Public Radio for Alaska's Bristol Bay
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Barbershop: What It's Like In The Uniform


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. As you know by now, we've given over our entire hour to conversations about law enforcement, this in light of the shooting of two black men by police officers earlier this week and the shooting at the end of the week, the killing of five police officers and the wounding of seven others.

So for our Barbershop conversation today, we're bringing you a range of police voices. All of our guests are current or former law enforcement professionals. Chris Magnus is chief of police in Tucson, Ariz., prior to that he served as chief of police for seven years in Fargo, N.D. and then for 10 years in Richmond, Calif. In 2015, he testified before the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing on best practice models of community policing. Chief Magnus, thank you so much for joining us.

CHRIS MAGNUS: Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: We're also joined by Anwar Sanders, a New Mexico state police officer. He's been in law enforcement for three years now. He joins us from Santa Fe. So, Officer Sanders, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANWAR SANDERS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And, finally, we have Betty Taylor with us, former chief of police for the city of Winfield, Mo. She now teaches criminal justice in the state of Washington. She's with us from Seattle. She's also pursuing a doctorate in psychology. Chief Taylor, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

BETTY TAYLOR: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, this has been a lot for civilians to think about this week, but I can only - I can't imagine what it's been like for you. But I want to ask each of you, is there something fundamentally broken in your view in the relationship between the police and many, many communities - maybe not all, but many? So, Chief Magnus, is something broken?

MAGNUS: Yeah. I think there is. I really do. I think that, first of all, it's very hard for a lot of police officers, especially younger officers, to really come to terms with an understanding that police have not done well by many groups in this country historically. We do not have a great history in terms of our engagement with communities of color, with LGBT folks, with a lot of different people in this country.

And I think, you know, I have so many officers who feel like I'm not that kind of person. I'm working hard. I want to do the right things. I care about the community I serve. Even if we put aside unconscious bias, I really think that we have not done very well in terms of our training and our opportunities to bring people together and just creating a day-to-day job environment where police officers can really build relationships that then lead to trust and conversations and understanding. And there's a price to be paid for not having done that, and I think that that contributes to where we're at now.

MARTIN: There's a video circulating on Facebook that has, you know - it's a cliche that some things go viral, but this one really has. I mean, it's been viewed hundreds of thousands of times here - let me just play a little bit so people understand what we're talking about. It was a Facebook posting by Officer Nakia Jones from Warrensville, Ohio.

And after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile earlier in the week - I do want to mention it was before the shootings of the Dallas Police officers. This is the video that she posted on Facebook live, and I'll just play a little bit on that.


NAKIA JONES: So I'm looking at it. I'm looking at it, and I became so furious and so hurt because it bothers me when I hear people say, you all - police officers this. You all - police officers that. And they put us in this negative category, when I'm saying to myself, I'm not that type of police officer. I know officers that are like me that would give their life for other people.

So I'm looking at it, and it tore me up because I got to see what you all see. If I wasn't a police officer, and I wasn't on the inside, I would be saying, look, at this racist stuff. Look at this, and it hurt me.

MARTIN: You know, that's an expression I've been hearing a lot this week from people saying this whole thing just hurts me. And I think I heard all of you say that pretty much at these events. They hurt. Chief Taylor, you were saying that the way this country has done policing for a very long time has to change. Tell us a little bit more about why you say that.

TAYLOR: I think it's the paramilitary organization that most police departments run by, and it's infuriated me this week that there's been a lot of focus - and there's been focus in the past - on people who have been shot by police and talking about their criminal history. It doesn't matter.

Criminal history is a criminal history. It's like a credit rating. It's going to follow you, right? However, in our country, we have rights. People have rights. It doesn't matter who you are. There was a great quote from the - an attorney - from Timothy McVeigh (ph) that said, you know, why do you want to defend this man? Well, he has - who else is going to do - he has rights also.

MARTIN: If you had to do it over, Officer Sanders, I mean, if you knew then what you know now, do you think you'd still want to do this job?

SANDERS: That is such a tough question. I'd have to say I probably wouldn't.

MARTIN: You would not, probably.

