By: Police Chief A.Z. Williams
Johnston County Report reached out to five local public figures and asked they share their personal thoughts about current social justice issues. This is the fourth in a series of 5 articles that will publish this week.
In my 54 years of life, Dr. King’s death notwithstanding, I have never seen this country in such racial turmoil. The divisive rhetoric and political overtones on both sides have only exacerbated the trouble. I see myriad failures and an honest debate that has become one-sided, thanks to what I believe is a silent majority remaining quiet. Celebrities, professional athletes?..forget about ‘em. Today the trending thing to do is to Tweet support for the movement which seems to be youth controlled and has many different incarnations. Today it is police brutality. Tomorrow it is social injustice and racism, the next day it is the systemic killings of black males, and more recently PRIDE interests have been integrated into the discussion. It feels as though things are spiraling out of control. Yet, I feel the need to balance this activism with some truth and reality.
There are 700,000 sworn law enforcement officers in this country tasked with protecting over 320 million people. Think about that. Some 18,000 Federal, State, and local agencies, each with distinctive geographic jurisdictions and laws that may vary greatly from state-to-state. Legislation enacted in Michigan may have no relevance in North Carolina. Likewise, Elizabeth City may choose to govern differently than Greensboro, Fayetteville, or Asheville. All of this makes policing more nuanced than one thinks.
Is there any doubt that American society has changed over the past 25 years? Our youth seem to have become more disrespectful of authority and more aggressive. If you don’t believe me, ask any high school teacher. As a police officer, we see you at your worst. Yet an hour later when the cameras are rolling, the local news is airing your grievance with a completely different perspective. Policing is a difficult job.
The George Floyd protests themselves do not bother me. What we all witnessed in Minneapolis was horrific, evil, and also not sanctioned by any law enforcement agency that I am aware of. What bothers me is the insistence that law enforcement is somehow responsible for the actions of one bad cop. The random lumping together of national incidents (again thanks to the media) serves only to produce ratings and to incite the public. Eight years after his death, Trayvon Martin’s name is still bandied about as if law enforcement played some role in his shooting. George Zimmerman was not a police officer. Similar outrage resulted from the February death of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. What was the connection? One of the suspects was a former police officer.
The days of Bull Connor are over.
If the debate is whether social injustice and racism exist, the answer is clearly yes. There are still inequalities in employment, education, housing, the criminal justice system, and everyday life. That is a fact. For those in denial, we need look no further than the three Wilmington police officers that were fired last week for unbecoming conduct and racist comments. Three ignorant individuals managed to malign a 200+ man police department.
The historical baggage that police carry in this country and frankly around the world cannot be ignored. In the United States, the sanctioned oppression of African Americans was promulgated with the assistance of an unjust legal system and shady authorities charged to enforce it. For people who lived through it, those images are painful and a reminder of the past. They are memories of discrimination, destruction, death, and American examples of man’s inhumanity against man. It is a history that has never been properly told, nor reconciled.
I do not agree with nor accept the current narrative against law enforcement
That said, I do not agree with nor accept the current narrative against law enforcement that black men are gunned down by police everyday and are victims of brutality on the level many pundits claim. I suggest you conduct your own research, but you will not find data supporting those claims. As someone who has investigated and arrested police officers during my career, I know the vast majority are honorable and decent people. I can also attest that yes, there are biases, misconduct, and acts of bigotry that I have witnessed. We are not perfect. Police officers are like every other facet of society: fraught with imperfections and human frailties. We have good and bad days just like everyone else. Should the bar be substantially higher for a police officer than others? Absolutely.
However, to denigrate an entire profession is wrong. After 32 years, the television show “Cops” was cancelled. “Live PD” was cancelled. LEGO is under pressure to cease production of its police genre. Chase the police dog character from “Paw Patrol” is under fire. Some actors who have portrayed officers feel the need to donate portions of their salaries in support of protestors. It has now become vogue to support anti-police rhetoric and related movements. Non-news entities and businesses such as ESPN, NASCAR, NFL, NBA, Wal-Mart, Nike, Netflix, and Amazon have chosen sides by proudly proclaiming their support. Whether intended or not, their public declaration has been on the backs of law enforcement; a profession that is tasked with protecting these very groups. It would be a neat trick to see any Carolina Panthers, NC State/UNC football game or the Carolina Hurricanes perform without the usual bevy of local police officers and the NC Highway Patrol assisting.
