By Larry Stiner Jr.
The face on that man looks very familiar. And so does his uniform: perfectly matching navy-blue shirt and pants accessorized with a black duty belt upon which a nine millimeter handgun is holstered. The shiny oval-shaped badge on his chest identifies him as an officer working for the Los Angeles Police Department.
I’ve seen that face before but can’t quite recall when or where. Had he stopped me in traffic? Had he once confronted a group of friends I happened to be with? Did I see him questioning or arresting someone in my neighborhood? I don’t think so. My gut tells me I had a more positive experience in my dealings with this African-American law enforcer.
Finally, I remember him. He and I had grown up on the same block and had gone to school together many years ago. We had been childhood friends.
Frozen by the surprise of discovering he had gone to work for the Police Department, I simply stare in silence. It is extremely rare for anyone from around my way to walk down that law enforcement path. With a deep-seeded mistrust of the police often handed down from parent to child, negative experiences between the L.A.P.D. and minorities in South Los Angeles only widened the divide.
Now that I know who this man is, my stare intensifies as I try to see down into his soul. He looks away, but I can’t. With so many black bodies dropping from the impact of police bullets around the country, I have a burning desire to know which side of the line he falls on. Do Black lives matter to him? Does he truly believe that two hands up means don’t shoot? Having been raised on the same street as I, he is uniquely positioned to see things from both sides. Surely, he hasn’t forgotten the constant police harassment we experienced as innocent teenagers. He could not have forgotten how many of our peers had been targeted, framed and jailed by the bad seeds walking among the men in blue.
On the flip side, I am certain he also remembers the deadly gang warfare and heavy drug trafficking that made our environment seem like the “wild, wild West” and which, in turn, had many in the community feeling the police needed to do more to stop the violence.
Part of me believes his roots had to have instilled in him a longing to change the historically poor relationship between people of color and the police. I reason he must have become an officer because he wants to do his part to make things fair. Another side of me, however, remains skeptical as my mind plays back the recent images of African-American cops idly standing by or participating in the incidents that led to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
I can’t help but wonder about the true feelings of the police officers in riot gear standing face to face with angry protesters who are overcome with pain, fear and frustration, as they cry for help and demand change. Do any of those officers feel the same pain and frustration? Do any of them really care? The fact that I am even asking myself these things reminds me of how much work we still have to do as a society.
In the end, I walk away without ever saying a word to the officer with the familiar face. He and I both know why.