By Théoden Janes, The Charlotte Observer
Sept. 04–When’s the last time you read or saw something that put a police officer in a bad light?
Last week? Yesterday? Ten minutes ago?
Two of the most recent stories that popped up on my radar: On Monday, CNN posted prominently on its home page the story of a white Ohio officer telling an African American motorist that he pulled him over, in part, for making “direct eye contact”; on Thursday, the Providence Journal reported on a video showing a white officer telling a black motorist that he pulled him over for incorrectly installed air fresheners.
In both cases, the men being pulled over made claims of racial profiling. And in both cases, the clips made the rounds on the Internet and fueled the growing perception — especially common among minorities — that our police can’t always be trusted.
Next question: When’s the last time you read or saw something that put a police officer in a good light?
Those stories don’t often go as viral, but they’re out there. Do a Google News search for “cop saves,” for instance, and you’ll find numerous inspiring results. Or better yet, check out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Facebook page, which has catalogued plenty of uplifting local tales.
In one, rookie Officer Rick Zoerb responds to a medical emergency to find a family of five living in poverty, bad enough that the water company has shut off service to the home. Zoerb, himself once homeless and living out of his car, takes the time to learn about the family’s troubles. Later, he returns with six cases of water and a bag of groceries that he paid for out of his own pocket.
In another, Officer Robert Chomicki responds to a dispute between two neighbors, and helps talk both men down to the point that they are able to shake hands. One of the men is holding a baby, who keeps indicating she wants to be held by Officer Chomicki — which is amazing to the father because, he says, she never wants to be held by anyone. Not even other family members. Chomicki smiles as he holds the girl for several minutes, then the dad asks if Chomicki will pose for a picture with the two of them. In the photo, the man flashes a peace sign “because peace equals police.” (A couple of local TV stations did short segments on the photo, but the story certainly didn’t make CNN.)
And here’s my favorite: A hungry out-of-town trucker walks up to a Popeye’s late at night (since his semi/trailer won’t fit in the parking lot) to find that only the drive-through is open. He sees Officer Chris Atwood pull into the line, and asks if Atwood wouldn’t mind ordering for him. The officer kindly agrees, and the trucker gives Atwood enough cash to cover both meals.
The line is long, and the two men chat while they wait. A homeless man comes by; Atwood watches as the trucker gives him a few bucks. When Atwood’s cruiser finally reaches the window, the officer surprises the stranger by pulling out his credit card and covering both meals, then returning the cash. The grateful trucker later sends an email to the department: “This may seem like nothing, but to me a random act of kindness is always a big deal. … All this hate is getting us nowhere, but just a little bit of love goes such a long way.”
In all three cases, these were white officers dealing with African Americans, and I point this out because of some of the preconceived notions about how white officers deal with minorities.
Relations are tense nationwide, as a growing number of African Americans express concerns about alleged racial profiling and perceived police brutality. Police, meanwhile, are increasingly feeling the need to stay alert to the possibility of becoming targets just for wearing their uniform. (Last week, a sheriff’s deputy in Texas was killed in an apparently unprovoked attack while fueling his car.)
And here in Charlotte, many are still divided over the case involving white Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer Randall Kerrick, who fatally shot an unarmed black man named Jonathan Ferrell in 2013. The moments before Ferrell’s death were captured on video; after the jury deadlocked 8-4 to acquit, the judge declared a mistrial and voluntary manslaughter charges were dropped.
The controversies are difficult to ignore. They shouldn’t be ignored. But my hope is that we’ll all maintain perspective.
I personally am friendly with five Charlotte police officers, and in every instance, I was friendly with them before I knew they were police officers. So, I see them as people first, then as police officers second. To me, it’s kind of odd seeing them in uniform.
When I mentioned what I was thinking of writing, one said to me: “A lot of people see police as robots. The truth is we care and want to help people. When I was in the academy, we had to tell our class why we wanted to be a cop, the number one answer was: We wanted to help people and make a difference. No one said they wanted to fight and hurt people.”
Another said: “A handful of officers make poor life decisions and make us all look bad. It makes the job so much harder for the vast majority of officers that are really just trying to make a difference.”
On a recent Friday, I was helping a friend with a project at the northeast corner of Trade and Tryon streets uptown when two CMPD officers on motorcyles arrived and staked out a spot across the street. Shortly thereafter, a large family with several small children passed me speaking in Spanish and broken English, crossed Trade, and began playing and taking photos on The Square.
As I was 75 feet away, I couldn’t hear what was going on, but the officers and the family started interacting. Next thing you know, the kids were taking turns sitting on the seats of the police bikes while the officers smiled for the dad’s camera.
This went on for several minutes; not only did it look like it was making the family’s day, it looked like it was making the officers’ as well. The image has stayed with me, and I wish that this could be everyone’s image of our local police force.
Look, I’ll be the first to stand up and say that police officers need to be held to a much higher standard than people in other jobs. If a fast-food worker screws up, your order is wrong. If an officer screws up, the wrong person could go to jail, or the wrong person could go free, or someone could die.
I’m not arguing that you should cut them some slack. I’m also not arguing that I fully understand what it feels like to be racially profiled and discriminated against (although I am a minority). And I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to grab your cellphone and start taking video if you think a police officer is behaving badly.
My point is this: Among the nearly 500,000 sworn police officers at the more than 12,000 local departments across the U.S., there are countless numbers of them doing a whole lot of good.
The bad ones deserve to be called out and labeled as villains. But it’s just as easy to find stories about the good ones — the heroes — and in this tense time that we live in, it’s worth making every effort to help those stories go viral, too.
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