By Barney Blakeney
Something came across my desk the other day. The South Carolina state board, which oversees the Criminal Justice Academy, voted unanimously to require mental health screening for all aspiring officers. According to information from The Clyde Group, a D.C.-based communications and public affairs firm, the University of Phoenix conducted a national survey which found 84 percent of first responders have been exposed to trauma and 85 percent experience symptoms related to mental health issues such as lack of sleep (69%), anxiety (46%) change in eating habits (38%) and mood swings (28%). According to The Clyde Group’s information, 69 percent of first responders say mental health services are seldom or never utilized at their organization and 39 percent say there are repercussions for seeking help at work.
I have long been a proponent for better vetting of law enforcement recruits. We’ve got some good cops, but as in any profession, we’ve got some dastardly devils too. It takes a special kind of person to be a good cop. I once heard a remark that cops and firemen are among the most courageous of public servants – they run into trouble when everyone else runs away. But the reality is, not every cop is a good cop. Recent video of a Baltimore cop planting false evidence during an illegal drug arrest validated what most of us already know.
I think that behavior likely is more the exception than the rule. For every one of those cops, there are 1,000 who do the right thing. I often think of the state highway patrolman alone on lonely stretches of highway who has to pull over a speeding motorist at 2 a.m. not knowing what’s going to happen when he gets out of his vehicle. Once as a cop reporter I was sent to the scene of shots fired to get the story. My editor told me to get out of my car, go into the danger zone and talk to the cops. I asked her if she was nuts! Why would I leave the relative safety of my vehicle as shots were being fired, I reasoned? But the cops were out there.
As a cop reporter, I’ve met some pretty decent cops – dated one of ‘em for a minute. I grew up with one of Charleston’s finest, Chevalier Harris. I’ve admired Chevy since I was a kid. I’ve worn holes through the toes of many a pair of sneakers making pass receiving cuts on the asphalt of Eastside Charleston streets trying to emulate Chevy’s pass routes. He’d always drag one foot making cuts to the left or right. It looked really cool. Chevy was a good athlete. He was just as good a cop. Chevy won awards during his service in both the Charleston Police and Charleston County Sheriff departments. And there were old school cops like Melvin Simmons, Chris Ward, Walter Burke, Reuben Mack and Freddie Stroble among the cops who set a standard of excellence in police work. Of course there are others, too many to name. And a lot of them were white!
But the real deal is there are a lot of kooks wearing the badge. There’s good and bad in every profession. I think a better vetting process for recruits would go a long way toward improving how law enforcement is conducted, especially in Black communities. The relationship between Black folks and cops is a very unfortunate one. I imagine that was by design in the past. Racism and discrimination dictated an enforcement relationship. Throughout slavery and Jim Crow, somebody had to keep Black folks in line. That responsibility naturally fell on cops. I don’t think things have changed that much over the past 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement.
But I hope we’re entering a new era – one in which the racial prejudices and discrimination of the past are being abandoned. Of course you can’t tell that by some of the incidents which occur. For me, the incidents involving Michael Slager in North Charleston and Philando Castile in Minnesota are foreboding. But initiatives such as that suggested by the Clyde Group’s report offer hope for change.
Black folks need to get out in front of that change. I’m discouraged when I see some of our younger people spending all their energy opposing law enforcement. Tearing stuff down is easy, it requires very little skill. Building stuff is much harder. You gotta know what you’re doing. Sure there must be opposition. The current system should be dismantled. But as we’re seeing with the frivolity of the Obamacare fiasco, there also must be rebuilding. So I say our young turks also should focus on training that facilitates building. We screwed up the training for our politicians and for the past 40 years haven’t built a political infrastructure that empowers our community. With new vetting requirements for police officers, this may be an opportune time to train a new generation of law enforcement officers. All you guys can’t be protesters. Some of you need to be policemen.
I had lunch with Lee Moultrie the other day. One of the things I walked away with was Lee’s admonition that Black folks must realize every component of our community has a job, an area of responsibility. I often hear people say Black folks have no collective agenda. I guess that’s somewhat understandable since Black folks, like every other ethnic group is not a monolith. Still other groups have some basic understanding of things they must do for collective benefit.
I’m impressed that folks in the Liberty Hill community of North Charleston seem focused on collective benefit. Their July 22 family day event seems a good start. Churches in the community joined to address violent crime. Spokesman Rev. Edward Simmons said they identified at least 10 families which have lost loved ones to violent crime in recent years. I asked North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor how many homicides have been committed since January in the Dorchester Terrace/Dorchester Waylyn communities. Six, he said. That’s a community of less than three square miles and what, maybe 2,000 residents? Six homicides since January!
Pryor’s been posting reports of guns and drug seizures in the city. Monday he reported that complaints from Liberty Hill residents led to the confiscation of guns, ammunition, marijuana, cocaine, crack and cash. Two sisters and four brothers were arrested. No doubt some brilliant young people trying to make a living. But as Tupac said, they were doing it in a sleazy way.
Whoever reported them obviously feels the road they were on leads to a bad ending – somebody getting shot. But I digress. We must redirect the talents so abundant among our young. I saw a PBS show Sunday which indicated Americans working in the automotive industry can earn $40-$50 per hour – fringe benefits, no jail time and no bullets. Directing some of our young people into law enforcement might be a good idea as well. Some of the most successful members of our community have been cops.