Watching the Republican National Convention go down in my home state of Ohio, this week, I couldn't help but fear that the latest round of police killings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Florida would get swallowed up in a sea of blue blindness.
Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful for cops in this country and the sacrifices they make—including putting their own lives in harm's way. I have family and friends who work in law enforcement, and I respect them. The deranged cop killers Micah Johnson and Gavin Long in Dallas and Baton Rouge should be called out for their madness.
But amid America's undying adulation toward police officers—public servants who choose to receive salaries with public tax dollars—the most significant issues seem to be getting lost in the noise. There is no doubt many cops behave with honor and good intentions. But we can't let the conversation stop there, as RNC speakers and attendees have, going so far as to cheer wildly when one of the cops involved in Freddie Gray's death got acquitted in Baltimore this week.
We have to be brutally honest during this harsh but familiar period in American history: There are too many police officers who perform their jobs with no honor and use the privilege of wearing the badge to inflict savagery on the public. The senseless shooting of a prone black man helping his autistic patient in North Miami earlier this week is just the latest bit of damning evidence for this.
As a black man, I've been profiled by cops on numerous occasions. Too many times to count. I've been followed and stopped while taking evening strolls in Cleveland and other cities. I have been pulled over by cops for so-called broken taillights and for my license plate stickers not being visible—the kind of petty crap that can send a black man home in a bodybag or to the county jail.
I've also seen police power from the other side of the interaction. A few years ago on Cleveland's West Side, I spent time with a controversial police sergeant while gathering background for a story on male prostitution. As he listened to his radio and assisted on regular calls, we chatted about trivialities such as the hip areas of town (what clubs had the most attractive women waiting in line), what mom and pop restaurant served the best fried Perch, and of course, the Cleveland Browns. But whenever he pulled over a motorist or drove down a sketchy street, I could feel his power—the power to upend lives.
The sergeant asked people to get out their cars. He stopped a group walking down the street and frisked them. During another stop, he bizarrely questioned a man, who was dressed as a woman, about why he performed sex acts for money.
"This is a reporter for the newspaper," the police officer said. "Tell him why you suck dick."
After I identified myself, I politely told the man, who had mentioned to the officer he was from Youngstown, my hometown, that he did not have to disclose anything to me. I ended up changing the subject, so we could continue the patrol for the evening. I felt embarrassed for him, but I got the sense that he had been treated that way before.
But to be fair, the officer also did perfectly decent things like give an extremely inebriated man a ride home and help a lost couple with directions to the highway.
While spending time with that sergeant, I didn't sense his detainment of people was so much about race—maybe because I'm a black guy and he was cognizant of it. But it was definitely about power, the power to control the situation because he had a gun and a badge.
I also think that police use their power out of fear. A 2015 dash-cam video released from the Austin Police Department this week showed, Breaion King, an African American woman being dragged and slammed from her car for allegedly speeding. The officer, Bryan Ricther, said the woman was resisting arrest.
Later in the video, as the woman was being driven to a police station, the arresting officer's partner, Patrick Spraldin, said that he believed that black people had violent tendencies. His response was to a question King asked about why so many people were afraid of black people.
The problem with Spraldin's views, as with a lot of officers, is that many are afraid of people they don't identify with. Many patrol from their cars instead of walking the beat. They know the dilapidated home where dope boys push drugs, but they don't know Miss Anderson who lives right next to the bando and cooks up a mean peach cobbler. I doubt many of the officers, particularly those who are white, who I have encountered over the years, have ever of had dinner over someone's house who was not in the same socioeconomic or racial class as them. And if they did, I highly doubt it was on the minority's turf.
Earlier this month, days after the tragedy in Dallas, a clearly exhausted Police Chief Donald Brown said he believed just 1 or 2 percent of America's police are bad apples. Brown and his deputy chief, Malik Aziz, should be commended for their leadership, composure, and compassion. Their department has made real strides on use-of-force complaints in recent years. They also said bad police officers need to be removed from law enforcement.
But the man's percentages are way off. We all know African Americans and Latinos are more likely to have encounters with law enforcement—and in many instances, deserved or not, they are unpleasant experiences that contribute to the distrust many minorities have for cops. I also disagree with Brown's pleas on CNN for the public to commend and praise cops for the sacrifices they make every day, and to not publicly criticize them when they break the law or act negligently.
During the segment, Brown said:
"The 98 percent, 99 percent of cops come to work and do this job for 40 grand... and risk their lives not knowing whether they're going to come home... get this criticism. That's just not right, and it's not sustainable. I'm just making a plea to this country to stand up as a silent majority and show you're support for these people to keep them encouraged... to protect you."
Police behavior, especially when force is used, should be examined frequently and thoroughly. It is a life and death issue in many poor and urban communities.
For many African Americans and Latinos in this country, a police stop more often than not means they will be given an impromptu traffic ticket that oftentimes could be the difference between paying the rent or driving under suspension, a broken taillight that leads to an unnecessary vehicle search or detainment, or the ultimate price—being tased, put in a chokehold that leaves you gasping for your last breath, or having a gun drawn on you and being shot.
This was not the message being sent by speaker after speaker at the Republican National Convention last week—they said don't question the cops, and if you do talk about them, make sure it's unconditional praise.
But I'm not blinded by the blue. All I see is red.
Donaldson is a freelance journalist and documentary film producer. He is a former reporter at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Detroit Free Press.