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My Interactions with White Police Officers

9 August 2016

Given that there seems to be a flood of black men relating accounts of their negative interactions with white police officers, I feel obligated to share my experiences.  Before sharing my story, setting the climate is important.  Why climate is important becomes obvious in the story.

For starters, consider a comment made by black comedian and actor D.L. Hughley in an interview on 13 July 2016 with Megyn Kelly of Fox Cable News.  Hughley’s quote below is from an article titled “D.L. Hughley Gets Into a Heated Debate w/ Megyn Kelly on Fox News” by MP The God, a contributing writer on VLADTV.  Talking about police officers, Hughley says:

“I don’t know a black man that hasn’t had a run-in with police, from the highest to the lowest. My perspective on this is based on the experience I’ve had, just as yours are, so I am not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Then there is Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.  He is one of two blacks serving in the U.S. Senate.  In a speech on the Senate floor, Scott recently recounted his disturbing experiences with various white police officers and U.S. Capitol Police.  His speech is summarized in an article by Ted Barrett of CNN, titled “Black senator describes facing unfair scrutiny by police.”  A quote from that speech:

“I can certainly remember the very first time that I was pulled over by a police officer as just a youngster. I was driving a car that had an improper headlight,” Scott said. “The cop came over to my car, hand on his gun and said, ‘Boy, don’t you know your headlight is not working properly?’ I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and scared, very scared.”

The final piece in painting a picture of the climate in which I share my interactions shows in comments made by President Barack Obama.  Craig Bannister, in an article titled “Obama: Police Can ‘Make the Job of Being a Cop a Lot Safer’ by Admitting Their Failures” writes: “Fielding a question on Sunday, July 10, about violence against police in Dallas, Texas last week, which left five officers dead, Obama said police officers will be safer once they acknowledge their failures.” Then he quotes the president:

“There are legitimate issues that have been raised, and there’s data and evidence to back up the concerns that are being expressed by these protesters.”

“And if police organizations and departments acknowledge that there’s a problem and there’s an issue, then that, too, is going to contribute to real solutions. And, as I said yesterday, that is what’s going to ultimately help make the job of being a cop a lot safer. It is in the interest of police officers that their communities trust them and that the kind of rancor and suspicion that exists right now is alleviated.”

The quotes above attributed to D.L. Hughley and President Obama do not specify white police officers. I watched the Hughley interview and his focus was clearly white cops. Obama’s comments over time regarding police shootings of black males leave no doubt as to his focus on white officers.  Senator Scott is clearly referring to white officers. Now I share my experiences in this climate of seemingly all black men having had a bad experience with a white cop. By way of further context, I am a 69-year-old black male.

My first interaction with a white cop came around 1964, while I was still in high school at segregated (all black) Camilla Consolidated School, in the small South Georgia town of Camilla. A white deputy sheriff came to our home and explained that he was there to take me to the sheriff’s office for questioning regarding a criminal incident.  I do not remember being afraid of the deputy.  I got into the backseat of his car and he drove me downtown.  My father followed.  At the office, the white sheriff said a forged check had been cashed with my name signed on the back as endorser.  The fella who forged the check was in the office.  I knew him.  The sheriff directed me to sign my name and I did.  He looked at my signature and, I could tell by his facial expression, he thought it was a match.  Pointing to the forger, I calmly said to the sheriff, “Have him sign my name.”  He did and when the sheriff looked at the two, there was no doubt the other fella signed my name on the check.  That white sheriff told me I was free to go home…the matter was closed.  Neither he nor the deputy who drove me to the office ever disrespected my father or me.  I followed instructions and respected those officers.  Above all, I knew I had done nothing unlawful.

My next several encounters were traffic stops.  The first was driving to Camilla from Savannah, Georgia.  This was likely1964 also.  The year is important because it was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the associated racial tension.  Including me, a teacher took four students to a journalism conference at Savannah State College.  He had a beautiful new Chevrolet car.  On the way home, he asked me to drive.  Everything was going well until I saw flashing lights in my rearview mirror.  It was a white Georgia State Patrol trooper.  He approached the car and asked the usual questions.  There were five blacks in the car.  I followed his instructions.  He spoke to us in respectful tones, told me to slow down, and sent us on our way.

A white police officer in Maryland stopped me while I was on active duty with the Navy, though I do not remember the reason.  He asked for my driver’s license and, after looking at it, said the license had expired.  I explained how I understood that as long as I was on active duty, my Georgia license did not require renewal.  He said the law had changed and I should get a Maryland license.  That was it…no calling me “Boy” or making some other insulting statement.  He sent me on my way and I got a Maryland license.

It was probably 1991 that a white motorcycle cop stopped me for speeding in Charleston, South Carolina.  I lived in Charleston, but was driving back from visiting a terminally ill uncle in Savannah.  All the way home, my mind was on my uncle and I was grieving his impending death.  I was driving and crying.  When I went into my uncle’s hospital room, he was sleeping and never seemed to wake up.  Across the years, he called me “Karl-doon.”  I greeted him and tried to talk, but he was silent.  At some point, the one thing he said was, “Is that Karl-doon?”  The cop stops me and tells me I was well over the speed limit.  I am sure he was right.  I was not watching my speed.  I followed his instructions, but given an opening, told him about my visit and grief.  He heard me, showed empathy, gave me a ticket, and sent me on my way.  All these years later, I remember that officer’s kindness and look of concern, even in giving me a ticket.

I have been stopped twice by white cops in Fayetteville.  Once when someone stole my license plate and I did not realize it.  The other was for an inoperative tail light.  Both times, the officers were respectful and presented no problem.

Beyond these interactions at vehicle stops, I had a close-up opportunity to see the hearts of some white Fayetteville police officers and unsworn staff.  For several years, I volunteered with a non-profit organization whose mission is to help black boys build a foundation for successful living.  During part of that volunteer experience, Tom Bergamine was Fayetteville’s Chief of Police.  He heard what we were doing and offered to invite his officers and civilian staff to volunteer in a couple of areas.  One was an after-school program where black boys were tutored in reading and helped with their homework.  I got to see white cops and staff members meet one-on-one with black boys and help them prepare for life.  Bergamine did not just send people, he was there himself tutoring.  Those volunteers embodied genuine concern for those boys.  This was not some “check the box” endeavor; these people cared and it showed.

This is my story of interactions with white police officers.  I realize it is counter to the picture painted by D.L. Hughley, Senator Tim Scott, and even President Barack Obama.  I also understand it is counter to the politically profitable narrative of so many politicians, a multitude of social activists, and the dominant media.  After the recent shooting of police officers in Dallas, my wife asked me if I feared cops.  My answer was an emphatic “No!”

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