Less than an hour after my last column “Improving Police & Community Relations” was published my phone rang. It was Riverside’s Chief of Police Sergio Diaz who had just finished reading it and wanted to talk about the issues that had been brought up. From what I know of him, Chief Diaz is a compassionate person and a strong and committed leader. I was left with the impression that he is a pragmatist, but someone, I believe, who is a change agent and who doesn’t believe that we have to be bound by our past.
Shortly after that I received a text from Dr. Daniel Walker: “I like the piece you sent about Alex and the police. Policing has to change,” he said, “from an over militarized emphasis on law enforcement to a servant-centered humanistic vocation emphasizing the ‘peace’ officer role in partnership with communities.” Daniel also happens to be Alexander’s godfather.
Later in the week I had lunch with my friend Craig Goodwin who admitted that, like me, he had never asked his son – or daughters – how many times they had been stopped while driving. Craig is extremely close to his children, who are now all grown with families of their own. When they were teenagers he gave them what we call “the talk” on how to behave and what to do if stopped, “be polite and courteous, don’t make any sudden moves, keep your hands visible…the usual.” He told me, “I never asked them the question…I overheard them sometimes talking in the kitchen, like you, but they were never in any trouble so I didn’t probe.” We both agreed that they probably wouldn’t have admitted the truth…” they know we would have taken away the keys just to keep them protected.” Then he said he sent the column to his son, now age 40, and his two sons-in-law, both in their 30’s. In three separate emails they all responded back that they had no less than a dozen stops. “I thought I was a dad in touch,” he said, “I skipped a whole part of my son’s life.”
The most surprising response came from Ken Vann, a retired detective with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, who I met 12 years ago when he was the lead-investigator for a recruitment effort between our newspaper and his department. He explained: “I worked extremely hard trying to recruit African-Americans, however I was met with resistance from many officers as well as many African-Americans. I read your article today regarding your son Alexander and his negative contact with law enforcement and everything that your son said regarding the police contact is true.” Then he asked: “Do you find it strange that yet another generation of our young people is experiencing the same racial barriers that have been prevalent for over a hundred years?…I was in law enforcement for 30 years and the same words and promises of yesteryear are being spoken today. The complaints aren’t taken seriously.”
Then I thought back to my conversation with Chief Diaz. “We can all agree there is a problem,” one reader suggested, “knowing there is a problem is usually the first step to move towards a solution.” His suggestion was similar to that of former UC Riverside Athletic Director Stan Morrison’s, whose comments I always find inspiring: “Where to start? For me, it is in the neighborhoods with kids, cops, and parents. It is getting to know each other. (Wow! Does that sound ‘pie in the sky’?) By name. By interests. By attending community events. Just to simply create some familiarity so people see more than skin color or a uniform and badge. They see faces, eyes, parents, and by extension, families.”
Stan’s email, in particular, made me think about my own contribution to the “us versus them” mentality I discussed in my column last week. As parents of African-American males when we first give them “the talk” about how to interact with the police we introduce the dynamic by telling them how they can be perceived as a “suspect”, a “danger”, a “menace.” I remember telling Alexander not once or twice but every time he left the house, “they (meaning the police) are looking for guys who look like you…so behave, be careful, don’t stay out late.” The perception problem runs both ways.
“But we must try and the first step is the most difficult,” Stan concluded, “The first term that comes to mind is ‘grassroots’ and it may have more real meaning than any time in our lives. That is where the process must begin.”
So here is a thought.
Several years ago our newspaper hosted a Take A Cop to Lunch annual event every St Patrick’s Day as part of a national program. It was strictly voluntary and allowed members of the community to socialize with law enforcement officers. We held the lunch at local restaurants and there was no formal program, just conversation. It was a nice format through which relationships could begin. After last week’s conversations, I contacted Dr E.M. Abdulmumin, who runs the DuBois Institute in Riverside as well as a hugely successful Rites of Passage program for young African-American boys. He mentioned that the boys involved in the program are still at an age where they want to be police officers, and FBI agents, and firefighters. What if their first interactions with law enforcement are positive ones? What if the officers have a chance to interact with young Black men who are not possible suspects?
Albert Einstein once said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” As an educator I believe we can learn to do better, to be better, to live better. We simply need the courage to change our thinking so that we are able to change our actions. I will be continuing this conversation in the coming weeks and months and look forward to hearing more from you…our concerned citizens and leaders who share my belief that we have the ability to build a better community for all.