Being a police officer was the most stressful and dangerous job that I have ever had. Not having ever dreamed of enforcing the law or protecting people, I became an officer because I needed real employment. I had been praying for a job, and shortly after prayer one day, I heard a radio advertisement for the police force.
At the time I was a 23 year-old father-to-be, employed by a small St. Louis company that didn’t provide health or retirement benefits. I was desperate for a position that would allow me to take care of my growing family. But without a college degree, my employment prospects were slim.
Due to my negative experiences with police as an adolescent, I initially dismissed the ad. As I thought it through, however, it began to sound like a good idea. A job with the police department represented steady employment and benefits. Also, it would pay my college tuition.
I filled out an application and after three months of interviews, written and physical tests and a psychological evaluation, I was accepted into the police academy. I then began to see the prospect of being a police officer as more than just a job; I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people and communities.
Due to my negative experiences with police as an adolescent, I initially dismissed the ad. As I thought it through, however, it began to sound like a good idea.
The neighborhood that I had grown up in was not friendly to officers, and officers were not friendly to the people living in the neighborhood. Being a policeman, I thought, would position me to help change people’s perspective on law enforcement and allow me to positively impact their lives.
However, in the academy I learned that being a police officer was not at all about community service. It was about protecting yourself and your partner; it was about everyday survival on the streets. I made it through, neither excelling nor failing and after graduating, I was assigned to one of the most dangerous districts.
When I started working as a street patrolman, I was scared and unsure. I followed the lead of more experienced officers. I quickly learned the job was not what I expected or had ever imagined. Suddenly, I realized how woefully unprepared I was emotionally and mentally.
In training I had been taught to assume that anyone who didn’t wear our uniform blue could be the enemy, and that any citizen could try to take an officer’s life, my life. Consequently, no one should be allowed to get within five feet of you when you were on a call. The thinking being that if a person was able to get this close, they could make a move to harm you before you could respond.
Now, as a patrolman, I saw this tested many times by drug addicts jumping out of clothes hampers, former professional football players fighting officers because they refused to leave their apartment, and even grandmothers angered at an officer for writing their grandsons a ticket. People would regularly attempt to put their hands on officers to physically harm them.
The graduation motto for my academy class was “If you lose sight of their hands, you lose your life.” While a patrolman, I also realized why you should never let anyone hide their hands from you or shift their hands out of sight; they could be hiding a weapon.
The mindset and actions of some officers reflect how they interact with people. They treat them as “other” meaning that “these” people are not a part of their trusted circle and are not worthy of respect. This is evident in the language police officers use: they describe themselves as good guys, and the people they interact with as bad guys. Because of the stress and frustration I felt, I too fell into this practice of seeing citizens as the “other.”
The graduation motto for my academy class was “If you lose sight of their hands, you lose your life.”
Additionally, the unspoken department rule of not going against another police officer did not help this dichotomy. An officer could not question another officer’s words or actions in front of someone else. If you did, that officer would feel like you were undercutting them and would retaliate. In the street, if a police officer said or did something, you backed them up, regardless.
A sergeant drilled this into my head. The first night of working for him, he took me into an interrogation room and told me that I would see some things happen on the street. He said that it would be in my best interest to do what I was told and follow the lead of the more seasoned officers. If I complied and did not cause any problems, I would be okay. This would not be the last time that I was given this specific advice.
Shortly thereafter, while in this same squad, I was partnered with a white senior officer to patrol an area known for drug sales. This officer’s goal was to help me make a quick arrest in order to build my statistics. We immediately honed in on a man that he believed was selling drugs out of his house.
During our investigation, we found in his home over $1,000 in cash, bags of various unmarked pills and a gun. This could lead to the type of arrest that would make any young officer proud. Except that I wasn’t. I didn’t think that the man warranted arresting and I could give multiple reasons why.
It was not a crime to for the man to have $1,000 in cash in his house. During this period, IRS returns were being sent out; this man could prove that he and his girlfriend had recently cashed their checks. Also, studies have repeatedly documented that a greater amount of poor urban blacks do not have bank accounts. Instead, they keep their savings at home. An examination of the pills revealed them to only be over-the-count allergy medicine stored in a plastic sandwich bag, and therefore not either a criminal possession or act.
We found in his home over $1,000 in cash, bags of various unmarked pills and a gun. This could lead to the type of arrest that would make any young officer proud. Except that I wasn’t.
The gun found was so old and rusted that after holding it, my palms looked like I had been holding mud. The gun was not defaced and the man claimed that it had been his father’s. I could not blame him for owning a gun for protection.
The senior officer didn’t care about any of the man’s explanations. We arrested him and took him into our patrol station. After booking him, the senior officer wrote up the report of what had happened. He then handed it to me and told me to sign it to indicate that I had written it. Because I had indeed not written it, I balked. Luckily, this happened at the end of our shift and I did not have to decide whether or not to sign at that moment.
Upon leaving the station, I ran into another senior officer with whom I had begun to build a relationship. I told him about the arrest, explained that I didn’t feel comfortable signing the report because I didn’t believe the man should have been arrested, and asked for his advice. He told me to relax and said he would think it through and suggest how I should handle it at the end of his day. He promised to help me come up with a solution that would not get me into trouble with the other officer and my sergeant. I went home.
