July 31, 2016

By Leyland A. King

This may not be the best time to share a true story of contact of any kind with a police officer. Rifts between communities and police have widened; so many refusing to see and understand the issues. But most despicable are those who appear to have perverted interests in aggravating an already tense situation. But no time is inopportune when one is obligated by citizenship, compelled by humanity, to help bring a socially distressing situation to relief. I hope this helps.

My friend and I were sitting on the concrete steps of a church. We were about 18 years old and never got into trouble. Not even at school. We sat there waiting on a class scheduled for 6.00 pm. Waiting on a class, soon became nothing but loitering, because by 6.30 pm it was evident that the teacher wasn’t coming. So we sat and bantered, spicing the dialogue with content so foul a teen would envy the mastery of linking cuss.

In the twilight, a woman walked by a few feet from us. She appeared to be going grocery shopping. Just as we paid her no mind, it was the same for the tall, clean-shaven,thirtysomething man approaching from the direction she went. He wore dark slacks and short-sleeved shirt boasting a print design.

“Police.” He said. “What y’all doing here?”

For brevity, let’s skip the dialogue and our confusion. This was a man one would not even think of running from. He had complete control. He arrested us and took us to the nearby station. There he told us why we were arrested. The charge contemplated was disorderly behaviour and indecent language. We protested our innocence while he moved some ledgers around. I thought of my mother. When we get into trouble, we usually think of our mothers.  Two men watched us through the bars of the lock-ups.

The policeman, a sergeant it turned out, asked to see our books, from which he verified our names, addresses and that we were enrolled in a class. Then he gave us a warning so stern I remember it to this day. As we tucked our tails and headed home, I thought of how lucky we were. He said, “I could charge you. I heard you all the way from the road. And, on the church steps?! Have you no respect?” He went on to tell us of the consequences for our future should he take us to court. He knew that shaming the behaviour would suffice. He did not have a quota to fill. He had no personal need to gratify.
Why do I remember him so many years later? What I do know is this: many doors would have been closed to me, had he laid those charges. I joined the police force two years later and had very successful careers.

I neither fear nor hate the police. I must admit that I am angry at them, but as a collective. Their behaviour is appalling. I do not trust or respect them. My feelings are rooted in my personal experiences with law enforcement in America.

But after all the promises, prayers, threats, insults are done; regardless of the vitriol spewed, I hope that we can agree on these truths (1) That the uniform policeman is merely the very visible part of a morally gangrenous justice system and public administration. (2) He/she is abused by a governing system that would corrupt a Saint.  (3) A society gets the quality of administrative institutions it deserves.

The profession has been allowed to rot from without and from within. The misuse of police as armed revenue collectors, escorts, lackeys, school sitters, fundraisers, unaccountable warriors on drugs, have easily morphed to enemies of the citizenry.
His training and professional development sacrificed, his management long ago abrogated oversight, he became just a peevish man with a gun. A pacifier misunderstanding his true, professional role in society.

Police in any country, have tremendous coercive power. How they project and use that power is the crux of what we face in America. Police also have deterrent and discretionary power. Where the emphasis is placed in the social contract between government and citizens will determine, over the years, the kind of police bureaucracy and policeman we get.