[trigger warning: racial slurs and offensive language]
I was a racist cop.
Years ago, I was helping a supervisor at a single-car crash. A black man collided head-on into a concrete divider, and died at the scene. I was detouring the ensnarled traffic when my corporal, who had been alongside the victim, shared an update.
“When I got here he was alive, but fading. His eyes were opening and closing real slow and I could feel his pulse slowing down.” He paused, and with the smoothness of a perfectly timed punch line, the corporal said “So, I whispered in his ear, ‘Today is the day you die, nigger.’”
I stood horrified.
Then, I did nothing.
Silence is the culture of many police departments. In my second year as a cop ― a career that would span more than a decade across three states ― I was taught the ramifications of speaking out. After a sergeant stole from an impounded car, another whistleblower and I reported him up the chain of command. Within days, I was fired. It was just before Christmas; young, a child on the way, and now my fledgling career tarnished. I received the message loud and clear: Do not kneel.
With crime trends near record lows, the expense of policing must be justified. Rather than focus on building relationships with communities, officers rely on “proactive policing”: tactics to escape scorn from the administration over low arrest numbers. “Mechanics fix cars, pilots fly planes, cops lock up bad guys,” an old captain used to lecture. This leads to enforcement for the sake of a spreadsheet. The easiest way to add digits is to go to poor neighborhoods and profile ― typically ― young African American and Latino men. Stop, frisk, question, and search, simply because they looked “suspicious.”
“He didn’t look at me.” Suspicious. “He kept looking at me.” Suspicious. “He was running.” Suspicious. “He was walking too slowly or biking too fast.” Suspicious. “It’s too early or too late; they have no business outside at this time of night; at this time of day.” Suspicious. “They are in the wrong neighborhood, wrong side of the neighborhood, or hanging out too much in their own neighborhood.” Suspicious.
Rarely, I found a gun or wanted felon. Never did these intrusive fishing expeditions result in the capture of a murderer or rapist. Never. But the arrests satisfied the front office and gave me the affirmation I needed to justify my role.
A Common Thread of “Bad Guys”
During my career, I attended four training academies and a slew of advanced classes. The common thread in all this training was an overemphasis on tactical situations, ultimately teaching us to be afraid—especially of black and brown people. Cadets were barraged with graphic imagery and war stories of violence by African Americans or Latinos until eventually, in our minds, “black guys” became synonymous with “bad guys.”
Daily, I arrested mostly poor, young people of color on petty charges. The discrimination was insidious. I pointed sanctimoniously to the prison cages and said, “See? It’s a breakdown of morality in their community.” This absolved me of my personal responsibility to protest when I saw wrongdoing, leaning instead on simplistic moral judgments like “If you don’t like it, don’t get arrested.”
During my first visit to one county jail, one of the imprisoned aptly announced: “Welcome to Amistad!” It didn’t look all that different. I routinely saw cages packed with mostly African American and Latino men 30 or 40 deep in spaces intended for 10 or 15. I saw people fed rotten food and endure unbearable jail conditions.
I knew this was wrong, but dehumanization had set in. Gathered outside one police station with a dozen or so officers, another cop called out, “Hey Shrewsberry, you know why southerners hate Yankees? Because y’all think niggers are people too.” Laughter erupted.
What did I do?
I laughed along.
What’s Next for Me?
Racism persists in America for complex and varied reasons. Indifference is one of them. I have a moral compass, but it was safer for me to ignore it. But by neglecting my moral responsibility to do something ― to kneel ― I co-signed this bigoted behavior.
While speaking of racial bias in 2015, then-FBI Director James Comey said “...if we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions... it is what we do next that matters most.”
What is next? For me, it’s the recognition of my own racism, bias and privilege as a white male. Professionally, I’ve challenged my conceptions about police shootings, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and “stop and frisk,” all of which impact people of color disproportionately, with devastating effects to families and communities. I question why Native Americans are killed by the police at five times the rate of Caucasians, African Americans are killed at three times the rate, and Latinos nearly twice. I’ve realized the need to speak openly about my experience and, more importantly, to listen to others in order to construct solutions together. I hope doing so will give still-active officers the courage to do what I did not ― to speak out when they see injustice. To kneel.
Racism isn’t the only problem facing our criminal justice system, but it’s one that exacerbates nearly every other issue. Race can be an uncomfortable topic. Whiteness in America is afforded comfort, which encourages inaction even when we are faced with deeds, statements, and attitudes we know are wrong. Protests are designed to awaken, and start conversations. Many great achievements throughout our history are rooted in protest, but to reach these successes, we must be willing to sacrifice comfort.
Silence imposes the moral obligation of fighting injustice onto someone else. I don’t know Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who knelt during the national anthem to protest unjust policing, but I’m confident he would’ve preferred to stand amongst his teammates, comfortable within a fair and just system. Instead, he took a knee.
Because I did not.