My friends having a running joke with me; I’m the person that always talks to the police. I’m white, and most of my friends are Mexican and Black, so I’m the “designated white guy” if we need to talk to the police. It’s all in good fun; we don’t really get into trouble with the law. However, with the recent events of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it does illustrate how removed I may be from the reality of interaction between law enforcement and minorities, and how real police brutality is.
On the other side of the equation, I understand conflict and have training related to law enforcement (it helps to understand things like this when you teach self defense), but again I don’t have the direct experience of policing that has an impact on situations like what happened in New York and Ferguson: I’m on the outside looking in.
Luckily, I know someone who is qualified on both fronts – he just so happens to be my teacher and founder of our Dojo. And although he can’t speak on behalf of every black person nor police officer, he can better understand the realities of what’s happening with policing in our country. So I sat down with him, and asked some tough questions:
For our readers that may not know you, can you share your background as a law enforcement officer?
“I was a Police Officer for the City of Cincinnati, Ohio. I began that career when I entered into the academy in Oct. 1990. Upon graduating, I worked for two (2) years in regular patrol duties before entering into a deep cover narcotics program for several years. My final couple years were on a tactical unit specializing in vice related crimes, called a CAT team (Criminal Apprehension Team). We had free roam responsibilities to hunt wanted felons within the 77 sq. miles that comprised of the authority for the City of Cincinnati.”
What were the areas like that you policed?
“While I did regular patrol work, my most memorable times were in District Four Beat 405, the area dubbed by USA Today as the Most Dangerous Police Beat in America. This was due to high officer injury rate and types of crimes committed. This was an inner city, mostly Black area of town. Then there were project areas like in District Five (Winton Terrace), once again mostly Black. District Two had an affluent area of town and a desperately poor area of the Appalachian Mountain pass. So you had diversity all around.”
Race inequality is a big part of the discussion regarding police brutality. As a black person, what was your interactions like with police growing up?
“The only contact I personally had was when my coach of my little league football team was a local sheriff. Probably a bigger influence on me pursuing a career in law enforcement was listening to my father’s stories of him being a prison guard for several years.”
So really, how tough is it being a cop?
“The main thing I can say is that it truly is a thankless job. Everyone rushes to complain about the police because usually their only contact with them is when they’ve done something wrong, like speeding, and then they get upset that the officer has to enforce the laws he/she has been sworn to uphold.”
Did you have any racial tensions with fellow officers because of your ethnicity?
“Absolutely, but not how you might think. There was both a regular police union, F.O.P. 69 and a Black Officer’s Union. I refused to join that. So a lot of the officers thought I acted too White. I didn’t feel it was right or something I thought I should take part in. I figured once we got on the job, we were all BLUE. There should be no racial differences at all, because the public weren’t going to look at us that way. To them, we were just cops.”
Based on what you know and your experience, do you feel that the Michael Brown shooting was justified?
“Like everyone else outside of the Grand Jury there in Ferguson, I can only go off what we have been told and the officer’s own testimony.”
Okay, so assuming those disclosed facts are accurate –
“I believe the shooting was absolutely justifiable. The officer acted utilizing his training and everything I see fell within acceptable standards. Based on the circumstances and actions of Michael Brown, it would not have mattered what race he was. He would have rightfully been shot. It was a lethal force encounter.”
With the Eric Garner incident we have video – what did you see there?
“This too resulted in the tragic loss of a life; however, this could have been avoided. I am not sure whether “choke” techniques are allowed in that department’s training or not. It wasn’t in ours. However, if so, then the verdict could possibly be supported. In my personal, not professional, opinion, the officer did not act correctly. He should have refrained from the application of that technique.”
Were you surprised that the officer that applied the choke wasn’t indicted?
“Yes. It’s kind of astounding in this situation. There were enough officers on scene to effect the arrest. They were effectively “swarming” him, so the choke was excessive.”
So what’s something you see in common between these two incidents?
