I met a good cop once

I worked in a building that had one local police officer assigned to it. When I came to work there, he seemed nice enough but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to say hello. I was one of a handful of black people in the entire building and I just came to do my job the best I could, work late when necessary, and go home.

Over time I noticed something interesting about this particular cop: he was an introvert. I’m a proud INTJ myself, so I could see that he was incredibly observant, not raising his voice unless he had to, and that his strength was in knowing what everyone’s usual patterns were. Anytime I saw him, he was watching us.

goodcoponceOne night I was working late after an event with the students, waiting out front for some late parents to pick up their kids. It was dark out and my husband was with me. He was also a teacher, but in a different school, and he came to help volunteer at the event. We were chatting with the kids and my husband turned to one student and complimented her on her performance. As he turned & walked towards her, I noticed that the officer was standing in the background, eyes trained on my husband, hand within reach of his weapon, looking very tense.

I rushed over and introduced my husband to the officer and explained that he was also a credentialed teacher, and that the kids were safe. In fact, whenever my husband came to help at my school I encouraged him to wear his teacher identification just for situations like this.

What made this interaction remarkable was that I am black and my husband is white. Between the two of us, I would normally be perceived as the threat or even asked again whether I work at the school.

You would think that recognizing one’s own coworker wouldn’t be such a big deal, even more so a police officer who should know everyone in the building. But in my career to that point I’d occasionally been asked, by teachers I worked with, if I was someone’s mother or a substitute. Sometimes I was just flat out not recognized by peers. Once I had been given a faulty key, and I stood outside the doors of the school while person after person looked at the window and kept walking. “Oh, was that you?” If that was how teachers reacted to me, I couldn’t imagine what a police officer might have done.

But this unusually thoughtful officer accurately recognized me as a legitimate presence, and my unknown (to him) husband as a potential threat. The significance of that cannot be overstated.

In the current political climate, the Black Lives Matter movement has been treated by many, including politicians, as something to be erased. At the Republican convention, the various speakers wasted no time in letting the audience know that black people are to be feared, that we are dangerous, that we are “roaming the streets.” (And if you aren’t well versed in code words, you won’t realize that Trump has been denouncing black people just as loudly as he has Muslims, Mexicans, and women.) At the Democratic convention, great care was taken to acknowledge black lives and the damage of racism, but it couldn’t have been coincidental that even one of the Mothers of the Movement made sure to mention that “the majority of police officers are good people.”

The Mothers of the Movement speak out against police violence at the Democratic National Convention, 2016. Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage
The Mothers of the Movement speak out against police violence at the Democratic National Convention, 2016. Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage

Thanks to Micah Xavier Johnson and his deadly admirer in Baton Rouge, the Black Lives Matter movement is inextricably linked with the deaths of police officers. No matter that neither of these crazy brothers were meaningfully associated with the movement. In fact, the only thing they really seemed to belong to was the unfortunate “Assassin personality profile” club, of which race is a very small part. Now until the end of time, whenever we honor black lives, we must revere the police. We cannot say that we are proud to be black without reassuring everyone that we do not want to kill them. “I’m black and I’m proud! (But not a murderer, I promise!)”

The problem here is not only the immediate conflating of blackness with violence, but also that the onus of nuance is, once again, on black people, and we are the ones who must prove to everyone else that we understand the difference between good and bad. To be taken seriously, we must repeat it often, like a mantra.

This upsets me. I would argue that no one understands nuance better than black people, the people who’ve had to grow up seeing themselves through the eyes of others. Who better than a black person understands the difference between Micah Johnson and Martin Luther King? No one understands the difference between “good” and “bad” cops better than someone who lives in a community where the police are both the problem and the answer. No one understands nuance better than someone who must repeatedly conflate the life experiences of others with her own, in books, film, television. No one understands nuance better than someone who sees her own people constantly depicted as sassy best friends and Magical Negroes, only to look around her living room and see a “normal” family.

We are the ones who go to work and school daily, have good friends and good teachers who are white, and even when some of them are racist we let them into our hearts anyway. We understand the continuum of people, from “bad” to “good” and everything in between. We have to sort it out every day.

We aren’t the ones painting everyone else with a broad brush — both because we don’t own the brush, and because life as a black American requires nuanced thought. We learn it earlier, and better, than anyone else.

Officer Tommy Norman, whose undeniable sincerity breaks through my cynicism
Police officer and Instagram star Tommy Norman, whose undeniable sincerity breaks through my cynicism.

There is a dismissive element to the current craze of “good cop” videos and photos going around the Internet. On an individual level, I believe these officers are sincere. But there is something that makes me uneasy about the videos of smiling white cops surrounded by happy black kids. I’m torn; as a black woman, it is unsettling to watch men with guns ply our children with toys and candy. At the same time, I see the sincerity in many of these videos (and no matter how cynical I become, seeing happy kids always makes me smile).

But I wonder what these videos say to the public at large? How do they reinforce stereotypes about docile black children (some of these images remind me of pictures of white missionaries in Africa)?

Not only that, but these videos don’t begin to address the problem. We know not to be scared of “good” cops. Do they know not to be scared of us? The “good cop” in my example above was good because he understood how to properly assess a threat. In doing so, he unknowingly overturned what, for most Blacks, is the natural order of things. The very idea of what constitutes a “threat” and what the average police officer thinks a “threat” looks like is the heart of what Black Lives Matter is all about.

I remember one of our briefings on school violence (lockdown drills are as familiar to students and teachers as high stakes testing), and our police officer was describing what would happen in an “active shooter” scenario. At one point, he said, “Our first priority is not to help you or call an ambulance. We are trained to eliminate threats. If you are on the floor bleeding, and there is still a threat, we will go after the threat and eliminate it. If someone has a gun and they’re a threat, even if it’s a student, we won’t wait and ask questions. We are trained to shoot and we will shoot to kill.” The bluntness of his answer shocked many of the teachers, and the silence was palpable and tense. Some gasped. But I looked around, trying to find another black teacher for some solidarity. I just wanted to see someone else who understood the absurdity of the white shock in the room. Because this is not new to us. We know this. We know it every day. I almost liked the officer more, just for putting it out there, saying it out loud. The police are not your friends.

We cannot change relationships between police and citizenry with staged dances (okay, some of those are cute), cookouts, or anything remotely resembling the unbelievable abusiveness of the staged ice cream stunt (you can familiarize yourself with that mess here). The inherent imbalance of power means that these feel-good photo ops force black people to set aside their legitimate grievances so that cops can control the narrative and feel better about themselves. We need real conversations and we need to be listened to. We need to find those “good cops” and get them to hear us and from there somehow change (or dismantle) the policing institution itself. But that will take years, and I don’t have an answer for what to do in the meantime.

As for the officer in my building, I never got a chance to tell him what his thoughtfulness meant to me. One of the last times I saw him, I’d just come back to work after a painful injury, and I was trying to make my way through a crowded hallway of kids. In the corner, eyes trained on my labored walk, was the officer, watching me with a quiet concern. I was reassured by that. In those moments I finally got what most others in the building took for granted: I felt like we had an officer that valued my life as much as everyone else’s.

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