Can Police Departments Evolve?

Yesterday, this quote from Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson appeared in my Twitter feed.

“We are recruiting across our nation’s police forces far too many people who are not there to protect and serve, and preserve the peace — but are there to be the neighborhood bully.”

My first, non-Officer Friendly, police encounter happened when I was 17. I allowed my legal-aged cousin to convince me to go to a bar with her; she had borrowed a friend’s license for me. This was before licenses carried photos, but they did carry signatures. No, I couldn’t recreate the signature. The officer/bouncer took the license. My cousin and I had to confess our misdeed to our fathers, who were brothers.

My Dad got into his fair share of predicaments as a teen. I know this because of a serendipitous moment. My Mother hired someone to re-cut our kitchen cabinets. We started talking with the cabinet maker who asked: Are you related to Tony Ferrara? Somehow I knew, when my mother answered yes, there was a story coming. And what a whopper of a story.

Apparently my father was driving with a car full guys when one of them dared my father, as the story goes, to drive with his feet out the window and someone’s hands over his eyes. For perspective, remember this was a time when cars went .5 miles/hour and there were few cars on the road. My Mother had never heard the story; I couldn’t wait to pry.

My father laughed when we told him. Yes, he admitted, he had done that. He was arrested and his name was on the front page of the Syracuse newspaper! His parents, who didn’t speak English, thought he appeared in that auspicious print location for something honorable. They sent the clipping to relatives in Sicily!

But back to the license and the bar. My father seemed to know everyone in the universe. And so it was, when he and my uncle walked into the bar, they knew the officer/bouncer. They retrieved the license. And, in true fashion, my father and my uncle punished us in a way that was more torturous than most punishments. They never yelled; they never lectured; it was always one question: Did you learn something from this? Oh the guilt feelings! Yes, I hit the Dad jackpot.

As a reporter in Chapel Hill, I often interacted with police officers. They embodied protect and serve. Outside of Chapel Hill, it was a little scarier. There were the officers standing near then-governor James Hunt when an activist group decided to disrupt a news conference. The officers got that steely look and you just sensed their hands were near their guns. More officers came racing from the back of the room and manhandled the protesters out the door.

I did a ride-along with a North Carolina Highway patrol officer one night. It was a relatively quiet ride until the domestic call. We were in the middle of nowhere. The officer parked the car; he removed a rifle from the trunk, and in a stern voice that I can still hear, said: Get under the dashboard and don’t move. Yes, it was scary. He had called for backup, but I felt the fear and terror. What would happen to me if he got shot? The incident, as I remember, ended peacefully.

From Chapel Hill, I went to the nation’s capital. There are more law enforcement departments in Washington, D.C. than most citizens realize. The FBI, the Secret Service, the Capitol police, the DC police department, they are well known. But the Treasury Department has officers who guard embassies. There are Alcohol Tobacco and Firearm agents. Local and county governments have police departments. The universities have police departments. Sometimes chasing a story required more knowledge of police jurisdictions than anything else.

I dated a D.C. police officer for a very short while. Passionate about his police work, but crazy mean. The relationship ended when he told me one night (with great glee, I might add) that he had beaten a teenager with his handheld radio to get him under control.

Washington also has a slew of Public Information Officers (PIOs) to run interference between reporters and agencies. Joe Gentile was the D.C. Police department PIO when I worked there. What a great guy. He was at the ready to help reporters understand the job of law enforcement. Joe and I were doing a ride-along when a homicide call blared through the radio. We arrived to find a woman dead on a bed, and a very nervous man sitting in his living room under the watchful eyes of several officers. The officers told Joe, the Williams brothers are coming to investigate.

Joe laughed, looked at me and said: You’re going to love the Williams brothers. They are the best homicide detectives in the business.

In walked two men; one Black man named Williams, one White man names Williams. They recognized the death as a drug overdose, but the man in the living room wasn’t talking. The Williams brothers tore apart the man’s bedroom looking for evidence. Honestly, I was aghast. When I write tore, I mean dumped dresser drawers; opened the closet pulling everything out. They essentially went through the room like two toddlers looking for a beloved lost teddy bear.

They rolled the body of the deceased and found nothing. And then, they looked under the mattress. There was the evidence–the vial and syringe. And with that, the Williams brothers finished processing the scene and moved on.

There were other incidents involving officers. I helped two D.C. detectives arrest an arsonist who wanted to talk with one of our news anchors. I knew a couple of undercover drug detectives who stopped to talk to me one day on the way to a buy. I barely recognized them; they looked like the quintessential preppies. And they seemingly morphed when the dealer walked by us. I was at the scene of a bombing of an abortion clinic one New Year’s Eve.

Except for small moments here and there, my encounters with law enforcement were always professional. They never reached a point of violence in my presence. I grew to understand how hard their jobs were at any given moment. They had the gallows humor often found in newsrooms, the coping mechanism for people who consistently deal with the dark moments of humanity. Yet, I also knew that, indeed, police officers could run amok and get violent.

In 1983, I started grad school at the University of Maryland-College Park. Until I moved to campus, I commuted from the district. My friends warned me to be careful driving through Prince George’s County. The county abuts DC and many Black residents had left the district and moved into the bordering neighborhoods. I was told by Black friends if stopped by a White P.G. County officer, I could have problems.

Well, it was wasn’t the White P.G. county officer who stopped me, but a Black D.C. police officer with a Black female rookie in the passenger’s seat. D.C. had just passed a law about running yellow lights. I was on my way to College Park and went through a yellow near RFK Stadium. Ugh.

The officer came to the window and reminded me of the new law. I was hoping that would be the end of it. Nope. He chatted me up. Where was I going? When I said College Park, so you’re a student? He asked so many prying questions that a man on a front porch across the street yelled to the officer: Are you writing her a ticket or asking her for a date? Yes, it was the latter. He didn’t write me a ticket; but he wouldn’t let me go until I gave him a phone number. I gave him the number to the graduate office where I received several messages.

I had no idea what to do to end what felt like harassment. I called Joe Gentile.

After explaining what happened, I said to Joe: Tell him we’re dating? Heck you can tell him I am having your baby! Could you just make him stop calling? Joe intervened; probably risking some sort of discipline or whatever, but I told you he was a great guy.

I know my police encounters have not been typical. And I agree with Jeh Johnson’s point; officers have become neighborhood bullies–or maybe we should acknowledge neighborhood bullies in more and more neighborhoods. Black America has told us for seemingly eons that police officers have long been bullies in their neighborhoods.

So why do I think we have seen more police brutality in recent years?

First, the rise of citizen journalists; and, the ability to record encounters at a moment’s notice. There is no longer a need to develop film, or even wait for a television newscast. Everything is accessible, instantly. Secondly, our police departments have become more militarized since 1997, when then President Bill Clinton, under the 1033 program, authorized the transfer of excess military equipment to police departments. In fact, what has been striking for me is seeing the warrior-like appearance of police forces around the country over the last 2-1/2 weeks. And finally, the leadership at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue plays to an audience who loves the brutality and the bullying–that I believe is empowering to many officers.

How do we make change to ensure officers return to the mandate of protect, serve and preserve the peace?

How do we take the revolution to evolution?

One date.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Visual reading Your Vote 2020.

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