Views from behind the badge: Rebuilding the public’s trust in the police
▶ Watch Video: Police speak on rebuilding the public trust
Norman Rockwell had this way of capturing what was best about America. “The Runaway” locked in the image of a little boy’s trust in and hero worship of a cop. That was 1958.
Even today, you’ll still find people picking up an officer’s tab for lunch, just because. “It happens quite often, quite often,” said Lt. Kami Maertz, a watch commander for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office in a northeastern corner of Florida.
“What do they say?” asked “Sunday Morning” senior contributor Ted Koppel.
“They normally will come up and introduce themselves, and just let us know that they live within our county, and let us know that they appreciate what we are doing. And then, they’ll usually pay it without even telling us.”
In the case of Officer Adam Deming, a 14-year veteran with the police in Charleston, South Carolina, it was a haircut: “One of the barbershops that I go to in the area that I am assigned, actually the last two months, I’ve had some stranger pay for my haircut.”
Because? “Just because; I’m not 100% sure,” Deming replied. “I didn’t know who they were. I guess just out of respect. One of them I didn’t even get to shake his hand; he disappeared before I finished my haircut.”
So, these small gestures of appreciation still occur, and they happen in all parts of the country.
Petr Speight, a patrol officer in Montgomery County, Maryland, said, “A couple of weeks ago someone had brought me breakfast, to say thank you. Yeah, you will get that. You definitely will get that.”
Koppel said, “Good, that must make you feel …”
“It gives you a glimmer of hope that, you know, whether they say it or not, people still want you there, and they’re aware you’re there, and they want to thank you in some way,” Speight said.
It seems counter-intuitive, just a year after George Floyd’s killing, but public trust in law enforcement has actually gone up over that year. A USA Today/Ipsos survey last March showed 69% of Americans trust police to promote justice and equal treatment of all races. That’s up 13% from 2020.
Even so, Officer Speight said a lot of his colleagues are talking about considering quitting.
“Just because of the, so much of the anti-police sentiment, not being treated well,” he said. “Those kind of things are just discouraging people from wanting to stick around. Things have just changed, the way people view us and the way they view our role in society and our jobs.”
Koppel asked, “When you talk about the way people treat you, what do you mean?”
“It was always there before, it was a little bit, not as much,” Speight said. “But nowadays, people tend to come at us more with an antagonistic tone. It’s no more respect for authority or respect that we’re here to help you or to resolve a situation. People just come at us with total anger, from both sides.”
“You’re facing the double whammy: You’re a Black cop, so you’re getting it from both sides?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s hard because viewing me as another Black, African American, they see me just as the uniform, just as a police officer.”
Koppel asked, “Do you get a feeling of resentment from other African Americans, where they’re saying, ‘Come on, how could you?'”
“Yes. Yes. They’ve called names, everything, instead of kind of appreciating that they’re seeing another face in law enforcement that looks like theirs. I’m still a traitor, an Uncle Tom, you name it, I’m it.”
Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph has been with the Los Angeles Police Department for 25 years. “Before I was a cop, I was a young, African American male. Still am relatively young!” he laughed. “But back then, it was the same thing. I was only exposed to the negative. I grew up in the Rodney King era. I joined an activist group that espoused the same things that we’re hearing today. The music I listened to, the movies I watched, everything was geared toward telling you that police officers were evil. But the difference between myself and the rest of the community is, I was one of the few that stepped across the line and saw the other side.
“And what I saw on the other side was, the vast majority of officers are decent human beings. But yes, there is a negative exception that we all need to work hard to try to root out. And I think we’re trying to do that.”
Koppel asked, “Over the years the L.A. police force has had a bad rap as far as racism is concerned. That’s not gonna strike you as a news bulletin.”
“Well, I take the position that we’ve evolved,” Joseph said. “We’re not the department that we were in the 1960s, ’70s, or even the ’90s. If you went to a roll call today, you wouldn’t see just blond-haired, blue-eyed White guys anymore. You would see Hispanics, Blacks, people from the LGBTQ community, people from all different faiths and walks of life.”
“What are you seeing on the street? Do you get the sense that people recognize and appreciate the changes you’re talking about?”
“Well, I would say, prior to the pandemic, we were seeing that,” Joseph replied. “And then what happened in Minneapolis, that horrible tragedy with George Floyd. So, a lot of people just ended up making up their own minds that all police are bad, that all police are inherently evil. And that’s something that we’re trying to combat as we speak.”
On the other side of the country, at a high school on Johns Island, part of which falls within the city limits of Charleston, S.C., local cops show up for a monthly community circle. School Resource Officer Adam Deming, with the Charleston Police, initiated the program after the death of George Floyd.
Koppel asked, “What’s the biggest issue as far as that community appears to be concerned?”
