The Reaction Must Fit the Situation

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My paternal grandfather died a year before I was born. All that I really know about him is that he was born in the Slovakian area of Austria-Hungary in 1881 in the village of Cachtice. He came to the United States in 1912, worked at a series of jobs in different parts of Texas and became a naturalized citizen in 1917. Eventually he settled down in Houston, Texas in a home off of Navigation that he paid for room by room. He worked at Houston Meat Packing as a  laborer  and eventually a butcher. By the time he had reached his sixties he had raised eight children and had plans to one day retire and farm land that he had purchased in Richmond, Texas. 

According to all of his children my grandfather was an avid reader and an advocate for education. He lectured his children on the greatness of the United States and taught them to make the most of opportunities in our country. He was a hardworking man who was proud that he owned a home and land and even a cow. He was happy that all of his children were better educated than he was. He knew that his family had been victimized by prejudice, but he urged everyone to ignore the taunts and walk with their heads held high. 

According to one of my aunts, my grandfather was in downtown Houston one day when he found himself in need of a bathroom, but nobody would allow him to use the facilities in their places of business. Out of necessity he found an alleyway between two buildings and attempted to shelter himself while he took care of his problem. A police officer came by and saw him standing in the shadows with his back turned and made the assumption that he was up to no good. He came from behind and beat my grandfather on the head with his baton. 

Realizing that my grandfather was not doing anything that deserved of the beating, the police officer told him to go home and then abruptly left. Grandpa found a bus and headed to his house. At first it appeared that he only had a headache but within a few days he had a major stroke that left him unable to care for himself. My aunts and uncles had to send him away for medical help. Not long after he died with the cause of death being officially list as a cerebral hemorrhage. 

I’ve often thought of him whenever I have heard of cases of police brutality that lead to the death of an individual. I have found myself feeling the pain of loss that the families of such individuals must surely undergo. My grandfather was still in his early sixties and seemingly had more years of life ahead. I would have liked to have met him and talked with him. It would have been wonderful to see him enjoying his farm after his years of hard work. All of that was taken away from his family on the day that the police officer jumped to conclusions and hit my grandfather before determining what he was actually doing. I suspect that if he had simply asked or even just observed Grandpa for a bit he might have seen that everything was innocent. Instead he chose to immediately become aggressive. There was no reason to hit Grandpa the way he did. 

We see so much of that kind of thin these days. It bothers me that our police officers are not better trained, better screened for violent emotional proclivities. All too often they are acting first and thinking second. It’s one thing to react quickly if someone is shooting or being violent. Becoming aggressive over drinking or use of drugs or mental illness is too often the wrong response. The punishment should always fit the crime. If someone tries to use a phony twenty dollar bill it is wrong but hardly worthy of death. If someone looks suspicious because he is wearing a hoodie it should not lead to death.

I remember a day when I was stopped by a police officer on my way back home from visiting my daughter. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was feeling quite happy. I still could not tell you if I was speeding or not. I was literally just keeping up with the traffic. Suddenly there was a police car behind me indicating that I needed to move from the road. I remember being shocked and quite nervous as I complied. 

When the policeman walked up to my window my heart was beating a bit faster than usual. I rolled down my window and smelled and wished him a good day. His face remained stern as he barked that I had been speeding. I apologized immediately and he told me it was too late. He asked for my driver’s license and insurance card. 

By then his demeanor had caused me to shake. I had to grope around to find my purse and then dig into it to find my wallet and my license. The officer eyed me suspiciously and became even more addled when I reached over to the glove compartment and had to search in there for the license. He was quite angry with me by the time I provided him with the information he desired. I sensed that my nervous chatting was bothering him but for some reason I did not get quiet. He made me feel more uncomfortable than I ever had before in the presence of a law enforcement officer. I began to silently wonder what such a situation might feel like for a younger person of color. 

When the ordeal was finally over I was barely able to drive. It was miles before I felt comfortable again. Such was the power that the officer had over me. I knew that whatever I had done was minimal because there had actually been cars rushing past me shortly before I was stopped. The anger of the police office felt misdirected and as such it frightened me. When I think of it I can imagine how some stops get out of hand and lead to violence that need not have happened.

By contrast I have been stopped on other occasions for a broken tail light or such and the officers were kind, smiling, letting me know that they were concerned about me. We talked and laughed and I felt safe and comfortable with them. Such people prove to me that there should be different ways of treating less serious situations. When a policeman sends the message that he is angry the whole tenor of the incident changes and causes reactions that are not helpful. Fright can cause us to behave differently than we might otherwise have done.

It is time that we look at how we enforce laws and provide training that is appropriate for lesser violations versus those that require split second reactions in very unsafe situations. I understand how difficult the job of law enforcement is, but our policing can and should be better. Too many have died unnecessarily. Even those in law enforcement agree that reform is long overdue.


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