in Musings, Raleigh

Cops, the public, and stereotypes

A friend recently drove by a traffic stop conducted by the Raleigh Police Department and was surprised at the number of officers who responded. Four units were there and the driver, a black male, had his hands firmly and safely planted on the side of the car from his place in the driver’s seat. My friend turned around a few minutes later to see what happened and came across the driver still parked there, but now alone and doubled-over sobbing on the steering wheel. She shared her experience on social media.

I respect my friend tremendously and I take comfort that she cares so much for our neighbors. Nobody wants to see an incident in Raleigh like those that have taken place in various places in the country, where innocent black men – doing everything right – get shot to death by hotheaded cops. My black friends are understandably concerned about being pulled over and in an instant possibly losing their life.

I also know a few cops, and I’ve paid close attention to the Raleigh Police Department (RPD) since I moved here. I’ve gone on midnight ridealongs through some of the roughest neighborhoods in Raleigh, protected only by a bulletproof vest and my trust in the cop taking me along. From what I’ve seen, RPD is a professional police force. RPD’s force is one of the best-trained in the country and has the national accreditation to prove it. The officers I’ve interacted with (willingly and, on seldom occasions, unwillingly) have always been polite and treated me with respect. The interactions I witnessed on my ridealongs were also unfailingly respectful, no matter what the transgression. This was not always reciprocated, though, by those pulled over.

Why did police respond the way they did to the driver my friend saw? There could be any number of reasons but it probably wasn’t due to the driver’s race. Unfortunately, my friend didn’t ask the driver or the officers so we’re left to speculate.

And also to assume, and it’s this that can really twist things out of proportion. We think we know what happened when we don’t. The media arrives on scene, races to piece together what happened as quickly as possible and more often than not presents a distorted view. Then their audience takes the pieces they are given and they weave their own truth out of it. It’s Telephone Tag, writ large and fueled by hysteria.

The shooting of Akiel Denkins is a case in point. Media interviews of Denkins’ friends often painted a rosy picture of him. Bumper stickers urge “Remember Akiel Denkins” as if this was another case of officer overreach. In truth Denkins was a convicted drug dealer. Yeah, he may have been taking GED classes but he was skipping those classes the day an RPD officer found him out “hustling” drugs in a known drug area. Officer D.C. Twiddy noticed Denkins had a warrant for arrest and tried to arrest him. Denkins ran and then foolishly pulled a gun on the arresting officer, who shot him. Pulling a gun on an officer is a sure path to getting killed.

On the other hand, obeying Minnesota officer Jeronimo Yanez’s commands should not have gotten Philandro Castille killed and there is no excuse for his death. It haunts me and I feel for my friends of color who deal with this kind of profiling every day. I can’t say I know what it’s like – I’ll never know what it’s like – but I can say I understand their pain.

It is wrong to stereotype people, whether they be another race or on the other side of the badge. It’s wrong to assume we know the full story, or we know intentions, when often we don’t. I know both that many friends have been unfairly profiled and that police officers are often unfairly maligned.

And it’s okay to be against both. As Jon Stewart explained, “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach, those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”

So I’d be happy if some police didn’t lump all black people together and some of the public didn’t lump all police officers together. Let’s get away from the stereotypes and take people for who they are. It’s not easy to do but the stakes are far too high to keep repeating the same mistakes.