“In both instances, the subject which was being questioned escalated a minor situation into something unnecessary. A citizen’s first law is to cooperate with the lawful request of a law enforcement officer. [Brown] escalated into an instance where he ultimately paid with his life. In Mr. Garner’s case, the officers requested him to turn around and put his hands behind his back since they were placing him under arrest. He chose to fight the officers. Thus, the application of the choke hold and the subsequent death.”
With Michael Brown it was strong-armed robbery, but the crime Eric Garner was being charged for was selling ‘loosies” (loose un-taxed cigarettes). Do you feel that the crime he was being charged for should be considered in the level of force used?
“I don’t think the crime should determine the use of force. People get pulled over everyday for traffic violations, yet statistically those infractions fall a close second behind Domestic Violence in the possibility of officer injury/death. So, just because Mr. Garner was selling illegal cigarettes has zero influence on the type of force used. It was a matter of escalation based upon his reactions.”
So if someone feels they’re being “harassed”, what measures can they take that won’t escalate the situation – but still protect their rights?
“First off, the time to ‘make your case’ is NOT right there with the person supposedly harassing you. Instead, follow the directives of the officer, and document to the best of your ability what took place. Once you’ve gotten to a point where you can address the situation safely then you lodge a formal complaint with the police division in your city and go through the process.”
They say hindsight is 20/20; however, do you feel if you were the responding officer that you would of handled things differently?
“Let’s go case by case. In regards to Michael Brown, I would have definitely acted similarly. Mr. Brown, doing the exact same acts, would have been shot by me that day.”
And with Eric Garner?
“Probably not. Then again, you have to remember, I have 40 years of physical [combat] training behind me. I know what my options are based on the body size and type of individual. Does that mean that another officer assisting in the apprehension or detainment of him might have applied a choke hold during the struggle and we end up in the same position? Maybe. But I personally would not have taken Mr. Garner’s life that day though.”
What do you think needs to change with policing given the above situations based on your experience?
“Training. Officer training needs to be updated nationwide and more emphasis on physical technique should be practiced. Perhaps making it mandatory that all officers carry tasers would also be helpful as opposed to optional. Then at least there’s another step before escalation to deadly force is made.”
Do you think this is ultimately an issue of race?
“No. The media made them about race, but they were actually about responsibility. Personal responsibility and actions caused the deaths of these individuals. If the people who are pushing the agenda about it being a racial issue were actually concerned about race, than they would address the 40-50 murders on a weekly basis happening in Detroit and Chicago in Black on Black crime. Or they would note that 123 Black people were killed [by officers] in the last calendar year according to statistics; however, 326 White people were killed by officers in the same time period. Calm minds must prevail.”
What lessons can we take away from these incidents?
“There are 1000’s of officers faithfully performing their jobs everyday. Also, there are mistakes that will be made. All parties involved are human. It is up to us to teach our children and remind other adults that the easiest way to interact with anyone is through an air of respect. There is never a reason to be disrespectful, especially to authority. If you give an officer time to explain why he is detaining you, then you will understand why he is doing certain things. An officer’s first responsibility to make sure he is safe and you are safe. So in order to do that, he has to put certain restrictions in place before conducting an investigation. Escalation has consequences.”
Reflecting on Shihan Woodard’s answers, I think about my experiences with Law Enforcement. And like everyone else, I’ve had run-ins with those officers I felt were being…unreasonable. However, I have always remained polite and for the most part cooperative. I can’t say for sure that being white had no impact, but it seemed like my attitude played a bigger role.
I think the problem, which Shihan Woodard alluded to, is perception. If you perceive the police as a hostile threat, then you will respond with hostility – continuing to escalate any situation. On the other hand, if your polite to law enforcement – regardless of your feeling about them – then it can diffuse a situation more often than not.
Regardless, there does need to be some kind of change with policing. There is a reason – or a perception – that has fueled protest and outrage across this country. But only by understanding both sides of the equation, can we truly solve the issue.
So what do you think? How big a role do you think race plays into this? Have you had experience on either side of the equation? Let us know in the comments.