Getting past echoes of Jim Crow laws
Fletcher is among those officers who has deep concerns about policing in minority communities, while he also questions the media’s treatment of the problem and the community’s response.
“If you just looked at the media, you would think that the biggest issue for black folks is police brutality. But if you took a bloody weekend, all you’ve got to do is look at the number of people shot by police and the number of black people shot by black folks, and the (police) number pales in comparison.”
Fletcher was one of a number of officers bothered by police actions seen in videos of the arrest of Chicago-area native Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail last year, as well as the 16-shot death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago.
Starting out as a Chicago cop at 22 in the late 1980s, Fletcher said he’s seen the good, bad and ugly of police work and has always been troubled by some white colleagues who lacked empathy for the black residents they serve.
“There are a lot of white officers who really didn’t see that (McDonald’s death) was overkill,” Fletcher said. “I wouldn’t say that all of the white officers, or even the average one, has no empathy. But I would say a lot of them don’t have any empathy and at times they don’t even understand that they don’t. But in the things that they say, you see it.”
Some older black officers say a lack of understanding and some heavy-handed, old school policing tactics decried by activists and black cops alike have historic roots in Jim Crow segregation and persist to this day in some communities.
“It was a way you were raised and brought up. The officers that came in our community who were not black wanted you to fear them,” said Greg Baker, a regional vice president of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives, who is also the police chief in South Holland. “It was like, if you were afraid of us, we can keep you in line. You would do whatever we tell you or not, whether it was for your benefit or not.”
Police work is more than policing
Some retired cops are hoping these most recent police incidents will shine a light on the need to hire more black officers in the city. Only about 23 percent of officers in Chicago are African-American, compared with the city’s black population of 32 percent.
Patricia Hill, former head of the African American Police League, says the city desperately needs black officers who embrace their heritage and are devoted to providing service to communities in need.
“You need police officers who can change hats,” she said, adding that in black communities, cops sometimes “have to become the social worker, the teacher. … It’s not just about kicking a– and taking names. It’s a service, you’re a public service employee. And in the black community, 90 percent of your calls are service calls.”
“People are not getting along. And you have to be able to negotiate that. Many of the white officers in the black community don’t see black people as needing service. They need to be policed: ‘Y’all don’t know how to act, you need to be put in order, talked down to, civilized’ and all that. That’s why you have this adversarial relationship. We need more officers that give service. When you call the police, you want help and that’s what we need.”
Spradley says that long-ago traffic stop that ended with an official warning from the suburban cop is a reminder how police must work harder to maintain a respectful relationship with the people they serve.
He says he tries to hold on to the memory of what it was like to be robbed multiple times as a teen while traveling from his South Side home to Providence St. Mel Catholic High School on the West Side.
“I want to be the police officer that responds when my coat gets snatched off my back, or somebody’s chasing me down a street to get my gym shoes off my feet. I wanted to be that police officer that gave the service that I would want to have if I was the victim — and I had been the victim.”