When I was a child I had dreams of being a police officer. I used to watch tv shows like 21 Jump Street, Magnum P.I., Jake and the Fatman, and Hawaii 5-0 and imagine myself using wits and a gun to rescue people from danger. The profession of police officer seemed so cool to me, even honorable. Dangerous, yes, but respectable.
In my pre-teen years, everyone I knew generally liked police officers. Cops were the ones you called if you ever had the misfortune of finding yourself in serious shit, they were the ones who calmed your fears and told you everything was going to be alright. They wore crisp uniforms and shiny badges which appealed to my sartorial taste. When their friends died in the line of duty they shut down the streets, honored them with 21-gun salutes and American flags draped over their caskets. According to the tv shows I consumed, cops were intelligent, crafty, resourceful, and courageous – all characteristics I greatly admired. In my young mind there wasn’t much of a downside to choosing law enforcement officer as profession.
By the time the film Bad Boys arrived in theaters, spring 1995, I couldn’t wait to get through middle school and high school so that I could enlist in the St. Louis Police Academy. I’d be just like Will Smith’s character “Mike Lowery”: handsome, charismatic, funny, brave, and of course armed with plenty of sleek-looking pistols to keep criminals in check. It was a dream, but an attainable one. Certainly much more attainable than a college degree or being an entrepreneur, or so I thought then.
It wasn’t until I began attending high school in inner-city St. Louis that my perspective on police began transforming from the idealistic view I held as a kid. Prior to high school, I was educated at private, religious schools, although my socio-economic condition didn’t mirror that of my white peers. I lived just a stone’s throw from the heart of the ghetto. My mother was somewhat of a miracle worker the way she sheltered me from the dangers taking place on the other side of our front door. I didn’t have neighborhood friends, I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at kids’ houses who lived in my community. My mother was very religious, so there’s that too. In short, my worldview was very limited, but I was safe. The trade-off made by countless parents of color rearing children in dangerous environments. Therefore, my perspective of the world didn’t extend beyond tv, books, church, and school. Subjects like racism, American slavery, police brutality, and mass incarceration were never discussed in those quaint classrooms led by privileged, middle-aged females – all of them white.
In school I was lied to often, especially regarding history and the conditions existing in the country which disenfranchised people of color. For example, Rodney King happened and I can’t remember one teacher or administrator speaking about it. When the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced, however, a television was pushed into the cafeteria for students and teachers alike, as if the first moon walk was about to take place – or a lynching. At that time, I didn’t realize the implications of the frowns and utter disgust I saw on white teacher’s faces and the stayed grins of black custodians when the jury found Simpson: NOT GUILTY.
In high school it was nearly an everyday occurrence to see resource officers slamming kids’ faces into desk or taking them roughly to the ground to slap handcuffs on their wrist. Very few of these situations warranted such force. I’d hear officers curse kids and brag to one another about how they’d “put that bitch in check.” One of the more violent scenes I witnessed was when an officer dragged a mentally-challenged boy down three flights of stairs by his collar because a teacher said he wouldn’t be quiet during an exam. This abuse of power didn’t square with what I’d always thought police officers stood for, “Serving the public and protecting the innocent.”
These incidents is what provoked me to begin serious research into the history of law enforcement in America, and what I discovered was nothing like Magnum P.I. nor 21 Jump Street. I learned that many of the first organized “police” forces in this country were actually slave catchers whose job was to return runaway slaves to plantation owners. The idea of serving and protecting began to take on a different meaning. I had to ask myself whether the police violence taking place in my high school mirrored the very worst techniques and policies of times past, and whether or not the police actually existed to serve white interests and protect white property rather than chase down bad guys and rescue helpless dames.
My dreams of wearing a badge dissolved the deeper I researched this bloody history. The older I got I began to hear stories from close friends about being regularly harassed for driving in certain neighborhoods after basketball practice. I even had a buddy who was accused of possessing crack cocaine after a cop unlawfully entered his grandmother’s home without a warrant. It took him years to disentangle himself from the criminal court system.
Of course my time would come too. I’ve been racially profiled more times than I care to remember, thankfully, these events never escalated beyond officers being verbally abusive or too rough when placing me in custody for crimes I didn’t commit.
Then Mike Brown happened (in my hometown!) and Jamal Crawford, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, and that’s just a short list of the carnage inflicted on unarmed Americans by law enforcement in the past two years. I fail to fathom how any reasonable person can witness these unnatural deaths and still refuse to hold those with power responsible.
Are all police officers dirty, of course not, but it seems utterly ridiculous to even have to qualify these deaths with such a disclaimer. Because truth be told, if the good cops policed the bad cops innocent Americans would still be alive.