Want to understand cops? You have to be willing to talk with them, first.
By Daniel P. Finney, Des Moines Register
Original article HERE
The thing I miss most about working the night police beat for the Register is regularly talking with cops about life on the job.
I worked out of our closet-sized office at the police station during those years. I took a lot of smoke breaks, talked a lot about firearms, race cars and softball leagues even though I don’t smoke, own a gun or have much interest in race cars and softball.
I listened to those stories for the rare moments when an officer would trust me enough to be unguarded about the things they’ve seen and heard on the job.
Those stories never appeared in my paragraphs and never will. I wasn’t covering up anything for police; I was having honest conversations that taught me empathy for men and women who deal with society’s hardest edges daily.
I learned more about police work, policy and the challenges of a cops’ job during those talks than I ever did reporting from a crime scene or talking to law enforcement administrators.
In recent years, as the public discourse about policing — as with everything else — has become so polarized, I’ve often wished the public had the same opportunity I did to get to know police officers as more than a person with a badge, gun and the authority to lock you up.
Last week, the Iowa chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers, NOBLE for short, had similar thoughts. It hosted its second Coffee with a Cop event at the Starbucks on Merle Hay Road near the mall.
About a dozen officers from metro-area departments filtered in through the two hours, sharing coffee and doughnuts with the everyday people who came into the coffee shop.
The burly Des Moines Police Sgt. Bernell Edwards, a former U.S. Marine, sauntered in with a grin almost as wide as his broad shoulders.
Edwards is at the very top of my list of police officers I would not want to get crosswise with, in any kind of physical confrontation. He looks like the kind of man who can turn you into a pretzel without breaking a sweat.
Edwards’ disposition, though, is generally sweet and boisterous. He talked about the ambitions of his children: One is thinking about law school or medical school and the other is looking at astrophysics.
When I worked at the Omaha paragraph factory, one of the police beat reporters told a funny story about an officer who said he would never be seen in public holding a doughnut.
“A bear claw, maybe,” the officer said.
I asked Edwards, who looks as if he could bench press a Buick, if he would be photographed eating a doughnut.
“Aw, heck yeah,” Edwards said. “I don’t pay attention to stereotypes.”
If you’re wondering why such a photo does not accompany this column, well, I never saw Edwards pick up or eat a doughnut during the event.
Capt. Bob Stanton of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office sat across a table with me to chat for a bit.
I will always think of Stanton as B.J. Stanton, the hard-charging tight end for the East High School football team. He was a junior when I was a senior at East.
Stanton hates to be interviewed, as do most law enforcement officers. A fraction of the distrust is from cops being burned by reporters who got things wrong or, from the officer’s perspective, slanted to make cops look bad.
But a larger part of the problem, I think, is that law enforcement officers are used to giving testimony. They must be careful with what they say and how they say it so something that appears in the news doesn’t foul up a case in court.
Stanton told me about his own reservations talking to the news media, even me.
“There’s always so much focus on the negative, and it puts everything out of proportion,” Stanton said. “Are there some bad things that happen with law enforcement in this country? Yeah, of course there are, but if you watch or read the news, you would think that’s the only thing cops do is the bad stuff.”
I told Stanton we don’t report on the airplanes that land safely, but that was glib. The truth is more complex.
Stories about the use of force, officer-involved shootings and racial disparities in enforcement are important. But the media, myself included, don’t do a very good job in portraying the stresses of law enforcement, nor understanding the training and mindset of cops.
I’ve written columns trying to explain things I’ve learned about law enforcement during my career.
A while back, I wrote about a Georgia police officer who toured the country as part of a documentary about the emotional impact on cops of shooting someone in the line of duty.
The column drew little attention from the audience and almost no one attended the screenings in Des Moines, even though I urged the filmmaker to make a second screening open to the public.
I’ve written several columns sympathetic to a former Des Moines officer who fatally shot a suspect. Those brought the usual divisive “you’re with us or against us” comments.
Arguments ensued in the comments sections and on social media about whether you support cops or don’t. There was no middle ground.
With this mentality, I understand why cops are cautious to talk to the news media.
We are, at best, an imperfect instrument for communication, and our audience is made up of people who believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts.
Sgt. Keith Onley with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, described an incident he was involved in several years ago.
The details aren’t necessary to repeat here, other than to the note the incident rattled Onley so much he considered giving up his badge.
Onley wanted to talk to the family of the people involved in the incident. Polk County Sheriff Bill McCarty and an assistant county prosecutor arranged the meeting.
“It put my mind at ease to be able to sit down and talk with these folks,” Onley said. “It was just something I needed to do if I was going to keep doing this for a living.”
NOBLE plans more Coffee with a Cop events. I hope people seek out the events, especially those of us inclined to think negatively of cops.
The simple act of sitting down and talking is invaluable to empathy and understanding.
And you won’t have to sit in cigarette smoke and listen to a lot of race car and softball chatter to get there.