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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The Providence cop was completely exonerated. The driver’s stepbrother had a warrant and was last known to be at the address. The rookie cop didn’t know if he could tell the driver about the warrant. So that leaves the Ohio stare incident. Actually, that one sounds bad. Sounds like it was all about ego, on the officer’s part. As in, “You should be the one to break from the stare.” It’s pretty street.
Better psychological / emotional screening needs to done for LEO, and it should not be a one-time thing before acceptance onto the force. They have to prove themselves competent with their weapons every so many years. Why shouldn’t they be tested for mental health every X years? It might also help decrease the tragedy of police suicides.
On a completely different topic, do you guys see the irony of your current home page’s content as of this writing, with a story of celebrating women cops in one city, while another story tells of a how a lone female officer was pushed down an embankment by a man, used her stun gun, and the guy got away? Ever see the old movies, what cops looked like? Aren’t there enough alpha males who can handle one, even sometimes two people with their hands or nightsticks a good percentage of the time? Of course there are outliers among females who can physically match men, but when I see a 5’6″ female cop weighing 130 lbs., I think, what in God’s name is she going to do to protect herself besides use her Taser, her gun, or rely on her male partner? Women aren’t allowed in combat roles in the US military (I know, they are changing that), but smaller, weaker people (females, to generalize) are allowed on police forces to be protected by their male colleagues, for political correctness’s sake? It was probably fine and often cute in towns and cities that were low crime, but in America of 2015, is it a sensible policy?
I know this comment will bring down all holy heck in terms of replies. Please surprise me and just keep it civil. No ad hominem attacks. No guesswork as to who I am, etc. We’re all adults, right?
Note I defended the Providence officer.
Everyone is glad to see the police when they need them, as the cliche goes. It’s true. But in 2015, there is no other interaction, in our culture of uber-equality, where deference is expected, where one must be careful to not accidentally or purposely ‘diss’, where one must keep their emotions and language in check to the satisfaction of a stranger, like being a citizen interacting with a police officer.
OK, maybe if you’re in court, you need to give such deference to the judge. But most of us are not in court much. Getting pulled over for a traffic violation is a reality for most of us (hopefully not too often).
This is not about the current racial tensions. I know I will likely be vilified for this comment, too, but I think cops need to think about the fact that, regardless of how glad people are to see them when there’s a crisis, they are the ONLY figures in society who demand a certain deference out of strangers, and sometimes let their egos, their male pride, and the stress from their admittedly tough and dangerous job get to them. As exhibit A, I give you the Ohio cop mentioned in the story. I will hazard a guess that most cops will say they deserve respect and civility from civilians. I agree, 100%. But should a law-abiding citizen who made a lane change without a signal, not ran over someone, feel even slightly intimidated, slightly on eggshells, slightly worried that this cop may be provoked, feel dissed, or want to show who’s in control, without a valid reason, due to a possibly mistaken impression of the cop? Should the civilian feel they can’t express their emotions, within the bounds of public civility?
If this continues to be “the way things are”, every cop will be wearing a camera by 2017, and the federal government will be telling car makers that all new civilian cars must come with a dash cam. That is likely to happen anyway.
Poor Sandra Bland was a troubled soul who committed suicide.
But I watched the full tape. I watched the cop interact with the driver before Miss Bland, and with her. Society is changing. It is 2015. Americans have turned on everything. They will not tolerate being asked where they are going, what are they doing, for a traffic violation stop.
The cop was in fact rude to Ms. Bland. Did it justify her refusal to comply? No.
Was he f@#$ing with her, and asserting his authority, to show her who was boss? Hell yes.
He erred and forgot to tell her she was pulled over mainly for rolling through a stop sign.
He asked her why she was aggravated. She answered his question. When she finished, he said rudely and condescendingly, “Are you done?” When she pointed out she had been asked a question…
suddenly he changed the subject to…her cigarette.
Was this grown man really afraid of being blinded in one eye by a lightning attack by her with her butt, being pulled into her car, and then dragged to his death?
Yes, he had a right to tell her to put out the cig.
Does he always do that? With the cute twenty-something chick he’s giving a warning to, who’s smiling and smoking? Yeah, I bet.
He ordered her to do so, because his vibe was she’d refuse.
And when she did, it was ego time.
Like the “stare” thing in Ohio.
I know we need a thin blue line.
I know cops put their lives on the line all the time.
I know some don’t make it home at the end of the day.
I get that.
That said, I see no reason why cops, like the one in Prairie View, who are not fresh from a hostage rescue, but instead rolling around enforcing traffic law, ONCE they ascertain that the traffic stop is not a danger in any way, why they need to still hold with that defer to me, watch yourself, I can arrest you for anything if I really want to, attitude with people they’ve established are not bad guys.
It will not hold in America in 2015. Society has changed.
No one would should verbally assault, curse at, or resist a cop.
But in our uber-egalitarian society, the pose and attitude adopted by too many (not all) cops when pulling over someone for a non-criminal offense, *after* they’ve determined the person is not a bad guy, not a threat, etc….is a relic that must change.
Cops should still bust heads of bad guys.And shoot anyone pointing a gun at them, or in any way trying to hurt them. Why, I think they should have the right to shoot fleeing *unarmed* suspects! That law was only changed in the 1970’s!
I just think they will be even *more* supported by the silent majority if they can work on their skills with the driving-challenged, but non-felonious, public.
So this comment is not anti-cop. It’s just a request for some honest self-evaluation by cops about their behavior with the decent, well-meaning, law and order supporting people out there, who do make traffic mistakes.