July 25, 2016

By Arthur H. Gunther III

With all the sadness in the land over the deliberate targeting and killing of police officers as well as the harming of citizens by law enforcement, I will tell you of two local encounters that perhaps simplify but also articulate the issues today.
Last week, at about 2:30 a.m. in the once small village where I grew up, where my dad did, too, where my family knew many, and they knew us, where in my generation and before, we especially knew the local police since the officers came from among us, and we saw these men every day and every night walking on Main Street; in this village now grown so large and in these times beset with poverty, crime, irresponsible, even gouging landlords and a government seemingly incapable of dealing with matters; in this community at 2:30 a.m the police came knocking at my door.
Not my house, no, but the building where I am a volunteer cook in a free morning breakfast program. The officer at first startled me because I am alone in the old church at that time, and someone has to rap on a basement-style window to draw attention. “Police,” said the officer. “Let me in.”  I went up to the door and opened it. The fellow entered cautiously and said the police like to check on the building from time to time. In fact, the church had recently requested that though I had seen an officer only once in my 15 years at the building at that hour of the morning. But OK. Nice to be looked after.
The officer did not come down the stairs but instead asked me who I was, my birth date, my cell phone number. The fellow was polite and efficient, professional I guess you would call it, a bit more polished than the gruff but friendly neighborhood cop I met so long ago in this same village of my youth — when  I was in seventh grade and was stopped on Main Street because the movie got out late and it was just pass the then 9 p.m. curfew. Gruff but friendly like a family member. That “beat” officer, a now almost disappeared job description, who walked Main Street until midnight and checked every storefront lock by hand, simply told me to keep heading home. A human encounter with no posturing on either side. Mutual respect.
Now I want to contrast the helpful attitudes of the officer of my youth and the fellow who came to the church at 2:30 a.m. last week with a village cop who perhaps should be in another line of work. (And doesn’t that happen in all jobs?)
About a year ago, one of the food program participants telephoned police because he was having words with another guy. The food program did not call — we rarely have such need — and, frankly, there was no dispute that required the police.
But they were called, and so they responded. I went outside when I saw the officer, told him that there was no problem, that a participant had called, not the food program. The officer not only ignored me twice and did not answer but instead deliberately, it seemed, stared straight into my eyes with a look of contempt that I had not seen in years. Then he walked away. It was not professional; it was bizarre.
Why didn’t this officer, who is employed by the citizenry to protect and serve, answer a polite fellow? Worse, did he think, from the way a volunteer cook like me dresses for a few hours at a greasy flattop grill, that I was among the homeless and so, in his view, not deserving respect? How awful.
So, tales of two very different encounters with village police — one where the officers were clearly doing their job, one where the public was disrespected, not served.
If I were the police chief in this village, I would require all officers to walk street beats and interact with this mostly minority community, though it must be added that officers do know the homeless street regulars.
In this village, in communities across the nation, a line has been drawn between the police and the people they must serve. There are suspicions on both sides, suspicions that could — would — end if the police quickly returned to interact with their communities and not disappear from the streets to dark-window patrol SUVs that increasingly look like military vehicles. Why the beat cop went away  is a mystery, but it was the beginning of “us vs. them.” To have had the neighborhood officer in the patrol vehicle and not on the street at a time of rising racial tension in America, when cities were being abandoned, when immigration woes mounted, was a strike against humanity, one that continues. If anything, law enforcement needed — need — to be in the community, to understand people, to be part of the brotherhood of humankind.
The recent targeted killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were the work of two deranged people who had sophisticated military weapons and killer-instinct training. They may have used the present hyped anti-police atmosphere as rationale, but they were sick people, not the average citizen with legitimate concerns about policing. The shootings were terrible acts toward 99 percent good people doing a dangerous job under difficult conditions.
However, harm, including death, inflicted on citizens by some police, such as in traffic stops, is equally troubling since obvious racial prejudice is involved as well as distrust of individuals and community, not unlike the distrust of the officer who stared this writer down when he was trying to be helpful.
God bless the police, who serve us because we cannot police ourselves. Heaven protect them. They do such good — saving lives, delivering babies, etc. But get out into the community, officers. Leave the SUVs. Walk a beat again. Talk to the black man, the Hispanic, the immigrant, the kid looking for trouble. Talk to everyone, especially those you may feel uneasy about,  and your prejudices will lessen, your work made easier by people who want to show respect but only if earned by politeness and genuinely honest engagement and caring, even heroism like that of the two New York City officers who last week sped off with what they thought was a bomb, to protect the public. Get out among the people and do good service, as did that cop who sent me home after curfew time.
Stop militarizing yourselves, which is not allowed constitutionally anyway since a police force cannot be paramilitary.  Stop being so insular in a brotherhood that you forget your brothers and sisters in the community. Realize you are citizens, too. Realize most people are good, friendly, giving.
Maybe then this wall of mutual suspicion will fall. Maybe then more of us — more police, too — will be safe.

   The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.