When I arrived at the patrol station for my next shift, the senior officer approached me. He told me that he had heard that I had a problem with how he had handled the previous night’s arrest and that I didn’t want to sign the police report. In wording not fit to be uttered in church, he told me that if I ever went behind his back again or questioned something that he had done, I would end up on the streets alone with no protection.
In wording not fit to be uttered in church, [the senior officer] told me that if I ever went behind his back again or questioned something that he had done, I would end up on the streets alone with no protection.
As a rookie with less than six months of street experience, I did what he said and signed the report because I didn’t want to make waves with the other officers and didn’t want to get on the bad side of any commanding officers to whom he was politically connected. I was certain that I would also need all their help and protection if I ever found myself in a bad situation while patrolling.
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As a young officer, I was taught that profiling was a useful and necessary tool whose application assisted police in conducting investigations. Racial profiling began with examining a person’s or thing’s “fit.” If the “fit” was wrong or inconsistent, then it would warrant investigation. For example if a car doesn’t “fit” in a neighborhood, it might be stolen.
While on patrol, if I spotted a brand new Mercedes Benz in a neighborhood where the majority of residents lived below poverty, red flags would go off. Typically, a high-ticket car is not consistent with this type of neighborhood. Also, if a driver doesn’t look like they “fit” the car being driven, then they may need to be investigated. A preteen male driving a brand new Mercedes Benz would send up a red flag. Although the male may fit the neighborhood, he did not fit the car.
This procedure’s application was not limited to black people. If I spotted a white person while patrolling a black neighborhood, I would also question their fit. It wasn’t that white people were not allowed in black communities, but I would question whether this particular person fit in the one that I was patrolling. Did that white person look or act anxious? Did they act like they were lost? Did they look like they were on a mission to get somewhere? Or were they relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings?
The subsequent investigation results differed. On one occasion I stopped an older white man who was driving very slowly through a black neighborhood after having followed him for several blocks. I suspected that he might have been looking for drugs or a prostitute. I was wrong. He was a pastor, and after visiting a parishioner had gotten lost driving down the unfamiliar streets.
On another night, I spotted a bad fit: a white motorcyclist crashed in a black neighborhood. Upon interrogation, the driver admitted to purchasing drugs, cheating the dealers and tried to speed away.
Ideally, profiling would never be a simple, straight forward process based only on a person’s skin color. Multiple factors would feed an officer’s assumptions and actions, and the subsequent investigation.
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People think that the police just randomly stop people of color. They are, in my opinion, both right and wrong.
Here’s how they are wrong. Police officers spend most of their time responding to citizen tips and complaints called in to 911. When a person calls, the complaint or information about a crime is dispatched to a patrol car assigned to the area of the incident. At that moment the officer must investigate.
Callers may give only a general description of the incident or people involved. For example, someone reports that a “suspicious” black man was selling drugs at the corner of Grand at Arsenal. The officer, lacking details, does not know what the black man is wearing, whether he is in a vehicle or on foot or if he is alone. This occurred so frequently that one of my black partners and I would turn to each other and jokingly ask, “What did you do?”
The investigating officer, and ultimately those under scrutiny, would benefit more if citizens provided complete and accurate information.
Here’s how citizens are right when they say officers just harass citizens. Unfortunately, some police officers will pursue people to harass and arrest. Multiple reasons lie behind this behavior. An officer’s career is based on statistics. They are rewarded for compiling statistics related to arrests, especially drug arrests. They are not rewarded for being “Officer Friendly,” who helped people and families work through personal issues and improve communication.
An officer’s career is based on statistics. They are rewarded for compiling statistics related to arrests, especially drug arrests. They are not rewarded for being “Officer Friendly,” who helped people and families work through personal issues and improve communication.
Higher stats numbers result in better treatment by commanding officers, and increased possibility of promotion or a transfer to a more desirable work assignment. To become an officer that is valued by superiors, they must make arrests for a variety of crimes, and make sure that those arrested spend time in jail or prison.
We were reminded regularly that our job was to respond to calls and write tickets, and this would serve as evidence of our work for the District Captain. In summation, officers profile and arrest to improve their career.
Also, people who are easy targets are profiled. Society has conditioned us to distrust and fear black men. Were we all honest, we would probably admit to feelings of fear and distrust upon seeing a black male who looks like he stepped off a hip-hop video set. If he is wearing sagging pants, has a gold tooth and unkempt hair or a baseball cap, we assume he is a thug. Police realize this. Consequently, when their stats need to be increased, they arrest the person that most people don’t trust or care about.
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In the end, the reason an officer arrests someone really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the officer has the “magic pen.” Officers know that, ultimately, what is written in a report will more than likely be accepted and believed because that officer controls the information that the prosecuting attorney and public will see.
If I stop a person for littering and he does something to anger me, or doesn’t follow orders, I can say that he attempted to assault me. No one will know that he didn’t. It is my word against his, and a police officer’s word carries more weight than a black man’s.
Certainly, profiling to assist in legitimate investigation can be a valuable tool to fight crime and support neighborhoods. But when it is used to make arrests to build an officer’s resume, it destroys lives.