After Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9, the city exploded. Mounting tension between the predominantly African-American community and its predominantly white police force spilled out violently for the whole world to see. On Monday, August 18, we asked an officer of color who’s a 10-year veteran of a North County police department for his perspective on what went wrong.
You were involved in responding to protests in Ferguson. What did you see?
We have had several cars damaged by protesters, either throwing objects or actually kicking the vehicle. Our department has had no officer injuries, thank God. We’ve experienced the peaceful side of the protest, and we’ve also experienced the not-so-peaceful.
What do you think of the protesters?
My perception would be that the people who actually live in that town and actually have something to protest about, they are the ones that you see who are out in the daytime hours. They are actually exercising their First Amendment right, and they are protesting in a way that they are angry. We get that, because they don’t have all the facts, and they’re not going to have all the facts until everything is presented to a prosecutor or to a grand jury. That’s just the way police work is. If a person is arrested, they can only be held for 24 hours, unless you get a warrant. They are not going to be held any longer than that with no warrant. I get the peaceful protester part. I get being angry.
What about the violent ones?
The people who are coming in after dark and doing the looting and doing the rock throwing and the Molotov cocktail throwing, I don’t believe in any way, shape, or form that those people are actually from that neighborhood. The people in that neighborhood, they just want to go back to their way of life. They want everybody to go back home, so they can go back to their stores and go back to their schools. The schools have been called off again. This is the fourth day of school kids are missing, and they have no direct involvement whatsoever.
Do black people get stopped disproportionately more often than white people?
I’m sure it happens. I have been stopped before. I get stopped on average maybe three, four times a year. The times I’m being stopped, I know that I’ve done something wrong. Maybe I’ve been speeding, or I had a headlight out.
How do you handle those situations?
When I get pulled over, I have a stated rule. I preach this to my son. I preach it to his friends. When you get stopped by the police, roll all of your windows down. I don’t care what time of day or night it is or what the weather is outside. Turn on your interior lights if it’s nighttime. Keep your hands visible. That way, you automatically take that police officer’s edge away.
Is it problematic to have white officers patrolling a black community?
No. Me personally, I have gone to job fairs. I have attempted to recruit African-American people to come to North County or come to any police department. The applicants just aren’t there. First of all, it’s not the greatest paying job in the world, for all of the crap you've got to go through to do it. It’s just not that many people want to be police right now.
Why is there so much hatred being directed at the police?
It’s just a police thing. If a black police officer stops a black person, there’s going to be some words exchanged—not all the time, but some of the time. It’s just the presence of authority. No one wants that presence of authority to interfere with their life. However, it’s necessary. I’ve been to other countries, and I’ve seen what the lack of authority presence leads to.
When you stop a black person, does he or she ever feel like you aren’t looking out for your own?
Without a doubt. I get that all the time. I tell them, “You should be looking out for me and making sure that you’re doing the right thing, so then we don’t have to have this encounter whatsoever.”
What solutions do you see for the current situation?
I really don’t see an end to this any time soon. The angry protesters, at the end of the night, they want blood for blood. They want some kind of justice, whether it be proper justice or injustice, for Mike Brown. I don’t think that this is going to go away any time soon until someone, either from the Department of Justice or from the state patrol, someone comes out and says, “Hey, look, this is the evidence, and this is what we’re going to go with.” Until then, there won’t be any end in sight.
There seems to be a larger racial problem that needs to be addressed. How can that be solved?
It’s real simple. If you want to improve what’s going on, whether it be politics or police work, you’re not going to change it from the outside-in, throwing rocks at the situation. If you don’t like the way you were treated as an African-American or as a Caucasian-American, step inside that entity and start changing it from the inside. Get your education. Become a police officer. Raise up through the ranks. Then start changing policies that you see need to be changed.
How have you seen the relationship between police and the community change?
I have seen that people are starting to go back to the way it was when I was a kid growing up. I grew up in an area where the neighborhood policed itself. We didn’t really call the police too often when we knew something was going on, because we knew everybody. That’s what we need to get back to. Everybody needs to sit on the front porch and be a witness to whatever mayhem may be going on, and then take care of it yourself, before you get the police involved.
Did you think the police response to protests was ever too heavy-handed?
There is a lot of criticism about the military aspect. The thing is, those types of vehicles have been with those departments for a long time now. It’s not the first time they’ve been used. Usually, they only get called out for the SWAT team. That’s not just a vehicle that your patrolman drives around in. They’re specially trained people who drive in those vehicles.
What about tear gas?
As soon as they’re getting rocks thrown at the police, that’s when the tear gas is being deployed. That’s what the media is not showing. They think we’re just throwing tear gas because there are people out in the street. But every now and again, you’ll catch people with cellphone cameras taking pictures of people lighting Molotov cocktails. The tear gas is, to me, a proper response for someone who is throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails.
Why are guns sometimes pointed at protesters?
There was one day where I saw snipers sitting on top of the tactical vehicles, and they had the sniper rifle and the scope trained on the crowd. Now, that scope is one of the most powerful scopes you’re going to get. It’s going to work better than any binoculars. It’s going to be a lot easier for that person to pinpoint one person who was causing a disruption. I don’t think he would actually shoot that person, but he can at least radio out to everybody else, “Hey, look out for this guy. He’s wearing this, and he’s got this in his hand.”
What did you think of the decision to call in the National Guard?
The National Guard coming in, their rules of engagement are a heck of a lot different than your local police. I’m hoping there is not going to be additional bloodshed. If they get hit with bricks and fire bombs, their response is a heck of a lot harsher than the local police.