MAXWELL:  In truth, black people need the police

7/29/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Two more police officers are dead. This time, they are U.S. Capitol police officers. In May, three local officers _ two Tampa detectives and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper _ were shot to death in the line of duty.

Death. It is the stuff of law enforcement.

What do I know about cops and death? I am not an expert, but I know enough to have more respect for law enforcement as a profession than I do for any other, including my own fields of journalism and classroom teaching.

And let me get one thing straight from the outset: As a dark-skinned black male of above-average size, I have been abused by white and black cops.

I have been stopped for DWB (driving while black). I have been mistaken for a black robber, thrown to the sidewalk and billy-clubbed. After pulling me over one night on the Outer Drive, a Chicago cop called me an “uppity University of Chicago nigger,” threw my car keys into Lake Michigan and had my car towed. As a 12-year-old, I fought with two Fort Lauderdale cops who beat my father because he would not let them search our apartment without a warrant.

So do not call me some Uncle Tom ignorant of how brutal cops can be. I know. But I know something else about them: Each time they don their uniforms, they may face death. When kissing their families goodbye each morning, they know that they could die during their first encounter with the public.

My cousin, with whom I lived for two years, was a Chicago cop who worked a down-and-dirty neighborhood. I learned a lot about cops _ some of their lingo and a little bit about how they think and operate. Mainly, though, I learned that they are a special breed, that their work is unlike any other.

“The work of a cop is dramatically different from the jobs of ordinary people,” writes Harvey Rachlin, author of The Making of a Cop. “In what other profession does a person deal with the totality of society as both savior and penalizer? What other occupation requires one to interact with deranged killers, violent drug dealers, desperate addicts, hysterical accident victims, family members in furious conflict, women about to give birth, teenage runaways, irate drivers who get traffic tickets, and hostile crowds _ often in a single day?”

No other job compares with being a cop, and no other is more valuable _ given America’s propensity for violence. I laugh when hearing members of a local black group blithely dismiss the St. Petersburg police as a totalitarian force occupying the black community. What utter nonsense. The truth is that black people need the police more than any other group.

Sadie Holloway may wish that cops had been around Saturday when her son, Derrick, 17, was being chased and shot to death. Peggy Burge, too, might wish that they had been there when her son, Aaron Golden, 15, was being shot and killed by the same man who allegedly murdered Derrick Holloway and a third victim. The police are doing all they can to bring this killer to justice, and they will need the help of law-abiding black citizens _ as they do in many similar cases.

Too often, African-Americans remain mum _ even when they know that a killer or a drug dealer is hiding next door. Greg Pierce, former president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, a resident of the area where the recent shootings occurred, acknowledges that he and others are fully aware of criminal activity around them.

“We know the drug dealing is going on in the neighborhood, but when you actually hear of individuals being shot, it is shocking,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. Instead of remaining silent, he and his neighbors should be informing on these thugs.

Many times, though, when cops are trying to arrest a known criminal, they are physically attacked and verbally abused by residents. When the police find this killer, they will risk being shot to death. And if they confront him in certain black neighborhoods, they could become the targets of the residents’ wrath.

Law enforcement is thankless, often despised, work. But for many black neighborhoods, where normalizing institutions _ the family, the church, the school _ have become ineffective bench warmers, cops are the only force standing between widespread lawlessness and relative order. In some black areas on St. Petersburg’s south side, the only free people are the criminals who terrorize law-abiding citizens at will.

Only cops, who put their lives on the line each day, can protect good people from violent criminals. Instead of condemning cops, we, African-Americans, should thank them.