Last fall, I shed my bias against police.
This was no easy feat. I pretty much hated police.
Like 99% of black people in America, I grew up understanding that racial profiling, police brutality, and unjust sentencing were the norm in America. In fact, jokes about police brutality were a staple in the black community for decades. It may be strange now to watch Richard Pryor describe a choke hold, but behind the humor is the stark reality: excessive use of force by police was as real when I was 10 as it is now.
My dad complained often about unjust policing and my own bias grew because of Dad. Born in 1935, he had seen and experienced discrimination of all kinds, but few things angered him more than state-sanctioned abuse of black people.
to July 2014 and the death of Eric Garner;
to August 2014 and the death of John Crawford;
to November 2014 and the death of Tamir Rice;
to July 2015 and the death of Sandra Bland.
In the span of a year – and thanks to cell phone video – our nation confronted a reality that blacks have understood our whole lives: Police arrest, chase, provoke, and kill black people who are innocent, harmless, or otherwise minding their business at Starbucks.
I hate that.
And I hated police for it.
On a scale of 1 to 10, my respect level for police was a 2.
So that’s why I enrolled in Citizen’s Police Academy. Sponsored by the Charlottesville, Virginia police department, the 12-week course is designed to give ordinary people a detailed view of the profession. It was transformative for me.
The cohort was small, maybe 12 students total. We were ordinary citizens, most of us college educated. I was the only black person there. One of my classmates’ attended so she could help make sense of her brother’s death. A police officer, he was murdered in an ambush before he even had a chance to assess the situation. I was humbled and honored to learn alongside her. My respect level moved up a notch after hearing her story.
Each class was two and a half hours long and led by seasoned officers.They welcomed our questions, and candidly addressed our concerns about use of force and training standards. We visited the 911 Center and met the canine unit. We even fired weapons at the shooting range.
But it was the simulation room that put many pieces together for me. The simulation exercise was like a video game with a giant screen the size of an entire wall. It gave us an opportunity to walk in the shoes of an officer, entering a home on a domestic disturbance call. Our task was to assess the situation and decide whether to deploy our weapons.
I was struck immediately by the courage it takes to walk into a dark, unfamiliar space. Turning a corner to follow the sounds of voices, my partner and I entered a room where two neighbors were arguing. Within seconds we were shot by one of the neighbors, a man in a wheel chair whose pistol was hidden out of view.
At that point, I understood why policemen are trained to have weapons drawn in certain situations. And I understood the split-second decisions they must make. Sometimes, there is no time to pause and inquire if a cell phone is a gun; or if a toy gun is real. If they wait, they may lose their lives. I get it now.
This single scenario does not explain away the deaths of Gray and Garner.
Nor does it make the deaths of Rice or Crawford less tragic.
Nor does it make the death of Sandra Bland less suspicious.
But it helped me to know that
1) police really are trained to deploy their weapons when they perceive a threat because there is often little time to discern if the perception is benign or deadly
2) police really are trained to shoot suspects in the chest, not the legs.
These two things that confused me most about policing were answered in the academy. Now I know why police officers are rarely charged with a crime. They really are doing what they are trained to do.
By the end of 12 weeks, my respect level for police and policing had grown to an 8. I admitted this at the last class when everyone shared the impact of the academy on our lives.
The main thing keeping my respect from a 10 is my belief that a single anti-bias class – which police are required to take in many jurisdictions – will not likely dismantle a lifetime of bias against people of color. It took me 12 weeks to shed my bias. So I still believe that policemen and ordinary citizens perceive a threat when they see black and brown people in ordinary situations. What happened at Starbucks happens every damn day.
Sorry. I don’t cuss much, but this is cussable stuff.
Secondly, bad apple policemen are too often defended, reassigned, or supported by peers and superiors in their abuse of power, planting of evidence, and falsifying of reports. As a nation, we must find a way to ensure police officers who commit these crimes are punished or they will not be motivated to stop. They will constantly lean on “I perceived a threat,” and other lies and corruption to justify their actions.
Yet if we have cell phone footage of excessive force and senseless arrests, it means we don’t have all the footage. Therefore, many people of all races are suffering needlessly with no evidence to prevent their imprisonment or to prosecute their death.
Attending Citizens Police Academy was one of the best things I have ever done. I’m proud of myself for admitting to myself, and now to the world, that my desire for fair policing in America was comingled with bias against police. Bias is like a tree, growing taller and stronger all of our lives. Unfortunately, hatred is its fruit. And God hates that.
Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
I John 3.14-15