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Understanding both sides of the narrative

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Humiliated. That's how Stephen Benson felt as a teenager standing in Union Station, wondering how he ended up in handcuffs.

An officer had run up to him and a friend, and yelled: “Up against the wall!”

Benson thought he might be talking about a since-closed store by that name and said: “I don't think there's one in here.”

Out came the cuffs, followed by a walk to the police station. Strangers stared. Benson thought he noticed a few people smiling. He and his friend kept asking what they had done. The only response: “You know what you did.”

They didn't. Only after the teenagers were locked up, then released, did Benson learn he had been mistaken for someone who had committed a robbery.

Benson is now a District of Columbia police officer. But as a civilian, the Union Station incident was not his first, or his last, negative encounter with law enforcement.

When he was younger and huddled with friends, pooling money for an ice cream run, an officer asked if they were selling drugs. When he was older, driving a nice car, an officer stopped him to check if it was stolen.

“I've been a black man in America longer than I've been a police officer,” said Benson, who is now 35 and patrols the 4th District, the area where his grandmother lived.

Often we speak about the fraught relationship between the police and communities of colour in divisive terms.

We pit one against the other as if they are separate teams. Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter.

That's the easy narrative. It is also the one that will keep us running in place, seeing black teenagers locked up, or worse, for no reason and watching the public increasingly lose faith in the people who are paid to protect them.

The more complex conversation, and one that will hopefully produce solutions, comes in acknowledging that it is not only in the public's interest for police departments to fix the cultures within them.

It is also in the interest of police officers, and there are many who want to see change. “There's room in law enforcement to bring who you are and to influence it,” Benson said. “I am still the same person I was when I was in this community.”

Benson is one of 25 officers participating in an innovative programme created through a partnership between the Metropolitan Police Department and Georgetown University Law Centre. The fellowship programme, called Police for Tomorrow, is in only its second year but has already gained interest from other cities.

It exposes officers to history lessons, sociological studies and expert speakers. It also forces them to participate in tough conversations that sometimes challenge the status quo.

The police department, to its credit, allowed me to sit in on one of the sessions to listen to what officers say when their bosses aren't around. I worried they might censor themselves. They didn't. The officers spoke about what they would tell DC mayor Muriel Bowser if she were in front of them — and couldn't see their name tags.

One suggested she do ride-alongs in every district to see what they experience.

They talked about their frustrations in the face of limited training and resources to address mental illness.

They discussed the question: is it sometimes better for officers to do nothing than something? “We're all people of action if we're here,” one officer said. “Sometimes we need to rein that in.”

Another officer countered: “It's kind of hard not to do anything. We're the police. We're supposed to do something, not nothing.”

One officer shared an actual dilemma he had faced. A woman was spitting at people and showing obvious signs of a mental health problem.

The group considered: do you involuntarily commit her to a hospital? Do you help her move past that moment and then let her go? Do you even have a choice?

“There are people that won't care if you were right,” one officer said. “They care that there was a complaint.”

Georgetown law professor Christy E. Lopez told the group: “There will always be situations where it's hard to know what to do. Learn to be comfortable with that discomfort.”

Lopez, the daughter of a homicide detective, is a civil rights attorney who has investigated police departments across the country for the US Justice Department, including the one in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown's fatal shooting set off protests.

She helped to put the fellowship programme together with professor Rosa Brooks, a national security law expert who joined the DC police department as a reserve officer nearly three years ago.

Lopez said the hope is to create “a cadre of officers who think about policing differently because they understand it more deeply”.

She said: “If we could keep them talking like that, thinking like that, in five years, policing could be completely different.”

She and Brooks commended top DC police officials for supporting the programme and taking time to meet with the fellows. “In a lot of departments, this programme wouldn't even be possible,” Lopez said. “They're afraid to have officers question why they're doing what they're doing.”

Police chief Peter Newsham, in a statement about the programme, described what he has seen with the participants as “inspirational”.

He said: “I had the opportunity to meet with our fellows and I was truly impressed with their level of understanding, thought and discussion on these contemporary issues in policing. They are becoming the MPD leaders of tomorrow and I can't thank them enough for strengthening the relationships between MPD and the community.”

When Benson was considering joining the force at the end of 2015, tensions between the police and the public were spilling into the streets in the form of protests and shootings.

He recalled asking himself: “If not you, then who else?”

He then had to tell his family. He is the son of two civil rights activists who marched to make the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr's birthday a holiday and the husband of a jazz singer and composer who has protested against police brutality.

His wife, Rochelle Rice, said she feared for his safety, but her concerns also went beyond that.

“I was worried he would change,” she said. “Thankfully, he's the same.”

The two always talked about social justice issues in their home. Now, she said, their conversations go deeper.

They discuss how in this gentrifying city, white residents too often call the police when they see people of colour just living their life.

They discuss how it feels when black teenagers see a black man in a blue uniform and call him a “sell-out”, knowing nothing about him.

They discuss how nothing may come of all the ideas and hopes Benson now has for change, but how, just maybe, something will.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining to the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

On the beat: Stephen Benson works in the 4th District for the DC Metropolitan Police Department. He is seen here last week in his Shaw neighbourhood (Photograph by Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining to the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

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Published December 17, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated December 17, 2018 at 7:25 am)

Understanding both sides of the narrative

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