A police officer's open letter to black protesters
OPINION - What law enforcement and individuals in our communities need is to become better at engaging each other at the local and personal level. Challenge yourself to have a human discussion with the cop patrolling your neighborhood just as you would do with the local shopkeepers...
TheGrio was contacted by Officer Sanders of New Mexico, who wanted to share his perspective on the protests sweeping the nation after the grand juries’ decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island. The 25-year-old Sanders has been in law enforcement for a year and wants to help bridge the divide between law enforcement and black America. While we recognize that many will not agree with Officer Sanders, we do believe his point of view should be in the public discussion. The following is his open letter to black protestors across America. At his request, we’ve withheld his full name.
Dear black protestors,
It’s hard for me to sit in silence as I watch you marching in streets across this nation. There is a sense of pride watching members of my generation — “the selfie generation” — mobilize from coast to coast behind a social cause greater than our individual selves. The images of you on cable news networks are reminiscent of the Civil Rights era, when Americans of all ages marched to change Jim Crow laws, to end segregation, and to stop voter intimidation.
I wish that I could march with you, but I cannot knowing that there is a faction among you who will never accept me or appreciate what I do each day of my life.
To be frank, the misperceptions and vitriol directed towards law enforcement frightens me. I’m fully aware that not all or even most of you think that law enforcement is out to eliminate black men. But there is a loud minority who, along with elements in the media – particularly social media – is spreading a dangerous narrative about law enforcement. This only creates a greater rift between police departments and communities of color and will ultimately result in more misunderstandings and more loss of lives.
I know this, not because I am a just police officer but because I am also a proud 25-year-old African-American man. I exist in the middle of two worlds and have the conversations in my head that I wish America would have aloud.
Black and Blue
I recognize the burden of my identity in this country. When I’m in uniform, I am a peacekeeper and a protector of people with the ability to save lives. When I take my badge off at the end my shift, reality quickly sets in. Walking past white women on the streets who clutch their bags and being followed around the convenience stores are a part of the many frequent reminders that I am just another black man in America. Little do they know that a few hours ago, before I donned my baseball cap and sneaks, if they were to have called 911, it would have been me to their rescue.
But also imagine the strain of being black and wearing the blue — to live and patrol in communities of color where “F**k The Police” is a celebrated old-school anthem and where some believe you’re better off dead. Imagine the anxiety of being in your own home, having to keep your gun in sight, and never being fully comfortable that you’re safe from those who are in the fringe and wish you harm.
What they fail to understand is that I’m from the community and just one degree of separation from living in their world. My twin brother and I took different paths in life. He developed a dependency on drugs and spiraled into a life of crime that led to his incarceration. This is why making arrests is still a very difficult part of my job. Like 99 percent of those in law enforcement, I did not get into this profession to disrupt or end lives; rather, I want to save the lives of so many people — like my brother.
A Thankless Job
Most police officers do this job because they love the communities they serve. We chose to be in a profession where every day you get to make a difference, whether it’s saving a child from an unhealthy home, coming to the aid of a domestic violence victim, finding shelter for the homeless, or getting a reckless drunk driver off the road.
Contrary to what many believe, we do not hope to have violent run-ins. It is actually what I dread the most.
One of the most daunting experiences of my career was having an individual aiming his gun at my back from a window in the dead of night. I had to make a split-second decision; one that would not only affect the life of the gunman but my life and the lives of everyone I hold dear. I was fortunately able to gain control of the situation by getting the gunman to comply with my commands. He was eventually apprehended without a single shot being fired, and we both lived to see another day.
That story didn’t make the morning news, nor did I look for it to. Our job is often a thankless one. The peaceful and nonviolent resolution of potentially deadly situations far outnumbers the incidents of police shootings that we’ve become accustomed to. It seems as if the media only views us through the lens of a camera phone.
What I think is lost in the raw emotions of Ferguson and Staten Island is that we must be careful not to create a deeper chasm between communities of color and law enforcement. The historical skepticism that blacks have of law enforcement has merit, but we all have to work together to end institutional racism in America. The inconvenient truth is that the continued distrust is hurting us. How many crimes in our communities go unsolved because we rather not “snitch” or cooperate with police?
Where do we go from here?
In the coming weeks and months, the number of folks in your protests may diminish, and you must consider what the legacy of your marches, boycotts, and die-ins will be. Will our communities be better off as a result? Our parents and grandparents’ protests of the 50s and 60s worked because they weren’t simply protesting against something but for something. That movement was for changing laws, and resulted in the Civil Rights Act and The Voters Rights Act being passed. It’s not enough for you to march against police brutality; your movement must be for an achievable end that will make brutality less likely.
While you are marching today, remember President Obama’s quoting of Mahatma Gandhi when he said, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you see a black officer today, be reminded that — like me — they risk their lives and the chance of not ever seeing their black children, mothers and wives in order to bridge the divide between law enforcement and communities of color across the country.
Here are two things that we can work together to change. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2007, 75 percent of local police forces in the United States were white. The level of diversity in law enforcement needs to change in order for this division to end and for real change to occur.
While the attention of the world is on you, demand to work with your local and state law enforcement agencies to better reflect the communities we vow to protect and serve. If you want your police departments to understand what it is like to be black in America, then the best way to ensure that is to have more black men and women recruited in their ranks.
Secondly, our country is being presented with a great moment in history to heal old divisions, but it will require honest discussion. Both sides need to do away with the stereotypes that prohibit us from seeing each other’s humanity. While protesting has its place and it is necessary to expressed collective frustration, it’s not conducive for intelligent exchanges.
What law enforcement and individuals in our communities need is to become better at engaging each other at the local and personal level. Challenge yourself to have a human discussion with the cop patrolling your neighborhood just as you would do with the local shopkeepers.
It’s time, we all become a little more human in each other’s eyes.