Rarely does truth confront us in such dramatic, split-screen relief as it did Tuesday with diametrically opposed, real-time visions into American policing and what should be clear to all by now: Law enforcement is not monolithic.
Those who wear badges are heroes and villains, goodness and evil in varying degrees — often in the same departments, sometimes in the same officer.
They are of the society they’re sworn to protect and serve. They are human, with all the nobility and failures that entails. That was clear in late morning Tuesday on cable news networks.
Half of the screen carried live coverage of the murder trial of fired Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, charged in the death of George Floyd. Chauvin’s left knee crushed Floyd’s neck into the Minneapolis asphalt, constricting Floyd’s windpipe for more than nine minutes including, from the testimony of the nation’s foremost pulmonologist, “the moment the life goes out of his body.”
On the other half, the mother of U.S. Capitol Police officer Billy Evans’ children wept in the Capitol Rotunda as Evans, who gave his life on April 2 protecting the Capitol, lay in honor in a flag-draped casket a few feet away. In one unforgettable heart-rending moment, her 7-year-old daughter, Abigail, wiped away her mother’s tears while her 9-year-old brother, Logan, wore his dad’s police hat and clutched a teddy bear.
My news career began nearly five decades ago covering the cop beat as many cub reporters do. It exposed me to officers you’d trust with your children’s lives (because we do) and some who were rancid to their core.
I recall making the rounds at one police department in Mississippi when I encountered a middle-aged officer with an avuncular demeanor. He handed me a small publication which I folded and stuck into a pants pocket without looking at it. It turned out to be the Thunderbolt, a tract published by the National States’ Rights Party, a virulently White supremacist organization that operated from the late 1950s to the late-’80s.
The paper thought it was worth a story. I called the then newly appointed police chief for comment. He was someone I respected as an earnest and honest new breed of lawman, and he doubted what I was telling him until I invited him to come to the newsroom and look at the publication his officer gave me. When he saw it, his face blanched: He couldn’t believe that his officer would possess such vile material much less distribute it, especially to a reporter. The chief asked the officer about it and the officer admitted it, I was told. The chief had no choice but to fire the older officer he had considered a friend and mentor.
A couple of mornings after the story appeared, I returned to the precinct office to review the previous night’s blotter — a public summary of the previous night’s calls and reports. I returned to my car parked outside the station to find the driver’s side door kicked in — black smudges from police-issue boots fresh on the crumpled, beige sheet metal — and an ominous, anonymous note beneath my windshield wiper: “Watch your back, a**hole.”
In that one department decades ago, I encountered law enforcement as it is, including the good, the bad and the ugly: a leader with the character and accountability to take the personally painful steps to keep his department on a moral and equitable trajectory; a senior officer whose gentle nature masked abhorrent ideologies; and a sympathetic fellow officer who wasn’t above threats of violence and property damage.
In our balkanized and angry culture, many Americans have taken sides and erected barriers, and their perceptions of police are largely tied to those positions.
One side sympathetic to protests last summer in support of the Black Lives Matter movement is reflexively anti-police, and not totally without cause. Time after time, we saw damning video of police armed with shields and clubs, tasers and rubber bullets, teargas and pepper spray wade into crowds of noisy, sometimes defiant but otherwise peaceful demonstrators. By employing force first, police confirmed the worst perceptions of them.
The cycle continues. The shooting death of Daunte Wright by an officer who said she mistook her Taser for her handgun happened just seven miles from the courthouse where Chauvin is standing trial and has already provoked nights of unrest. In Windsor, Virginia, uniformed Army Lt. Caron Nazario, who is of Black and Latino descent, was threatened at gunpoint, manhandled and pepper-sprayed by police during a Dec. 5 traffic stop on his drive home from post along U.S. 460. Video of the incident, released when Nazario sued two officers, stirred outrage and a state investigation. One officer, Joe Guttierez, has been fired.
Inversely, conservative movements and supporters of former President Donald Trump have championed law enforcement without question. They note some protests that turned violent last summer and the wholesale arson and lootings that ensued. They properly point out that police were overwhelmed at times. Yet they broadly conflate destruction, beatings and theft with all marches sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, including the vast majority which remained peaceful.
It all came to a bizarre head on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump mobs stormed the U.S. Capitol and literally beat overwhelmed officers trying to defend it with flagpoles bearing Blue Lives Matter banners. That day revealed the best — officers like Brian Sicknick who endured the crowd’s violence and died of his injuries, and Eugene Goodman, a Black officer who faced down an angry White mob and lured it away from the Senate chamber where senators and the vice president were being evacuated to safety. It also revealed the worst: officers aiding and making common cause with the invaders.
The fact is cops are neither angels nor demons. They go to work and do their duty but can perceive duty differently. Some have stronger moral compasses. Some receive better training. Some have a heart for public service and dread the moment when force might be used; some relish the opportunity to use force at the least provocation. None are lavishly paid. Most work long hours that could turn deadly in a heartbeat.
I won’t name the bad apples I have known. Most no longer wear a badge anyway. But I have known plenty who were good officers because they were good people. Let me remember two who served America’s oldest standing law-enforcement unit: the Virginia Capitol Police.
Mike Walter was an intense, eager officer who listened much and spoke sparingly. He made it his business to know all who made their living in and around Virginia’s Capitol complex, and he sensed instantly when something was off. In the rare moments he would let his guard down, he would beam about his kids or the youth wrestling team he coached in Powhatan. Mike became a Virginia State Police special agent, and it was in that role that he was fatally shot on patrol one night in 2017 in Richmond’s Mosby Court.
And Buddy Dowdy was the friendly first face most people encountered when they entered the west gate of Capitol Square. He worked the guard post a few hundred feet inside the drive where he greeted legislators, governors, staff and groundskeepers with the same smile, salute, wave or hat tip. He could talk Green Bay Packers football as he kept a discerning, unbroken surveillance for any sign of trouble. He was fully prepared, at any second, to put himself in harm’s way to protect Virginia’s Capitol the same way Billy Evans would. COVID-19 took Buddy last month.
It’s never the badge that’s good, bad or somewhere in between. It’s the man or woman behind it.