I was sixteen the first time a police officer pointed a loaded gun at me. I’m lucky to be alive. But while blaming police officers for all of the problems I encountered growing up would certainly be convenient, the truth is I had already had at least a half-dozen guns pulled on me long before I was sixteen, none of which were by police officers.
It’s an ugly truth. When you’re a minority in the United States, profiling happens on both the state and street level. The parameters might not be visible on the surface, but one wrong step could be crippling—even fatal. Which is precisely why police related shootings deserve to be scrutinized. In a nation of laws, those entrusted with upholding the law must resist the urge to rise above it themselves. However, like the citizens they also interact with, police officers deserve to be treated fairly.
Admittedly, I haven’t always held this view. Long before I delved into the polluted political biosphere of bowties and cigars, I was sunk low behind the steering wheel of a not so inconspicuous 1967 Impala. I was tattooed. My head was shaved. And Zapp & Roger was booming in the trunk. I may have intimidated a few people at stoplights, but I wasn’t a bad person.
Skirmishes with police were routine. A young Chicano (my name is adoptive) on the outskirts of a small Mexican-American community, I routinely found myself stopped and roughed up under the pretext of looking “suspicious.” One time I was punched and almost knocked out. Another time I was kicked. But most of the time I was simply forced to linger on the sidelines as my vehicle was ransacked. Eventually I gave up. Eventually I concluded the police were just another gang.
But in retrospect, I was wrong. The truth is there are good police officers and bad police officers. Anybody who says otherwise lacks an adequate frame of reference. And believe me, when it comes to frame of reference, I have a very competitive resume. I’m not proud of it. But unlike most pundits, I’m also not speculating.
The value of a police force that represents its community can’t be overstated. This isn’t a criticism of race. This is an acknowledgement of culture. And while race doesn’t always equate to culture, culture always equates to perception.
The media hasn’t helped. Pejorative terms such as “thug” have been hurled across the nation’s airwaves and television screens for months as a way to rationalize abuse of power and slate the deceased. Ensnared in the whirlwinds of the moment, pundits have both peddled long held cultural stereotypes and manufactured new hysterics.
To this extent, organizations like the ACLU have expressed legitimate concerns. Individuals have rights. And individual rights don’t suddenly vanish because the hour hand strikes midnight on a street corner. Individual rights don’t suddenly evaporate because somebody looks different or intimidating. Everyone is entitled to presumption of innocence and humane treatment.
But perception is also a two way street. We sometimes forget this in a world overrun with click bait and emoticons. While white, “racist” police officers might make for great low hanging fruit, not all police officers are white, and not all white police officers are racist. Likewise, the notion that all police officers are white and racist often hurts the very communities in need of protection the most.
I was recently reminded of this as I came across two lost children on my street. I told them to sit tight while I called the police to help them find their parents. However, the moment I mentioned the word “police,” both began to run and cry in fear. The response was disheartening. My city, however, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, is merely a reflection of hundreds of black and Hispanic cities across the nation.
Police do share some of the blame. The Department of Justice, for example, found the Ferguson Police Department to be riddled with misconduct, ranging from stops without reasonable suspicion to excessive force. I want to believe this isn’t a disturbing microcosm of mismanaged police departments across the country, but I’ve gazed down too many gun barrels to naively believe otherwise.
But how much of this truly has to do with race, and how much of this actually has to do with culture?
The distinction is important. Earlier this year, Freddie Gray died while being transported to a hospital in Baltimore. Half of the police officers charged in his death were white and half weren’t. So was this a question of race or culture? Last December, two Brooklyn police officers, both minorities, were ambushed and murdered while sitting in their vehicles. Was this a question of race or culture? Hence the problem with backing narratives into simplified corners.
Politics is equally to blame. By promoting the idea that all police officers are evil, many blacks and Hispanics are not only discouraged from pursuing careers in law enforcement and policing their own communities, but from reporting crimes and collaborating with police. As a result, otherwise law abiding citizens often become prisoners in their own communities, believing they must choose between the dangers of the neighborhood and the dangers of the state.
Now, on the heels of yet another highly publicized police shooting, this time in Chicago, many of these same discussions have reared their heads again. Like many Americans, I can’t help but cringe. Each time this happens, protests unfold and the predictable euphemisms are employed.
The discussion, however, needs to be had—fairly. No protest is black or white. In most situations, there are elements of truth and elements of fiction, elements of justified socioeconomic rage, and elements of contrived criminal opportunity.
The worst mistake outside observers can make is paint those involved with a broad brush. It’s always difficult to be forced into a responsive position—business owners, families, communities, and yes, police officers alike.
Perception is reality best served with caution.
Brandon Loran Maxwell is a Writer's Digest prize winning essayist, keynote speaker, and member of the Foundation for Economic Education Faculty Network.