I’m a 65-year-old black man, and I have literally spent most of my life doing everything possible to avoid encounters with police.
My mother warned me when I was about 12 to beware of the police because even though I was a good boy, I could be killed with impunity. I’d be just another dead black boy supposedly mixed up in guns, drugs or gangs.
I wish I wasn’t afraid of the police. I have never had a cop live on my street. I’ve known only two law enforcement officers socially; one is a former FBI agent who I met a decade ago and is a great guy, and the other is a black cop who I played street basketball with in the 1980s.
The vast majority of police never fire a weapon, but the bad deeds rightly get more attention because of the suffering.
As a journalist I did some of those stories. I wrote about suburban police officers using sap gloves to beat suspects. I wrote about a white cop who shot and killed an unarmed black man, who was on his way home from a party. The police officer had numerous complaints against him and was known in the department as the “Orkin Man,” after a commercial for a pest-control company.
I’ve made it this far by being extremely careful. I’ve never hung out in bars, don’t lose my temper with authority figures, and haven’t had a fight since high school, all in an effort to avoid any dealings with the police.
Yet, I know the fear. I have been stopped at least 20 times by the police, fortunately without escalation.
Once I was stopped on an early Sunday morning as my family hurried to church. I was admittedly speeding. But you could feel the air being sucked in by my family as I pulled over and waited for the officer to approach.
I rolled down the window, careful to put both hands in plain view on the steering wheel. The officer asked me if I knew why he stopped me. I quickly offered that I was late for church and was probably over the speed limit.
He said yes sir, that was correct, took my license and registration and walked to his cruiser. When he came back, he said he was giving me a warning. Shocked, I said thank you. He leaned into my car and replied: “Despite what you think, my job is not to make your day worse.”
There have been other encounters like that. But there have been dark moments.
Returning from a concert with four black male college classmates in the 1970s, we were pulled over and ordered out of our car in the snow, some of us without our shoes or coats on, because we allegedly “fit the description” of robbery suspects. After standing in the cold for a half hour, we were let go after we checked out with no warrants.
Then, there was the time in the early 1990s when I was traveling with my family from Boston to Vermont to start vacation. We were driving along a deserted New Hampshire road around midnight when we passed a cop sitting at a closed gas station.
My wife and son were slumped down in the car asleep, but I immediately knew it was trouble when the cop car slowly rolled out behind me. After following me for a mile or so, the blue lights and siren came on. My wife jumped up in her seat and asked what was going on. I told her I didn’t know.
I was driving the speed limit, so that couldn’t be it. The officer tapped on the window and brusquely asked for my license and registration. I calmly asked him what was the problem, but he silently stalked off as my 8-year-old son came to life in the backseat.
As my blood began to boil, my wife and kid pleaded with me to stay calm. No other cars were on the road. After about 10 minutes, the officer came back and handed me my documents. My hands in plain view, I asked why he had stopped me. “You were driving too close to my vehicle,” he snapped.
I sat there for a moment fuming, letting him take off before me. I told my wife that he stopped me simply because he saw a black man and suspected I was a criminal only to be surprised to find a family.
Then, there was the time the cops showed up at my house in Golden. My wife was in the car with our two daughters, and when she buzzed herself into our gated street she noticed a police car pull in behind her.
She assumed they were heading to a neighbor’s house, but they pulled into our driveway and asked for her brother, who was living with us at the time. He is the nicest guy and has never been in trouble.
But apparently he had gotten into a verbal altercation with a white guy after he rolled through a roundabout and cut him off as they both turned into a gas station. The enraged white guy berated him, and my brother-in-law gave it back to him. As they both pumped their gas, the guy threatened to call the cops. My brother-in-law said go ahead, got into his car and headed home.
It’s mind boggling that two cops showed up at our house simply based on the word of a white guy over a minor traffic dispute. No witnesses, no physical altercation, no evidence of a crime.
After my wife in a tense exchange demanded the officers get off of our property as she held her brother in the garage, they finally left. Incredibly, he was issued a court summons, which was withdrawn after I called the police chief to object. It is the only time I have ever mentioned my position as editor during a personal complaint.
We were outraged and have no doubt that my brother-in-law would have been face down in our driveway or worse had he stepped outside of that garage. And for what?
Watching the life ebb from George Floyd on TV brought these memories flooding back. I literally said that could have been me under that officer’s knee. And very few of my white friends can honestly say they had that feeling.
That speaks volumes. Over the years, I have had many discussions with white colleagues and friends about the police, and it’s clear that we live in different worlds.
They have run from police, driven off from traffic stops, and flung clipboards handed to them across highways without any repercussions. I can’t imagine a black person getting away with that.
Maybe that’s because for many whites they know cops as fathers, brothers, cousins, friends and neighbors.
We, however, know them as a swaggering, disrespectful, and threatening presence.
The history of the police and black people dates back to the slave catchers and overseers. A lot of police officers in our country come to the job generationally with stereotypes and disdain toward black people that has been handed down from the old days.
Whether they want to admit it or not, it is part of the DNA of the profession, and it really doesn’t matter what color the person is who wears the uniform. Those attitudes are ingrained in the culture.
So to fix the problem the culture has to be changed, which is no easy feat. We have had black police chiefs, and that has not made much of a difference. To change the culture you have to send police officers who murder innocent civilians to prison, plain and simple.
Police officers who abuse their power have to be held accountable, just like in any other profession. A clerk miscounts the money, they get fired. A journalist makes big mistakes, they get dismissed. You’re sitting in the car when a companion robs a store, you go down, too.
The argument that we ask police to risk their lives and make split decisions is no excuse for them being wrong when making life-and-death decisions. They should have a higher standard to be right when using lethal force, not a lower one.
Reforming policing in America will require changing their culture, reinventing their training and unerring accountability.
I’m exhausted watching black men die at the hands of police. I hate seeing the fear in my daughters’ eyes from knowing I could die, begging for air, under the knee of a police officer.
I don’t hate cops. I fear them. But I’m about to turn 66 years old, and I’d like to exhale for a change.
Gregory L. Moore was the editor of The Denver Post from 2002 to 2016.
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