Trust is still sorely lacking

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

March 28, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Life in the war zone:

The first voice was high-pitched, almost shrill, and it cut through the night like a . . . well, an exact metaphor fails me.

The first voice was as emotionally complex as Mona Lisa's smile. It sounded hurt yet angry, defiant yet plaintive. It grated on the nerves. It touched me so that I wanted to cry.

Ah! But the second voice was none of those things. It was flat and without emotion: Robot-cool. Bureaucrat-cool. A don't shout me 'cause I really don't care-type cool.

"What did I do?" demanded the first voice. "I didn't do nothing."

"I'm not accusing you of doing anything," answered the second voice. "I'd just like to see some identification."

"I didn't do nothing," repeated the first voice, high-pitched and grating, defiant and hurt.

I looked at the clock: 2:30 a.m. I climbed out of bed and tiptoed to the window. Down on the street below, I saw that a police officer had stopped a teen-ager and asked for identification.

"Do you live around here?" asked the officer, still calm, still patient.

"F--- you," cursed the teen-ager.

"Go home," said the officer wearily. "Just go home."

All this happened several years ago, back when I lived in an apartment in Bolton Hill. Bolton Hill at that point was plagued by a rash of late-night burglaries and muggings. So the police officer was doing what the community wanted him to do -- he stopped and questioned a suspicious-looking person who was out and about at a suspicious time of night.

But I also understood the teen's feelings. The police officer was white. The teen was black. In the teen's eyes, he had been picked on unfairly, singled out as suspicious because of his race. In fact, that perception of prejudice is so powerful, backed by decades of problems, that anything the officer did after making the initial stop would merely have reinforced the stereotype of police as racists.

I'll tell you why I bring this up.

Right now, America has "discovered" police brutality, thanks to an alert citizen in Los Angeles and his handy video camera. The citizen captured on film, for all the world to see, the shocking sight of a gang of white police officers beating up a black motorist.

Civil rights groups assert that such incidents are common. Police organizations insist they are an aberration. The Justice Department has promised a review of brutality complaints nationwide.

But the reality is more subtle and more complex than the current debate suggests.

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the Black Panther Party described the urban police force as an "occupying army." That relationship endures.

Too often, police officers, even black officers, believe they have entered a war zone when they enter poor, urban neighborhoods. Meanwhile, residents there view the men and women who are supposed to serve and protect them as representatives of a hostile power. Every interaction, then, gets viewed from that context.

It is not a healthy situation even when it doesn't end in the kind of egregious violence captured on film in L.A.

Last summer, I saw a white officer shove a black teen-ager at the Inner Harbor.

The teen ran away, laughing, with his buddies before I could talk to him. The officer's supervisor said the boys had been pelting a city clean-up crew at the harbor with rocks. The youth in question, said the supervisor, had started the shoving match.

"In my view," he said, "the officer showed restraint. He had enough probable cause to take him in."

Maybe. But do you see how ugly this is?

Bottom line: We can't have kids attacking police officers and we can't have officers shoving kids.

Last April, I got a call from an elderly woman who had read a column about an 80-year-old who was shot by police after she had pointed a gun in their direction. The 80-year-old woman was nearly blind and very sick. Her sister had called police for help because she thought the victim was going to take her own life.

"Who can you turn to, if you can't turn to the police?" demanded the woman on the phone again and again. She was angry. She was so angry she was practically in tears.

And the question she asked cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

There apparently exists a deep, enduring distrust between the black community and the police department that is supposed to serve, protect and defend it. Brutality is just the tip of the iceberg.

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