A black police officer’s perspective
Reactions to the week’s tragedies from four officers
It’s been an extremely hectic week for the general public and law enforcement. So instead of rehashing every raw detail of what happened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Dallas this week, we asked current and former black police professionals their opinions.
Dodson is a retired police officer who served with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., for 29 years (1981-2010), mainly in specialized units. He worked in details with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and went undercover with the FBI. He also served in the mayor’s detail in Washington, D.C., for seven years.
On this week: “I’m glad I’m not a policeman anymore.”
On the death of Alton Sterling: “The guy down in Baton Rouge, you would never approach a man with a gun by tackling him. You would always tell him to put his hands up so you could see them. If you tackle him, you might get killed. He might kill you. There might be devastating results, and that’s what happened. That’s a no-no. I’ve NEVER seen anybody approach a man with a gun like that.
“I would’ve never, ever have tackled [Sterling]. I just saw what they showed on the TV. I don’t know if they talked to him, but you gotta be patient with a man with a gun. If you don’t see the gun, you have to ask him to comply, to put his hands up, ask him to lay on the ground. I don’t think you should ever tackle him. I don’t know the whole story because they just showed part of the video and then they have the other video from the store. But I wouldn’t have handled it that way.
“I’ve never shot anybody. I try to talk people out of it. That was just my style. Some guys, as soon as they had the opportunity, they’d shoot. When I was undercover, this guy had a gun. I pulled my gun out and said, ‘Put your hands up in the air.’ He immediately goes in his pocket, pulls out the gun and drops the gun on the ground. I could’ve shot him, but I didn’t. With the grace of God, and I guess my luck, I didn’t have to shoot anybody. I could have, but I always tried to talk them out of it and be patient.
“When you kill somebody, that can mess with you. Some people I know that killed people on duty, they don’t ever get themselves together. They aren’t right after that. Some of them, they’re OK, but some of them aren’t.”
On the death of Philando Castile: “The incident in Minnesota, it’s devastating. It looks like they didn’t try to give the guy any first aid or medical assistance. The kid was in the car when the guy got shot. The woman was in the car. Then they handcuffed her and put her in the back of a scout car with her kid in the back of the car. That was amazing. Unheard of. She didn’t do anything wrong.
“I know how the officer felt. It was quite obvious. He was scared, and he overreacted. He stopped somebody for a broken taillight. He told him that he had a permit to carry a gun and had a gun on him. You either call for backup and wait or just tell him, ‘Keep your hands where I can see them’ or, ‘Take one hand and get your permit out.’ Those guys are just scared. The adrenaline is flowing and you overreact. A lot of those guys are scared of black people and they always think the worst: That a black man is gonna kill him or hurt him. It’s unfortunate.”
On the deaths of police officers in Dallas: “They’re out there trying to keep peace and fight true justice in an American way. They get killed like that because some vigilantes want to take the ball in their own hands and kill innocent police officers. They were trying to make sure it was a peaceful rally. I get upset about that. It’s a terrible situation. Those guys have kids, families and wives just like Sterling and Castile. They had families, too. It’s just unfortunate.
“Because I was a police officer of almost 30 years, I get upset about police officers being killed. But I do get outraged when police officers don’t do the right thing and are hasty in their decisions and kill somebody, not being responsible. Sometimes I think it’s murder, which police officers do. For so many years, police officers have been getting away with murder, unfortunately. I hate to say that, but because of the system, the U.S. attorneys, they will take the police officer’s word as being valid and truthful. As years have gone by, in some cases it hasn’t always been true.”
On black police officers in America: “These situations on the street have put pressure on all police officers, not just black police officers. Of course, black police officers want to serve their community, their families and their race. They want to do the right thing to try to help these young people understand that you need to cooperate and that police officers are not your enemies. They’re your friends. They’re supposed to be peacemakers, not hurt you.
“But believe me, I’ve been jacked up by the police, too. I’ve been on the other side, too.”
Preston has served as the deputy police chief for the Bowie Police Department in Bowie, Maryland, for the past 4 1/2 years. He’s been a police officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for 26 years.
On this week: “Any loss of life, it’s a tragedy. Whether it’s a police officer or citizen in an encounter with law enforcement, or just the general public, any loss of life is a tragedy and family has to deal with that fallout and that aftermath.”
On the death of Sterling: “The incident in Louisiana, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to offer a true opinion — it’s so early. In fairness to those involved in that incident, proper investigation is an appropriate step to be taken. I’m confident they would do a proper investigation. Police officers throughout this country have contact with millions of citizens on a daily basis. Weekly, monthly. The great majority of those are without incident. It takes just a few high-profile situations to tarnish the relationship between law enforcement and people they serve. No one wants to accept misconduct within the profession. We don’t want them here in our profession. That’s the thing the community needs to understand: Police officers do not want bad officers. It’s easy to make that assumption and look at us with one broad brush, and nobody would want to do that with any community, with any race of people, it’s not fair. It’s not fair to paint all black people with one broad brush, and not fair to do that with law enforcement.”
