How can we change perceptions?

Published 12:21 am Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recently, Hazel Lee organized an event at the Carver Center in Florala designed to start a dialogue between law enforcement and the community.

Hazel, has lived on both sides of the proverbial tracks.

“Generally, white people think cops are there to protect and serve them,” Lee said. “Black people have a different perception.

“I have lived in the suburbs, and I live lived in the ghetto. When I lived in the ghetto, there was a difference between the way police treated us, and the way they treated us in the suburbs. In the ghetto, we were treated as if we were guilty until proven innocent.

“We need to have that same perception of police that people in the suburbs have,” Lee said.

If your life experiences, like mine, have taught you that the cops are the good guys, there to protect and serve, it is easy to be dismissive of the question a mom asked of asked of Florala Police Chief Sonny Bedsole, Sheriff Dennis Meeks, and District Attorney Walt Merrell that night.

“What should do, so you don’t get shot when being stopped?” she asked.

It’s not a question I would necessarily worry about if I were sending a son out into the world. Nothing in my own experience has taught me to fear law enforcement.

But this week’s news in South Carolina reminded me of the dialogue again. A North Charleston, S.C., officer has been terminated and charged with murder after cell phone video showed the officer firing eight shots in a fleeing man’s back. The fleeing man was stopped for having a broken tail light on a car he said he was planning to buy. His only prior encounters with the law involved failure to pay child support.

Even with video evidence available from the officer’s dash cam and the cell phone video, it is unclear what went wrong in this stop, and why the man ran.

Back in Florala a couple of weeks ago, Chief Bedsole – who is just Sonny to most – gave very good advice. If you are stopped, don’t run. Keep your hands where officers can see them. If you need to reach for something, wait until the officer approaches your vehicle and tell him what you are doing. Be respectful. Officers also don’t know what to expect when they approach a vehicle.

Previously, the officer/murder suspect in South Carolina had been accused of excessive use of force. Initial reports indicate there was no follow-up to that complaint.

It seems we need work on both sides of this issue. Or as Hazel said, people of color need to have the same perceptions of law enforcement that white folks have.

Her own experience shows her that even people of color are treated differently in different locations. Since perceptions are based on life experiences, there is work to be done by law enforcement, too.

A community dialogue is a good place to start. Kudos to all who participated.