My two-hour phone call with a white police officer

Last week, I had a two-hour phone conversation with a white police officer whom I reached out to. I was reading all kinds of articles and status posts from friends about Ferguson, Eric Garner, and racial unrest. I wanted to know: what does a police officer think about all this?

Fortunately, the officer I reached out to was generous enough to speak with me to share his perspective, and to listen to mine. He was in his early thirties, and has been in the police force of a racially-diverse major metropolitan city for the past five years. I found him because he posted interesting, thought-provoking, and well-articulated arguments on his take about Ferguson and beyond.

Recently he decided that he wasn’t going to write about this topic on Facebook anymore. Too many accusations, not enough listening. I can understand that. I once posted about how women professionals should have the choice to stay at home or not (I didn’t even advocate for one position or the other) and I still got a ton of mean comments from my own acquaintances. So I hear where he’s coming from, but I still think it’s sad that he no longer feels safe posting things on his own digital front door.

The phone call lasted a lot longer than I thought it would, and it prompted me to think more deeply about how both sides view what’s been going on in the news regarding high-publicity cases like Ferguson and Eric Garner, police militarization, and the use of excessive force.

Are both sides seeing the same evidence, statistics, research studies, and articles? If so, how and why are we interpreting that information so differently? This is important, because my hypothesis is that if we want to change people, we need to understand why those who think differently from us think and act the way that they do. 

Certain job functions have a culture of “we protect our own.” That’s important and good for the most part. It’s a dangerous job and few people on the outside understand the day-to-day risks, except the fellow officers living it with you. I think the fact that so few people understand, makes it even more likely that those officers feel closely-knit with one another.

I also think that there are bad apples in every organization. Those bad apples ruin it for everyone else. The employees at Domino’s who put gross things on pizza and filmed a YouTube video of it - it only took two people to ruin decades of brand equity. Now every Domino’s employee probably has to go through hours of corporate training and tightened policies. They’re being punished for the actions of a few.

With the field of law enforcement, it so happens that the stakes are especially high. Bad apples don’t just result in unsanitary pizza. Bad apples result in people getting killed.

But not every apple is bad. When we blame an entire profession, it only makes them band together even more tightly. Even if individually they believe that what happened at Ferguson was unfair, when the entire world is accusing all police officers, it makes sense for them to think, “Well, we better stick together now. Everyone is turning on us. Now, if ever, is the time to stand united.”

Having people think this way doesn’t help the cause of trying to get both sides to understand each other and to be open to changing.

The officer I spoke with has a master’s degree, is welcomed in the racially-diverse community he works in, and is an open-minded, critical thinker. If we had more people like him, period - not just in law enforcement, but in any field - I think the world would be a better place. Except instead of feeling empowered to talk about important issues, he feels blamed and will no longer discuss Ferguson because there’s no upside in doing so.

That police officer is a good apple. Having him as an ally to people of color would greatly benefit the cause. 

We should create an environment where the good apples feel comfortable saying to the bad apples, “No, we don’t do things like that. Stop ruining it for the rest of us.”