“So, inside of the school they trust me,” Deming said. “They trust the officers that I bring in. But outside of the school walls, they don’t know if they can trust someone who isn’t me, or who isn’t one of the group that they’ve been able to have these open dialogues with. And that’s the question: How do we bridge that gap?”
These meetings are helpful and well-intentioned, but they’re no match for examples of police misconduct, captured on a cell phone video and distributed worldwide on social media.
Deming said, “From my standpoint in the school, I feel like sometimes I’m taking two or three steps forward in the right direction and gaining the trust of more of my students and more of the community, and then an incident happens – whether it be local or whether it be nationwide – and it knocks me back.”
Six years ago, North Charleston Police were at the center of a national firestorm when video went viral of a 50-year-old African American, Walter Scott, being shot in the back while running away from police. He’d been stopped for having a non-functioning taillight.
Koppel asked, “You had a situation in your community that got national attention. What was the reaction?”
“I’ve been told not to comment, I guess, on the Walter Scott incident,” Deming replied. “That’s what I’m just being told. Sorry.”
The City of North Charleston reached a $6.5 million settlement with Walter Scott’s family. The White police officer who killed him is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
“This isn’t because of one incident; this is a bunch of incidents that’ve happened that are now easier to understand or see because they’re literally recorded,” said Patrick Skinner, a detective in Savannah, Georgia. “I don’t speak for any department, but I know that there are many, many, many, many police officers that get it right. And I’m certain that there are departments that get it right. But as we’ve seen, every single department in every city is one video away from disaster.”
At an age when many cops are considering retirement, Skinner, who’s 50, has only been on the Savannah police force a little more than four years. “Before that I worked with a security consultancy out of New York,” he said. “But before that, I was a CIA case officer for about seven-and-a-half years. Only left to take care of my dad, who was dying of Alzheimer’s. And I came back home.”
Skinner was born in Savannah: “I remember living here as a child, and I probably never thought about race, because I was a White Southern kid. So, I had the luxury of never thinking about race. Right now, I’m a White Southern cop. I am literally the least persecuted person on the planet. I am aware of this.
“When people dismiss race,” he said, “that means they’ve never been the victim of racism.”
Take the recent case of Army Lt. Caron Nazario in Virginia, who was held at gun point and pepper-sprayed in a traffic stop.
Lt. Nazario, to officer with gun: “I’m honestly afraid to get out.”
Cop: “You should be!”
Koppel asked Officer Speight, “You had a young African American man in uniform, a soldier – polite, calm – and yet he was pulled out of his car. How do you explain that to your nephews? I suspect there has to be a part of the conversation that says, ‘You don’t get away with the same thing that a White kid your age does’?”
“Um-hmm. You have to come at that right off the bat,” said Speight. “And there’s no mincing words with that. It’s going to be different, and I try and encourage them to do the same thing. Be polite. Be respectful. That military gentleman, he was being respectful and polite. The officer still did not treat him in a way that I would treat people. There are people that should be doing other things; they should not be in the line of work that they’re in.”
Koppel asked, “You ever think of quitting?”
“I have not thought of quitting,” Speight replied. “For me, it’s one of the things where, if I didn’t stick around to do this job, who is going to take my place?”
Koppel asked Officer Deon Joseph, “We’re living in a world in which cops are taking early retirement. Can you relate to that?”
“Absolutely,” he said, “and it’s disheartening to hear police officers across the nation leaving, quitting and retiring so early, when right now – more than any other time in history – their communities need them. But I’m not angry at them for it, because I understand exactly how they feel.
“Many times police officers are made to be the tip of the spear for systemic failures, like homelessness, like mental illness, like the school systems; when the system fails, guess who they call to deal with? The police. And they have to.”
Ours is what Patrick Skinner refers to as this “911 nation.” “When you call 911, unless your house is on fire, the police are coming,” he said. “So, it doesn’t matter if your dog is loose, your car, the mechanics didn’t fix it properly, you were in a minor car accident, your mailbox was hit, your husband’s beating you, you’re shooting, all these things, at every stage it’s the police officers [who] are coming. There is nothing else but the police. And so, for a long time, or up to right now, we the police use that kind of as a realistic excuse. Because it is true. We are not social workers. We are not dog catchers. We are not mechanics. But we have to be during that 911 call.”
Joseph said, “We are actually responding to systemic failures, and we get blamed because we are the tangible form of government that people can say, ‘Bad government, look at what you’re doing!’ So, I think these systemic failures give the society the perception that we failed. No, we are responding for the most part to failure. They’re not just failing the community; they’re also failing us as well.”
For more info:
- Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Fla.
- Charleston Police Department, Charleston, S.C.
- Montgomery County Police Department, Md.
- Los Angeles Police Department
- Savannah Police Department, Savannah, Ga.
Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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