Forging relationships based on trust with the communities you serve is an essential and critical component of policing, Missouri State Highway Patrol captain Ronald Johnson reminded law enforcement officers at the 23rd Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE) awards gala last Saturday night.
Johnson was at the centre of the Ferguson unrest last August following the police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.
“As law enforcement, we must go back to the foundation of our profession of getting to know the community that we serve,” said Johnson, who is a lifelong St. Louis resident. “When a community says, ‘I don’t know my police chief and I have never met a police officer in my community’, then how can we ask for their trust? We must be those things to our community that we are before we put on that uniform. We must not allow this job to harden us, but it must always continue to grow us to be better peacekeepers.
“Community policing can no longer be just a buzzword, but a word that defines a commitment to making lives better. When we are in a restaurant, we must not only speak to the well-dressed person, but also the young man in a hoodie, the poor, the homeless, the stranger and even those that see us as enemies.”
With tensions rising after Brown’s death, Missouri governor Jay Nixon pulled St. Louis County Police out of Ferguson and assigned Johnson to co-ordinate law enforcement agencies.
He admitted none of his police training prepared him for the new challenge.
“I decided at that moment not to think like a trooper, but rather all those things I am – a man, a Black man, a husband, a father, a son, a sibling, a friend – before I placed on that uniform,” said Johnson who became a law enforcement officer in 1987 after graduating from college. “It was then that I knew I needed to walk down the streets of Ferguson. I needed to hear the voices which were the raindrops of the storm. I also wanted those assembled to know that I cared about them and would listen to their voices. Walking down that road would make some in law enforcement and the public view me as a traitor, as a coward or even maybe courageous. As I look back, I can see how perception can justify all three.
“But as law enforcement officers, we must walk down that middle of the road to ensure an unbiased application of the law. What came out of walking down that street was nothing that I had planned or knew would happen. But people began to define it as community policing…I realized that just walking among the citizens was what was being appreciated. I encountered those who had been called thugs by some who did not appreciate or want me walking among the crowd assembled. Using the word thug is easy, but what are we willing to do to change behaviour? I didn’t see those young men as thugs that day and not now, but rather men that needed guidance and wanted hope. I was inspired by the young people who stood not to accept that change was coming but demanded the promises of our land of equality and justice and education and economics and all other fields of human endeavour.”
Johnson said the shooting of Brown was not the catalyst for the violence that erupted in Ferguson.
“It would be easy and convenient to say that,” he said. “But the law enforcement badge we wear that stands for honesty must look in the mirror, because the storm had been manifested between communities and law enforcement for quite some time. No, not in every community, but one is too many. If we are willing to stand proud of the accolades that are bestowed on our profession during the sunny days, we must also know that we cannot distance ourselves from that which is not perfect during the stormy days.”
Accompanied by his wife, Lori, on their first visit to Canada, Johnson was presented with the President’s Award and bestowed with an ABLE honorary lifetime membership.
ABLE president, Kenton Chance, also presented an Achievement Award to Mark Saunders, Toronto’s first Black police chief.
Buffalo Police department deputy commissioner, Kimberly Beaty, was the keynote speaker at the annual event that honours young people pursuing a career in law enforcement.
The 29-year police veteran is also a fervent supporter of community policing and bridge building.
“I work tirelessly to leave people that I have met better than I found them,” said Beaty. “I want to provide hope and trust in addressing neighbourhood crime and disorder problems. I want to heal and mend relationships with my public that I had not personally damaged.”
Her appointment to deputy commissioner last summer coincided with the release of a video taken by a bystander showing a police officer hitting and kicking a handcuffed man who later succumbed to his injuries. Last week, the man’s family filed a lawsuit against the City of Buffalo and its police department.
“The people, our public that we are sworn to serve and protect, are rightfully so concerned (about police legitimacy),” said Beaty, whose parents’ home was broken into by Buffalo police who were pursuing her brother’s teenaged friends (criminal charges were later dismissed against the family). “Those concerns, compounded by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, have ignited dormant emotions in our communities and awakened a sleeping giant. And now we have Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. We are in an age when law enforcement practices are being scrutinized and perceived when there continues to be an unlawful movement in the suppression of minority people.”
Scholarships were presented to University of Ottawa first-year law student, Beverly Sarfo; Maple High School graduate, Abygail Cross; Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School Grade 12 student, Danielle Gravesande; aspiring probation officer, Samantha Riley; high school graduate, Soniya Pooniah, who will enter Carleton University in September to pursue law studies; Humber College honour roll student, Dollis France; Ontario Principal Award recipient, Lavon Johnson and Humber College Police Foundations graduate, Nigel Penny, who plans to pursue a criminal justice degree.
“This award gives me an opportunity to further my education which would eventually lead me to a law enforcement career,” said 20-year-old Penny, who volunteers with Toronto Police 22 Division’s rover crew. “I really don’t have a Service in mind, but Toronto – which is a nice big city – or Peel, where I was raised, are options.”
ABLE has awarded 131 scholarships worth nearly $148,000 since the program was launched 21 years ago. The scholarships are presented in the names of Rose Fortune and Peter Butler III, Canada’s first Black law enforcement officers. Fortune was a self-appointed policewoman in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in the late 1700s, while Butler served for 23 years with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) before retiring in 1936.
The umbrella Black law enforcement organization was founded to, among other things, encourage racial harmony and cultural pride in the law enforcement community and the wider society, promote and protect the interests of Blacks and other racial minorities in the profession and work closely with law enforcement agencies to stimulate and facilitate employment equity programs.
The organization also advocates against police racial profiling.