On being a black police officer in America: “Who I am and who I’ve been for almost 26 years is the same person. Being a person of character, a Christian man, doing my job and doing it effectively. Being a person of character means I’m someone who holds himself to a certain standard. If you’re walking into the community, walking into the convenience store saying, ‘Hi, how you doing?’ — it breaks the ice … It allows us to put the person at ease. We just got back from lunch and had people come to us and say, ‘We’re praying for you.’ They’ll pray for us, by name, on a daily basis. For most people, it’s a calling — we’re not looking for the pat on the back but it’s good to hear that support now and then. We also want to hear things that can be improved upon. The chief is putting out a message to our community wanting to know how you feel about the city of Bowie, [Maryland]. Me being an African-American male and having an African-American son, there are certain things I teach to my son about how to act: Don’t bring undue attention to yourself. He’s still young, he’s still under my authority. It’s not about fairness — ‘I should be able to do what I want to do’ — because that’s not the reality in life. The bottom line is you need to comply and be in compliance. But it is unacceptable for anyone to be mistreated or be profiled. Those are things we talk about. We want to make sure things are fair and impartial, but we are human beings.
“As an African-American, when I take off the uniform, I still have to abide by the same things I tell everybody else. I get nervous if I get stopped by a police officer. I think that’s a natural reaction, like when your parents scold you. I think unfortunately the media sensationalizes a lot of that to make it seem like it’s more rampant than it is. One time occurring is too many. The bottom line is there are far more encounters that are professional, that are courteous, that go unreported, than go bad. All we can do is be responsible for what we do. If you get stopped, listen to directions they give you, do what you’re told to do, even if you don’t agree with why you’re being stopped. The time to make that argument is not then — what you do is comply. When you start to banter back and forth … it raises suspicion and anxiety. What is this person trying to hide? You don’t want that. You want everyone to remain calm. That’s why there are complaints procedures out there for you to address those complaints … We want to have a community meeting and forum to discuss some of those issues. We are putting it out to the community. We’re looking for feedback from the community. Is that something they want? We’re here to serve this community based on citizens. We attempted to have a teen academy this summer. We got not one applicant. The fliers we put up were ripped down. The young people are discouraging others who may have an interest because nobody wants to be seen, as hey, you want to interact with police officers.”
Parks served 31 years with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., including in the homicide unit.
On this week: “Hopefully, the lesson is that violence for violence in no way fixes anything. Violence in no way brings any person back or provides any comfort or solace to the family or to the community as a whole. Rage and outrage should be focused toward extracting some sort of change by bringing more communication and a demand for those things around assessing these individuals.”
On the deaths of Sterling and Castile: “To the police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana, astonished. Not at the occurrence, but at the visual presentation of those and, as a law enforcement professional, I would not jump to, you know, make a ruling as far as whether they were justified, knowing that you have to do a full investigation. And that’s part of the process.
“However, the indications of just what seemed to be unjustified initially, that would be my first impressions with those. And then, in all these situations through the past year, I always question just what was going through that officer’s mind. I try to understand it from a law-enforcement perspective, and give the benefit of the doubt that he’s out there on the street and I’m not. But then, I question just what is going through their mind.
“And I’ve often wondered about the training that they receive, and I also wonder about the psychological training a lot of these agencies are putting forth to select these officers that are being put out there.”
On Dallas: “As I saw things start to erupt with the protest in Minnesota and Louisiana, and I was praying, let’s not have another Baltimore. Then when the Dallas news started breaking, my wife, who’s also in law enforcement, said they were shooting and she noted that two of the officers appeared not to be moving on the street. And I said, from law enforcement, it’s very tragic and those officers first get safe and protected from that.
“As far as reaching out to the community, what I thought as well was to try to get word to them that lashing out at anyone in a uniform is not going to provide any form of an eye for an eye or retaliation. Your retaliation against a uniform that it represents, and each action that these officers take, is more individual. And that’s how each one needs to be viewed: on an individual basis. It’s always damning against law enforcement as a whole, but the review is against the individual officer. The rush to conclusion in our society is that we damn the whole organization for what they do versus looking at the individual person.”
Terry is a lieutenant colonel in the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office. He was born and raised in Washington, D.C., area, and has served on the force for 26 years (1991-present). He now works in an office, and he has been on active duty, during which he was involved with SWAT teams.
On this week: “Tragic. The thousands of us who uphold and believe in the oaths we took, will always make the difference. I believe that citizens all over America know that most of us believe in the work that we do, that we do it well and professionally. We must be the standard as the guardians of the public’s safety. That is the standard that will endure.”
On why he joined: “I wanted to help people and my community. I still do and I will do it for as long as I believe I can help people and help my community.”
On working in a police force that looks like the community: “The nature of our work in the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office – law enforcement and police work -in my county and in the country is challenging. Whether it’s local or international terrorism, neighborhood crime or violence , police use of force or attacks on us, the loss of trust between citizens and police that we can live safely and without fear of each other is something that can occur. Historically, law enforcement has shown leadership in helping the nation get through difficult times. We have to do that again, now.”