SANDERS: I probably wouldn't because - like, I grew up respecting the police. I grew up in a very - I was - there was a lot of minorities, and we respected the police. We knew, you know, something was wrong, the police are going to come. And I liked that the police were stern, and you respected that. And I feel like what's happening now is because everyone is so afraid to be stern because they're afraid of what the public's perception is going to be, people have less respect for the police.

So it's like a double-edged sword almost. It's like do you skip up to a car on a traffic stop and give the person a hug or do you enforce these laws that you swore that you're going to do? And I feel like now it's more just buttering everyone up as opposed to actually doing real police work. And it's just hard. It's like almost like not even what I signed up to do anymore.

MARTIN: What's the hard part for you, Officer Sanders?

SANDERS: I think the hardest part is actually being on duty and dealing with racist people. I really think it's really hard to deal with because anybody who's not black can sit around and talk about its community policing. It's this and it's that. It's their history. It's not, OK? The end of it is they're racist. So I know what somebody being racist feels like because I've been discriminated against before. Someone who's not black and hasn't been discriminated against the same way won't know what it feels like.

So when I'm on a traffic stop, and I'm dealing with somebody who's racist, and they go and, say they complain or something, it's hard for me to deal with that and not be like well this person's just a racist because you're still - you're talking to someone who just doesn't get it because they don't have to go through that.

So, to me, it's the on-duty part where you have to remain professional. You just - you're held to a higher standard, and, to me, that's the hardest part is the racism on duty because you have no defenses, like, nobody that's defending you.

MARTIN: It was interesting to hear you say that because one of the things you do here - a number of white officers say that they feel there has been a loss of respect for their profession. They say that they don't understand why. Chief Taylor, what's your take on what you just heard?

TAYLOR: I agree with him in a lot of aspects, but it's a systematic problem also. I can tell you my husband lost his driver's license in Jennings because they knew they could write him tickets. They could find something to write him tickets on, and it was a money-maker, which, you know, the Department of Justice has come in and has verified that now years later. But that was, you know, back in the early 90s.

I agree 100 percent, you know, when I'm teaching in St. Louis to a 100 percent African-American school and I have kids that want to go into criminal justice careers, but then they don't - they either are in the wrong place, wrong time or they get wrong legal advice and then their lives are messed up for the rest of their life.

So I agree 100 percent. There is a bias and that people need to know their own biases. I think that that training needs to be brought out, and we need to get honest with ourselves and what we believe.

MARTIN: Interesting. Chief Magnus, what - how are you hearing this? Because I got to tell you we've been speaking with people in law enforcement all day, and a lot of people - I can assure you and I'm sure you would agree - would think this is just nonsense that really what people need to do is behave better, that the loss of respect they feel for authority in general is the problem in this country.

MAGNUS: Well, I mean, respect is something that has to work both ways, but it's also something that has to be earned. I don't think just because you strap on a badge or a gun, you automatically get respect. And the best police officers I know and that I've worked with over my career understand that respect is something that you have to earn every day.

I mean, I think we have to give police officers the right tools so that they can earn that respect. Part of that, for example, involves training police officers in what we call now procedural justice, which sounds fancy but really what it boils down to is explaining to people - and you can't do it in every circumstance or with every person - but in most cases, you can explain to people what you're doing and why. You can answer questions about things. You can take a little bit more time. You can treat people with respect and dignity.

These are steps that do not keep a good police officer from doing their job. They actually help them do it better, and they set the stage for - OK, so you may not be happy that you're being arrested, you may not - you may still have questions, you may be angry about that, but if the officers at least explained why that is, what your rights are, what's going to happen next, if you're treated fairly and courteously, if you look at some of these higher-profile incidents - and the Sandra Bland case is a good one - you look at how quickly the officer moved to a place of complete disrespect and anger. She at one point decided to smoke a cigarette in his car. He was offended by that, and it really quickly became what really looks like sort of a contempt of cop situation, a showdown that was totally unnecessary. And things went badly very quickly.

I think what we have to do, especially if you're in police leadership in this country is really focus on giving - first of all, making sure you're hiring and retaining the right people to do this job because this is a really tough job and not everybody is right for it. And then we have to give people the training and the tools to be successful to understand that you, you know - you're going to be dealing with people who are angry and upset, and you can't take it personally. You have to be able to step back from that, and you have to have that set of tools to explain to people what's going on and to be able to maintain your composure and to know when you have to - you should be stepping back. These are tough things.

