preppy kid going to one of the most prestigious high schools in the state. Yet, I was still stopped multiple times by police officers, including an incident where I was pulled over in my own driveway and accused of not living there (needless to say, my parents were not happy about that).

All through college, the most dangerous thing I did was drive my car in excess of the speed limit on occasion. Still, whenever something happened that involved a police officer showing up, I was always the one getting the accusing stare. One incident in particular, I remember vividly to this day. Two of my closest friends (one is Italian and the other Irish) and I were doing our weekly post-club ritual of going to the diner after the club closed. We sat down in our normal booth and ordered. After we ordered, two very drunk non-minority males entered the diner and proceeded to harass the waitress as well as other people at the diner. My friends tried to intervene, to at the very least get their attention off the other patrons so the drunks would leave them alone. I stuck in the booth, drinking a milkshake (it was very good, I might add).

Any time they tried to drag me into the conflict I would just look at them and remain perfectly silent. Eventually, the local police were called, and I was the first person they made a beeline for, stating that I needed to leave for causing a disturbance. No questioning of the the patrons or staff, just the assumption that I was the issue. The waitress and the owner quickly told them that I was not the problem but the other two were. Flash forward to later in (and after) college, when I have been pulled over for “fitting the description of” too many times to count. This has occurred in every vehicle I have ever owned from an RX-7 to a beat up Saab 900, to a Ford escort, to a Pontiac Grand Am and both of my Santa Fes.

This is why people are so angry and frustrated. It isn’t just these two cases, it is an ongoing series of little incidents that have built up over time. I have probably done fewer “bad” things than the majority of my friends in law enforcement. I have never done any type of drug, I don’t smoke, and I rarely drink (haven’t actually been drunk in over 12 years). Even when I partied or clubbed I was always the sober one. But to this day, at 40 years old, I feel like a kid about to get yelled at every time a police car pulls behind my “incredibly threatening” Santa Fe. There are certain towns where driving through without seeing a police officer merits a sigh of relief.

The frustration people feel lies not in the fact that Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed, the frustration lies in what seems to be a systematic assumption of guilt applied to men of color. Not just black—I’m talking about all men of color: Hispanic, Asian, and Native American included. This is a discussion I used to have with my father all the time, but we never really hashed out a solution to it. We were sounding boards to each other rather than problem solvers. I am by no means justifying rioting of any type; that is just dumb. What I am saying is that the anger and frustration is justified. But instead of “burning this muther down,” how about we take the time and actually talk to each other? Find out why there seems to be an inherent fear and do something about eliminating that?

Until we can have that conversation, this is going to continue to happen over and over again.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on the Good Men Project and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via West Midlands Police/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)