REV. GAYLE FISHER-STEWART, PH.D.
My name is Gayle Fisher-Stewart and I am an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Washington, D.C.
But priesthood is fairly recent. For most of my adult life, I have been involved in policing and criminal justice, either as an active police officer, retiring with the rank of captain in 1992 from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington; as a consultant to police departments, local governments, and federal agencies; or teaching criminal justice at the university level. So, for over 40 years, I’ve been involved in this thing called American policing.
I am taking my lead from James Baldwin who, when assessing America’s relationship with racism, said that while he loved America, he had an obligation to criticize her.
For me, policing has been good; it has afforded me a standard of living that I’ve taken into retirement. But like Baldwin, I have an obligation, I have the responsibility, I have the right to critique American policing, particularly as it relates to how the police interact with people who look like me.
I am afraid
I am afraid for my brother, my son, my nephews, and the male relatives of my friends, as we continue to see the killing of unarmed Black men in America by those who have sworn to serve and protect us.
As one young man said last week at a program at the Washington National Cathedral, he’s afraid – because all the police see is a 6’7,” nappy-haired Black man. It doesn’t matter that he attends a prestigious private school, that he comes from a two-parent family; all the police see is a Black man and with that identification he can lose his life.
I’m also concerned for Black police officers because when they are off-duty, out of uniform, in their private vehicles and just by chance stopped by one of their fellow officers, they also invite death by engaging in furtive movements – attempting to quickly retrieve their police credentials to show the police that they are, in fact, one of the family.
We know that undercover or plainclothes work is dangerous for Black police officers. They’ve been confused for the “bad guy” who is Black, and have been killed or injured.
I am afraid for all police officers because there is a fringe in our society that is not concerned about anyone but themselves. Some would feel no remorse using the breach between the police and the Black community to justify killing police officers.
No ‘cheap grace’
We who follow a crucified and risen Lord can no longer live under a cloud of “cheap grace.” Cheap grace that allows us to turn our heads – to ignore what is happening – because we are not personally affected.
If we follow a marginalized Jew who lived in occupied territory, who spoke out against the oppression that his people were facing and was ‘lynched’ – crucified – because he threatened those in power; he threatened the status quo, and was lynched for the crime of calling out injustice, he received the penalty of capital punishment…If we are to follow him, then, we too, must face our cross.
We must take a risk and call out injustice wherever it is found, knowing that there will be blowback.
We must do this whatever the cost.
There is a quote on the library wall at Virginia Theological Seminary – “See the truth come whence it may; cost what it will.” We must risk all for the truth of how American policing came to be. But it is a risk that we must take. If policing is going to change, that change comes with a risk.
But this issue of police excessive force is not new.
In the gospel of John, Jesus has been arrested and taken before the high priest who questions him about his teachings and his disciples. Jesus answers, but apparently it was one of those uppity “You don’t know your place” answers.
In John 18:22 (NRSV), we read, “When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” So even Jesus was the victim of police excessive force – and then the victim of state-sanctioned murder.
We’ve taken the horror and injustice out of the cross, which was a form of Roman capital punishment. We want to get to the Resurrection without spending time with the injustice that led to the cross. Sometimes we who wear the cross must lose all for the sake of the other. We are called to put our very lives on the line.
Given the number of contacts the police have with the public over the course of a year – which has to be millions – the number that result in death, in the words of researchers, would be statistically insignificant. According to some sources, as of Sept. 20, 702 people of all races have been killed by the police.
However, as a person of faith, even one death of someone created by and in the image of God, one life unjustly taken, has to be significant to God. Because when human beings kill, we put ourselves on the level of God. We kill what God has created.
A crime problem
Before someone says, “Yes, but what about Black-on-Black crime?” I ask you not to create a distraction.
Crime in America is a problem. Most crime is intra-racial. Any life taken is a sin and needs to be addressed. However, right now, I’m dealing with Black people being killed by the police because I have nephews who are 8 years old and younger. I don’t want them to grow up afraid of the police, and I don’t want the police to be afraid of them.
The latest killings
Terrence Crutcher, walking with his hands up back to his disabled vehicle, a motorist in need of assistance, is tasered and shot to death. How does a motorist needing assistance end up dead?
In the audio from the police helicopter, voices are heard saying, “Have to taser that thing.” That thing? How do you dehumanize someone?
Another voice is heard saying, “That looks like a bad dude, too.” Based on what evidence can you come to the conclusions that a man, a human being, is a thing and “looks like a bad dude?” He is in need of assistance and that need resulted in his death.
In the second case, the police were looking for someone with outstanding warrants and happen across Keith Lamont Scott. I don’t know whether he was carrying a gun or reading a book. All I know is that another Black man is dead at the hands of the police and civil disorder has broken out.
Will anyone be held accountable?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “The riot is the voice of the unheard.” We need to listen to those who are calling for change, who are calling for accountability.
But I do know that walking while Black, running while Black, having car troubles while Black, reading while Black, selling “loosies” or CDs while Black, playing music while Black – hell, living while Black – can have disastrous or deadly consequences.
