I Wrote to My Local Police Precinct About Police Brutality Against the Black Community. This is What Happened.
I’ve been watching the headlines, the hashtags trending on Twitter, the growing list of names of black people whose lives were taken by law enforcement officials (Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Melissa Ventura—all in one week) out of fear, lack of training, institutionalized racism.
I’m a white woman. I will never know the brand of adversity that comes with living in a black body. I want to help, but I don’t often know what to say or do.
There is nothing I can say that could appropriately express the hurt I feel with the news of every new death; every new, violent video showing the truth of a black man being murdered by police; every statement a newly grieving mother should never have to make. The words fall flat when I try to express the sadness, the anger, the frustration, the fear I feel.
My friend Lindsey had words I couldn’t find. She wrote her local police departments and elected officials. Then she shared her letter on social media as a template, a concrete way for white allies to take action. I borrowed it. I tweaked it. I wrote to my elected officials and to the two police precincts closest to my home.
Silence is acceptance. I do not accept these murders, so I refuse to be silent—even if it means I’ve got to crowdfund the words I need.
The text that follows is the entirety of my correspondence with a Sergeant in the Philadelphia Police Department.
To Whom it May Concern,
My name is Dese’Rae Stage. I am a white member of your community, and I am writing on behalf of the black members of the community who are too afraid or discouraged to call and speak to you today. I am writing to ask what you are doing to keep the black and other non-white members of this community safe from racist police violence.
I am writing today because I am of tired reading stories and seeing videos of black people being shot and murdered by police officers at an alarming rate. I am writing to question a system in which black men, women, and children can be killed by police for committing petty crimes or minor traffic infractions, suffering from mental health issues, sitting in their cars, and playing at the park.
I am writing today because the lives of black members of my community matter to me, and I want to know that my taxes are going to pay the salaries of police officers and public officials who also believe that black people’s lives have value. I want to know that racist policing practices are not going to be tolerated in my community, that police officers are and will continue to be properly trained, and I need to know that in the event that a police officer unjustly kills a black member of my community, that officer will be brought to justice.
I refuse to live in community where black people are afraid for their lives and the lives of their children every time they see a police car. I refuse to remain silent when black members of my community are living in fear that they could be killed because the color of their skin is seen by some officers as a threat.
I want to believe that it is possible for this community to be one where everyone feels safe and valued. Please use the power you have been given to make that dream a reality. Please tell me what you plan to do to address racist policing and keep our black neighbors safe.
Good Morning Dese’Rae,
On probably one of the saddest days in recent Law Enforcement history I would like to answer your question as to what to be done about racist policing. About 18 years ago I joined the Philadelphia Police Department of my own volition. I did so to help those in our community who couldn’t help themselves. Take that into consideration, as I did not say the white community, black community, Hispanic community etc. I cannot answer for everyone member of this department but I do believe that a majority if not all that enter the Police force are of the same mindset. That is not to debunk the fact that some either are or become corrupted. You will find that in every profession that there are those who have kept hidden their bad intentions I will not sit here and try to dismiss what you believe, I simply don’t have the strength. However, I do encourage you to read and view stories on the positive side of policing. Although you are being inundated by negative stories in the news and social media, I promise you that police officers are making a positive impact on the community every day. Although you believe members of that members of Black community will not interact with police, I would interject that this is a small subsection, as we interact with all members of every community. There are many more positive interactions than negative. It is my sincere hope that members of every community would feel comfortable speaking to any police officer on the street. Unfortunately, as I too believe every life is so very precious, the power to take away a life in defense of ourselves or to protect those in our community is mandated by the oath we so solemnly took. This is an unnatural act that weighs heavily on the minds on every police officer. I will close by saying that we are indeed all in this together. We are all brothers and sisters traveling through life to the same end. Everyone has worth and value. I am sorry that this is a tumultuous time where the police are now being viewed as the bad guy. We most certainly root out those amongst us that would choose to do harm to the public we are empowered to protect. I promise that we will continue to honorably serve the community, if you promise to encourage those that you come across who are afraid of the police to view us with an open heart and mind. Ask them to approach our officers and thank them for what they have chosen to do everyday. Thank you for writing us.
I don’t mean to dismiss your profession. I have an officer in my own family. I believe law enforcement is a noble profession, and I know that there are many more “good” officers than “bad” ones. I also don’t necessarily believe that all of the officers who have taken these black lives were doing so with malicious intent; however, there’s very clearly systemic racism at play across the country, and that concerns me.
I’ve also been following the news of what happened last night in Dallas, and I’m appalled and saddened. Killing police officers is certainly no answer to what’s going on.
The fact remains that nearly 150 black men have been killed by police across the country this year alone. That cannot be overlooked. There is not often a situation in which someone who’s been subdued should be shot multiple times at point blank range, or where someone who is complying with an officer’s request during a standard traffic stop should have multiple rounds fired into his body. Of course there are noncompliant criminals and occasionally these losses happen with police officers following the letter of the law. I don’t see situations in polar extremes; I understand complexity. Alas, there is an institutionalized racism within police departments nationwide.
So, I have some more questions*:
1. What is our city’s police accountability procedures?
2. Do our police have any provisions for citizen oversight?
3. Is there a civilian oversight panel to review police shootings and misconduct?
4. What is the threshold for indicting police for misconduct? Example: in Seattle, you have to prove willful malice.
5. Do your police have body cameras?
I truly am sorry for the senseless losses of your brothers in blue, Sergeant. Please understand that I am simply a concerned citizen, and my interests lie in bettering my community, rather than villainizing the police force.
I have said this many times over and to many people during the span of my career, and I am sure you have heard it considering the fact that you have a LEO in your family, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” Policing is not an exact science by any stretch of the imagination. If I were you, I would take the time to evaluate each police shooting scenario, however, couple in the fact that you are not a police officer so you would have no training or experience to rely on, then look at them objectively. I am sure you will find that officers in a majority of these situations were in a struggle for their life. Some are not and I believe that if the officer was wrong that justice will prevail.
Dese’Rae, I truly appreciate your candor and concern for our community. I will tell you that all officers are under the utmost scrutiny and a indeed held accountable for their actions. In Philadelphia we do have a commission of civilian oversight called the Police Advisory Commission. They are an integral piece of the justice process and review police shootings and misconduct allegations. I am unsure of the threshold or the burden of proof required to indict an officer. I believe that would be a better question for the Judicial system. We do currently have officers equipped with body cameras but the program has not been completed throughout the department. I hope I have answered your questions. Please have a wonderful day and an even better weekend.
Truth? I’m not pleased with the outcome.
The Sergeant was defensive, dismissive, and patronizing. He prioritized the loss of blue lives on one night in Dallas over the black bodies piling up day by day, with no recognition that we can be outraged at all of these losses—that the grief is not mutually exclusive. His response left a lot to be desired, but he responded, and he did so promptly.
It was far from perfect, but it wasn’t silence. It was a start.
*Questions provided by Ijeoma Iluo, as suggested by my friend Brandy.