It was an immediate feeling of vulnerability.
Every one of my senses was heightened.
I was trying to gather as much data as possible about that back alley while still focusing on the man I was approaching.
He had his hands on a woman and He was shouting at her.
He was angry.
He was bigger than me and he was already making it clear that he had no problem getting aggressive.
When he saw me standing there the expletives started to fly. Having a police officer show up was probably the last thing he wanted in that moment, but there I was. I was unsure about how to handle it, but in my mind my primary objective at that point was to make sure that woman got out of immediate danger. I told him to let go of the woman and step back. I don’t know how many times I repeated it, but it seemed like I kept saying it over and over. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. I felt ready for the worst, but I knew my job was to try to prevent that. Just then, in a split second, he was running. As I realized he was running away I also realized my gun was already out and pointing right at him while I was shouting at him to stop. I probably would have chased him if I could, but I was left standing there with the woman.
As I looked back at her, I was expecting to get some version of a “thank you”. Instead I snap back into defensive mode when I see her clutching a needle that she has it pointed right at me. She’s starting to take some steps toward me as she’s screaming at me to back off. I never expected the woman to be more of a threat to me than that thug I just scared off, but her erratic behavior made me question what might happen next. Realizing this wasn’t over and that I couldn’t let my guard down, I looked over my shoulders to make sure that guy hadn’t circled back around behind me. With no one else in sight I focused my attention back on the woman and I could see she was just scared. I had to really get control over my emotions and and make sure I was in control of the situation. I needed to calm her down like I had calmed myself down. So I lowered my weapon and reassured her I was there to help her. After repeating that over and over, she began to back off, let go of the needle, and collapse to her knees.
It was over.
The screens went dark and the room lights came up.
The training exercise was complete.
There is no chance that the Use of Force simulator even partly compares to the intensity that an officer feels when they are out in the field making life and death decisions, but my elevated heart rate, heightened senses and micro-analyzing of my decisions were evidence that this was at least a good start.
I spent last Saturday at the Howard County Police training center attending their “Working Together” initiative. They invited me and some other people in our area out as they are looking to build bridges to the youth community here in our very diverse county. We spent the day hearing about the ongoing and new initiatives that they’re doing to work through the tension that young people, especially those of color, and the police are currently facing. We heard from their senior leaders about the department’s commitment to doing everything it takes to elevate their community policing efforts.
As I was sitting in the training center I looked up at one of the emblems prominently displayed on the wall. It was a crest with three words below: Protect, Serve, Educate. Now I’m familiar with the “protect and serve” aspects of the police mantra, but I hadn’t really considered their role in educating the public also. I can’t speak for every police department around the country, but at the very least, my experience that day made it clear that my local police department was not avoiding the issues that my students are most nervous about. I saw that day that they have been, and continue to, put resources toward connecting with those they serve and letting that be the foundation for educating, and being educated, around issues that are most critical to their policing efforts.
Education is tricky through conflict, because when trust has been broken, all sides feel like it is the sole responsibility of the other to know and understand.
Those people that are going to be most influential in times like these will display a commitment to two things. They will educate those around them about their personal experience and they will learn and seek out a new understanding of the experience of the people on the other side. Whether it is an African American woman having to once again help a white man understand the ever looming label of “angry black woman” or if it is a police officer sitting across a table from an overlooked young man asking questions and seeking to gain a new perspective, there is a mutual position of learning and teaching across the deepest divides that will help people see the world through each other’s eyes.
Lead by learning. Teach by trusting.
You might encounter two feelings as you walk through conflict. You might feel like the other side should just know certain things by now and you shouldn’t have to educate them again on elementary level things. Or you might feel like you are shocked once again by the actions of the other side and your judgments of them grow stronger and stronger and you can’t understand why they think or act the way they do. Remember this: learning is constant. We will never fully understand, so we keep asking questions. They will never fully understand, so we keep sharing our experience.
Understanding is the first step toward influencing. As we mutually seek these moments of understanding we will build allies in areas we so desperately want to influence. So we seek understanding… together.