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The Way Encounters Between Cops and Civilians Ought to Be

When a police officer exhibits courtesy and empathy, it brings into focus the nuanced, complex relationship between law enforcement and the African American community.

Recently I wrote about an unfortunate encounter my wife had with the Atlanta police 30 years ago when she was stopped for no apparent reason other than she was driving a luxury car in a neighborhood where it didn’t seem to belong and was probably mistaken for a young Black male joyriding in a stolen car. Last week she was stopped again — not by the police but by a mechanical malfunction of her car, and it was a young Black police officer who helped see her to safety.

The relationship between the police and the African American community is nuanced and complex. On one hand, the encounters between them and underserved community residents are often not positive. On the other hand, minority communities experience greater crime and thus especially need the protection of the police. Better communication is needed on both ends.

This paradox means it is misguided to simply call for defunding or abolishing the police. But it is equally problematic to keep making funding them a priority while more than a thousand Americans are being killed by them each year and — an often-overlooked data point — while, despite a recent rise, violent crime has been trending dramatically downward for more than 30 years.

Positive encounters with the police like my wife recently had — and that of my daughter a week earlier, when a careless driver hit her car when he turned into her lane — bring into focus the nuanced relationship alluded to above.

It is not that police officers deserve extra praise for taking seriously their duty to protect and serve the public. Nor am I saying they should be awarded medals when they are not violent in their encounters with residents. But the chance of my family having positive interactions with two different officers in a span of nine days is unlikely if most of the men and women in blue are like Derek Chauvin, convicted of murdering George Floyd, or the five Memphis officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death.

Thankfully, many of them aren’t like that. Here's how my family’s most recent encounter with law enforcement, the one involving my wife, unfolded: I pull up on the scene where she is stranded shortly before the 29-year-old police officer arrives on the scene. My wife had managed to maneuver over to the side of the road as cars kept zooming past.

When the officer arrives, I greet him as he gets out of his vehicle. “How can I be of assistance?” he asks. “My wife’s car just stopped, and she cannot get it started,” I respond. He immediately turns on the blue lights on top of his car, but drivers keep whizzing by. We both comment on how fast Atlantans drive and how insensitive they can be to a stranded motorist.

He remains with us for almost an hour while we wait for a tow truck. I feel guilty about how much this situation is taking of his time. I can hear other calls coming in on his radio, but he doesn’t want to leave us until he knows for sure that we are safe and the vehicle is out of harm’s way.

During the long wait, we get to know each other. He lives a mile or so from us in the precinct where he is assigned. He is a military veteran and attended the Atlanta police academy five years ago, but was unable to become active until two years ago due to COVID-19.

It piques his attention when I tell him I spoke with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens recently about the city’s controversial proposed police training academy, referred to by detractors derisively as “Cop City.” I ask if he supports the project. He says he does. “You said you were speaking to the mayor,” he exclaims. “How does something like that happen?” I explain my relationship to the mayor, adding, “It helps to have one time been his professor.”

I tell him I am a former city councilman, and this interests him even more. He asks what a city councilman does and how to become one. I explain the process and share with him that one of the councilmen I served with started out as a police officer, as did the clerk of the council at the time.

By now I am really engaged: “What are your career goals?” I ask. He shares that his career path includes one day making the rank of sergeant. And I add: "Maybe at some point becoming a city councilman.” He blushes.

There is nothing in this young man’s disposition or that of the 40-year-old officer who responded to my daughter’s accident that appear overly “warrior.” They both have qualities I believe city officials should look for when recruiting police officers. I wonder whether years on the job make police officers jaundiced. Will they lose the kind of empathy shown to my wife and daughter?

There are some things that can be done to lessen that chance. First, why not include some civics training in police certification programs so officers better understand the relationship between law enforcement and the legislative and the executive branches? The mini civics lesson I gave the young officer, about how to become an elected official, might help him one day seek this path of service. For the first time perhaps, he might see his role to protect and serve in a larger context. If officers believe their careers can lead to service as lawyers or lawmakers, perhaps they might experience less burnout.

There’s also the question of what police officers’ duties should encompass. It seems clear from the amount of time they spend responding to traffic accidents and roadside emergencies like my wife’s and daughter’s that the function can and should be handled by civilians with special training. Officers need to be freed up to respond to violent and other more serious crime.

I said earlier that to improve the relationship between the police and public will require a higher level of communication by both sides. The young officer and I had time to communicate waiting on the tow truck, and he brought along no preconceived notions that I or anyone in my family was a criminal.

I won’t forget anytime soon either of the officers’ kindness and sensitivity. As a citizen I deserve no less. But it is clear that manners like those two officers possess don’t come only from training — they come from character. That’s what we should be looking for in every police officer we hire.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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