Return of the Beat Cop
An article in the Washington Post on May 29, 2021, written by Peter Hermann, a Post reporter who covers crime caught my attention. It was titled: “D.C. police recruits are learning about Black History, go-go-music, and half-smokes. Leaders think it will make them better officers,”
Accompanying the story were two well-placed photos. The first was of thirty-one recruits lined up on a street corner in a Southeast Washington neighborhood watching and engaging with the neighborhood kids and a few residents. The photo tells the story of two different cultures and backgrounds meeting on a turf familiar to one but foreign to the other. The other photo of an athletic, acrobatic black man performing a wheelie on his motorcycle while appearing to be enjoying the show. The cops and the neighbors engage in life. Not crime. That’s the story.
Looking at the photos and reading the article I felt a familiar tug–I’ve been at this scene before, but with a homicide detective researching background for one of his cases. This story and photograph is familiar because LAPD Detective St. John and I lived it. Two cultures can learn from and get along with each other if they share experiences, not grievances.
Hermann wrote: “Even before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to mass protests nationwide, outrage over the deaths of other Black men in police custody had forced the D.C. police departments and others to begin to confront racial bias in their police ranks.” Hermann wrote how important it is to “teach officers the difficult history of policing and foster frank discussions among them about race and law enforcement.”
Police reform is an issue that’s inflamed and fractured this country for way too long. What’s the answer? Why have administration after administration, Republicans and Democrats, think tanks, and sociologists been unable to find even the hint of a solution? It’s a complex problem made even more insurmountable and urgent when combined with issues of race, cultural differences, and political inaction. How much longer can this time bomb keep ticking?
Detective St. John had an answer. I remember the day I asked him about the thick diary he kept in his coat pocket, held together with a rubber band. It had pages and pages of names, phone numbers, addresses, scraps of paper, scribbled notes. “It’s my onboard filing system,” he said. “I have all the names and contact information I need during an investigation, from social services agencies to attorneys to pharmacies – you name it. I’m an information junkie and I use that information every day, especially when I was a beat cop.” Beat cop? Sounds old-fashioned.
Hermann wrote: “With the help of two local college professors, officers are learning more about the rich culture of the nation’s capital and hearing directly from the residents outside the moment of crisis.” I can almost hear St. John sigh with relief. Modern cops finally get it.
“Cops have to get out of their cars and get on the street where people live and crime happens,” he told me. “When I was a beat cop, I knew everyone in a prescribed radius. I knew if the kids needed medication, if granny needed a ride to the hospital, if Mr. Jones needed a job. They knew me and even better, I knew them. They knew if they needed help, they could count on me. Guess what? The crime rate was just about zero. It’s all about trust and understanding each other.”
That’s what I read and saw in that story and photos. The beginning of trust and understanding.
Get the cops out of their cars and onto the street. Bring back the beat cop!