And something must be done before we become numb to the deaths of Black men at the hands of police who seem to escape accountability. As if Black lives don’t matter – just one less Black person to have to deal with, taking up White space. It shows America how she has not lived up to her promise of liberty and justice for all, and that promise is a lie.
How change happens
If policing and the police culture is going to change, that change will have to come from those who know policing, who know the culture because we were a part of it. Right now, change just might have to come from those who are retired, because we can’t be held accountable for violations of departmaental orders or the statute of limitations has run out.
We have to be willing to say change is not a word that the police adjust to easily; that the police are to maintain the status quo; and in this country, the status quo is a racialized society.
Look at videos of the civil rights struggle. On which side were the police? They were not attempting to ensure equal rights for everyone! They were beating up, arresting, and killing people who were trying to live into the freedom that God wanted for them. When people are fighting for human rights, the police are on the side of the status quo.
Acknowledged the problem
Those of us who joined policing in the late 1960s and early ‘70s came up in an era where it was admitted that the police and the community, particularly communities of color, were are opposite sides. Cities burned after Dr. King’s assassination. Law enforcement itself acknowledged that police had (have?) an us-versus-them mentality.
The push to bring minorities and women on police departments was to lessen racial tension. Those of us who entered policing during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had to take department-sponsored courses on race relations, racial sensitivity, and human relations. Later, these courses morphed into cultural relations, cultural sensitivity, multicultural relations, cultural bias and awareness training, and now it is implicit bias training. In none of these courses did we ever deal with the White community.
“Community policing” was developed to lessen the tension between communities of color and the police. White communities have always had community policing – they get the policing they demand; they pick up the phone and the police respond.
Those of us who are honest will admit that policing is different in White, well-resourced communities than it is in Black and poor communities and it will continue to be that way until the truth is told.
There have been calls for the culture of policing to change for, at least, the past 40 years, and still little has changed.
I remember my first day on the street after graduating from the academy. My training officer was White. It was in the days when the police could legally conduct random traffic stops, you needed to reason, not even a pretext reason. So after riding around 4 hours, it was finally my turn to drive and so I picked at car – at random – to stop. The training officer asked me why I stopped the car. I answered, “because.”
He then said, “We don’t stop White people.” We don’t stop White people? Fool, do you see who is in the seat beside you?
I got my entry into racialized policing from the very start and throughout my career my eyes were open to any and all forms of injustice inside the department and in our communities.
I was infected
But I will admit that I did things I should not have done; I treated people, particularly people of color disrespectfully because I had been infected with the virus that is American policing.
But when the scales of injustice were lifted from my eyes, I repented. I realized that I treated people who looked like me in a way that I would not treat a White person and something was wrong with that picture.
What is being taught to rookie officers by their training officers about how to police Black people?
What stereotypes, prejudices and biases are being passed on to those who enter policing today?
The police are supposed to be guardians. Instead, they are warriors going into battle – wearing “BDUs” – battle dress uniforms. When you go into the community with a warrior mentality, ready for battle, you look for an enemy.
And since the beginning of policing in America, the enemy, the threat to White society has been Black people, and in particular, the Black man. The peace officer part of policing has been lost – if it was ever there for the Black community.
It is not the rotten apples we must fear. It is the decent officer who came to policing to serve, to help the community. These officers are also soon infected with the virus of American policing. The police culture, its people, artifacts, argot (language), traditions and values infect those who join policing to do good. So the total blame for what we are seeing cannot be placed on the police officer.
In Spike Lee’s movie, “X,” about Malcolm X, there is a scene when Malcolm, played by Denzel Washington, speaks to people of Harlem about “the White Man.”
He says, “Oh, I say and I say it again. Ya been had! Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!”
To those in blue who raised their hands to “serve and protect,” I say to you, “Oh, I say and I say it again, ya been had! Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked!
Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!”
You joined the police department of your choice because you wanted to make a difference; serve your community; give back. But this community policing thing is a farce when your evaluation is based on arrests, tickets, and citations.
You are between a rock and a hard place. At the end of a tour of duty, your sergeant doesn’t ask, “How many pickup basketball games did you play? How many hands you shake? How many double-dutch tournaments did you organize?” That’s for the community relations folk, not you. You are the real police. You lock up people.
Chiefs are silent
In this whole discussion of #BlackLivesMatter since the death of Michael Brown and the call for the police to change, where are the voices of the national chiefs’ associations out in the public square?
Are they willing to admit that the virus of racism has infected their people? Are they willing to lead the way for change? Of course, these issues are discussed when they meet; but where are their voices in the public square calling for change?
There must first be confession before there is repentance. Chiefs know what is happening in their departments. They know because they, too, are part of the system; they are part of the culture.
and if they are honest, they will admit that they have done things; treated people in ways that were not respectful, not human. And that dehumanization, that disrespect, continues today where a Black man is presumed guilty first, is presumed to be a criminal first.
To Black police chiefs – you are not immune. Your badge and your rank will not protect you. You are Black in a racialized America.
Up to us
We who were retired will have to call for change while those who are currently serving are courageous enough to step forward, to risk everything to see that policing finally changes into what it should be.
There have been enough papers, studies, research. It is time for action. Our future and the lives of our children are at stake.
Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, Ph.D., is assistant rector at Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.