Police should not be the whipping boy for society’s racial problems. Nor should we be used as some catalyst to spark a movement. The job is tough enough. During my 30+ years in this profession, I have observed and participated in many efforts to educate and eradicate bias within our ranks. I have also recruited on college campuses and spoken to potential candidates to address diversity concerns. We have been in the reform business for decades. After Ferguson, President Obama released his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Today, Congress is eagerly crafting more legislation. The law enforcement community will continue to persevere and evolve.
We can have the conversation about Use of Force or the militarization of policing. We can also discuss the need for non-lethal weaponry and improved community outreach. However, its time America also decided what kind of police officer you really want. In times of crisis we ALL want that warrior to go in and save our children. We want SWAT and all their gadgetry and aggressiveness. There are other times when we want compassion, a counselor, a therapist, a psychologist who is capable of de-escalating every situation, a companion, a peacemaker who will take your side, the walker who routinely gets out of his vehicle and a Andy Taylor to give you a warning instead of the ticket you really deserved.
The irony in all of this is that America has had a love affair with law enforcement. Since the advent of television, cop dramas have been both popular and profitable. From Dragnet to Adam-12, to Kojack, McCloud, Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, The Rookies, Hill Street Blues, TJ Hooker, Police Woman, Barney Miller, Walker: Texas Ranger, SWAT, Hawaii Five-O, NYPD Blue, Cagney & Lacey, CHIP’S, and Miami Vice. Today is no different as there are multiple incarnations of CSI, NCIS and Law & Order which was renewed for a 22nd season. Let’s also not forget Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Chicago PD or the quasi-law enforcement genre of private detectives who play police without the uniform such as Vegas, Barnaby Jones, Rockford Files, Mannix, Charlie’s Angels, Magnum P.I. and for those who go way back, Philip Marlowe and Dick Tracy.
Theatrical movies are even more entrenched earning billions at the box office. Major franchises such as Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Rush Hour and Bad Boys have been birthed just to name a few. Even James Bond fits the bill as government law. We love our cops or at the very least the cop personas who in the end always save the day. But the same Hollywood who promotes us, also sows the seeds of distrust. Many of those mega-action hits also rely on police corruption as background and a basis for the arch criminal to exist.
It is time to stop playing political games
I can accept police reform, but it is time to stop playing political games. The problem is that politicians are the ones making many of these reform decisions. Critics will often cite a lack of training and resources for poor police behavior and outcomes. Well, guess what, these critics vis-à-vis reform are the same ones who cut police budgets during lean times leaving the angry uninformed protestor in the middle. Equipment, vehicles, training, salaries, and personnel are all fair game as departments routinely do without. Then, in these tumultuous times, politicians will tout reform and the critics who expected perfection, now nitpick and complain about the product that they helped create. Just this past week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a plan to cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget. This is unreal. Then there are those who wish to defund the police. All I will say on this matter is that such an experiment like that would last about 48 hours in a city such as Fayetteville where I was raised. Now imagine St. Louis, Seattle, or Minneapolis where these ridiculous ideas are actually being bandied about.
Simply stated, the public calls on us to do things they will not do. Not complaining…it’s the job. The work can be dirty, thankless, and dangerous. We are usually summoned to your location…remember you call us. When we arrive to break up that fight, somehow, we become the bad guys. Again, it is part of the job. It is what we get paid to do.
The job can be fulfilling and exhilarating; but also, frustrating. What other job pays so little yet asks you to place your life on the line each and every time you work a shift? A job that also requires you stand the line, accepting all the hate and vitriol a young 20-year-old activist can muster?
The reality is that law enforcement is a noble profession. I remind young officers of this all the time. “Keep your head up,” I tell them. We are the only thing standing between Steve the molester, thief, abuser, swindler, drug dealer, rapist, murderer and the 95% of good honest citizens in the community.
Maybe it is time to have that discussion about ways my profession can improve. It is also time for communities to own up to their responsibility to be good stewards by calling out family, friends and other citizens to do better. It is so easy to point the finger.
Maybe we should all try a little harder.
AZ Williams is a retired SBI Agent, an author and is currently the Chief of Police in Wilson’s Mills. He has mentored at risk youth in Fayetteville’s Find-A-Friend Program for the past 16 years. Chief Williams holds a bachelors and a master’s degree from NC State University and is a NC Certified Public Manager.