MARTIN: If you had to do it over again, chief, would you still become a police officer?

MAGNUS: So, you know, I totally would because, you know, I mean, a lot of my friends and some of my co-workers think I'm a little crazy because I'm really - I feel like I'm really a community activist at heart, and I'm very committed around social justice issues. And I found, though, that policing is a really important vehicle to be able to advance those things, particularly as chief.

I've been really fortunate to be in a position to have influence on training, on best practices, on, you know, how folks get evaluated, on discipline when it's necessary on - focusing on both the internal culture of police departments. If you don't have procedural justice inside a police department, if people don't feel they have a voice or that they're treated fairly, it's hard to expect that you're going to see that's how they treat people out in the community.

MARTIN: Do you have hope? I want to ask each of you this. This has been a very difficult week. This has been a very difficult week for the public, and this has been a very difficult week for people in law enforcement - and I recognize that some people will object to the fact that I'm equating what happened with the civilians earlier this week and then what's happened with law enforcement, and I recognize that they object to that - but that's how a lot of people are experiencing it as a both end.

I want to ask each of you at the end of a week like this, what - do you think these problems are fixable? I don't know who wants to start. Who wants to start?

SANDERS: I can start.

MARTIN: Who's that? Officer Sanders?

SANDERS: I'm optimistic. I think we're trying to steer away from the issue, and everybody I talk to - all my fraternity brothers - are like, hey, could you please just talk about the things that are the truth, and they're all black? And they're like the truth is people are racist. Like, when are we going to address the fact that people have a - there - they perceive a black man as more fearful than a white man?

We can go into the communities, we can go to the schools and all the baseball games in the world, but until we figure out how we address, why people are so afraid of black men, we're going to keep getting killed. And I'm a black man, and when I'm off duty, I look like these other black men that are getting killed on the news.

So I'm optimistic. If we could all come together and admit and recognize that, OK, we have some very real issues. People are afraid of black men, period. I'm a black guy in uniform. They're afraid of me in uniform. They're afraid of me not in uniform. That's an issue.

MARTIN: Chief Magnus, I'm going to give you the last word.

MAGNUS: I'm actually encouraged. I think with any struggle along these lines, there are always setbacks. This has been a terrible week of setbacks with the loss of life we've seen, I mean, tragic beyond words. But I still think the arc moves this in the right direction, and we have some powerful tools and resources. And we're talking about some things in ways we've never really talked about them before.

President Obama's 21st Century Policing Task Force came out with a report that really is a blueprint for doing a lot of exciting things that need to happen in this field to get the dialogue going about race, to improve procedural justice, unconscious bias training, a whole host of areas, officer wellness and safety. You know, we have groups like the Police Executive Research Forum, PERF, that came out with, you know, 30 guiding principles on use of force that are helping departments really redefine how they train on, you know, the way officers use force and the value of de-escalation and rethinking a lot of old tactics that were, you know, potentially harmful.

So I think it's a tough time, but it's also an exciting time that's fraught with peril and opportunity, and I choose to believe that we're going to keep making progress because there are so many good people in the field and in our communities that expect it from us.

MARTIN: That's Chris Magnus. He's the chief of police in Tucson, Ariz. We also heard from Betty Taylor. She's the former chief of police of Winfield, Mo. She's now teaching Criminal Justice in Washington State, and she's also pursuing a doctorate in psychology. And we also heard from Anwar Sanders, who's a New Mexico state police officer. And I thank you all so much for speaking with us. I'm sorry this is why we're speaking, but I'm glad that we are. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MAGNUS: Thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: We'd like to close this special broadcast on policing by remembering those killed this week. Officer Brent Thompson served as a transit police officer in Dallas since 2009. He was 43. Officer Patrick Zamarripa served three tours in Iraq with the U.S. Navy before joining the Dallas Police Force. He was 32. Officer Michael Krol served for eight years on the Dallas police force. His sister described him as a gentle giant who loved his job. He was 40. Officer Lorne Ahrens served with the Dallas Police Department for 14 years. He was 48. Officer Michael Smith was an Army veteran and 25-year veteran of the Dallas police force. He was 55. Philando Castile was a father and the cafeteria manager of the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul. He was 32. Alton Sterling was a father of five. He was 37. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.