The United States of America mourns yet another African-American man gunned down in the street by one of my fellow comrades in blue. Officer Mike Slager, formerly of the North Charleston South Carolina Police Department fired eight fatal shots into the back of 50- year-old Walter Scott after he bolted in an attempt to avoid arrest for what his family thinks is for back child support payments.
Slager’s immediate radio response was: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” Fortunately for Scott, his family and the country, a video capturing the entire sequence of events told a different story. While approximately 15 to 20 feet away from Scott, Slager fired five rounds into Scott’s back, two into his upper buttocks and one into his ear. Scott was pronounced dead at the scene!
In a response to this tragedy, I posted a comment on Facebook sharing my concern that the St. Petersburg Police Department could find itself similarly situated, meaning an African American unarmed man being killed by a white police officer. The basis of my concern is grounded in what I have personally experienced and witnessed as a resident of Midtown, who just happened to have been previously certified in three law enforcement academies. I can personally attest to a significant decline in the relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement in St. Petersburg.
In a 2002 report from the United States Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service Division, one of the conditions listed as a potential causal effect of officers utilizing lethal force was the quality of the relationship between the community and law enforcement that exists before an incident of excessive use of force occurs.
Since 2013 there are countless scenarios that I have personally witnessed or experienced or others who have been directly associated that serve as the basis for my comments. In summary those complaints were:
While traveling south on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street one Friday night several law enforcement vehicles passed to my left in pursuit of a vehicle occupied by four or five young African-American men. By the time I reached MLK Street & 22nd Avenue South, the officers had pulled the young men over and were ordering them out of the car. From a glance I could see these young men appeared to be clean cut and respectable, a fact that was confirmed after I received a call from one of the young men’s aunt who was called to the scene by one of the young men. These young men had obviously been educated on how to respond when they come into contact with law enforcement officers.
Second scenario occurred with me as the victim. After calling police to my home as a result of a young African-American woman, who was on some type of drug, woke my household up at 6 a.m. jumping from the tops of my cars. Once law enforcement officers responded I gave them my statement and proceeded to wait until they questioned her. By this time she had come down on whatever she was on. My anger at her immediately switched to one of concern because she was young and I didn’t recognize her from the neighborhood. While waiting for the officers to finish talking to this young woman, out of nowhere one of the officers turned to me and asked me what was I looking at? Before I could respond the officer began shouting commands at me to move across the street and within three seconds I had gone from friend to foe.
The third incident involved my daughter’s friend. He was in a St. Petersburg downtown bar waiting on one of his cousins. Out of nowhere he sees his cousin, who worked at the bar, handcuffed and being thrown to the ground and placed under arrest. Caught completely off guard, he naturally inquired why? Before he could finish his sentence, he found himself cuffed and his face being introduced to concrete for the first time in his life.
Lastly, the morning after Officer Darren Wilson was cleared of killing Michael Brown, my nephew and one of his friends were walking down 62nd Avenue South minding their business. While walking they hear car horns blowing at them, only to turn and find two patrol cars with white police officers waving and heckling them. Yes, they responded with a few choice words and a hand gesture, but the shock and inappropriateness of law enforcement officers against innocent citizens still catches people off guard when we have these encounters.
Each of these incidents were reported and allegedly investigated by internal affairs, and of course, each response resulted in sanitized responses or no responses at all.
In a recent CNN interview, retired Los Angeles Police Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey, member of the National Association of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, called for police executives to begin telling the truth. The very moment a law enforcement executive, manager or supervisor co-signs on an officer’s inappropriate behavior involving minority communities, is the very moment that public safety manager gives way to creating a culture of biases against that minority group.
Prior to the selection of the new police chief, my attempt to influence the process was in the context of asking the mayor and his leadership team to seek out consultants who were knowledgeable about the trend of hiring public executives who had demonstrated track records of leading by the use of his or her Executive Core Competencies.
I am certain the mayor didn’t take my advice into account, but it is only my hope that by the luck of the draw he did find a candidate who recognizes there is an entirely different set of core competencies that are needed to lead any public safety organization in the 21st century, and it is even more important when that public organization is a police department.
If in fact Chief Holloway is that leader, then the elements of the incidents that I have described would have been visible to him immediately and by now he would have been working with a cadre of others within the African-American community and members of his staff at all levels to develop a comprehensive strategy aimed at rebuilding a culture of respect for all people within the police department.
While the Park, Walk and Talk and the diversion program makes great political talking points come reelection, the road to changing an organization’s culture is a process not an initiative! The issue has to be approached strategically from various points if there is a legitimate outcome for the sun to shine on all residents of St. Petersburg, regardless of one’s zip code and socio-economic status!
Maria L. Scruggs