A perspective from someone who has worked closely with Officer Jerred Tong and Lieutenant Andre Hill of the Richmond Police Department.
When I read the news report I was speechless. Cops That Worked at Richmond Schools Now Under Investigation for Alleged Sexual Misconduct with Former Student. In my head I kept thinking: I know these names. These aren’t just officers, badges, or the bad cops; these are faces I know, people I’ve laughed with, men whose stories I’ve heard, who let me into their lives to create theater. In an instant I became one of the people I used to despise – the ones who sympathize with the police.
As I read the article, and saw that the young woman involved did not seem to be alleging these men of any crime, questions raced through my mind. “Are they OK?” I thought: “How horrible to have one’s private life on display.” I fell into a panic when I saw that an officer had committed suicide – relieved only when I saw that it wasn’t the officers, the people, that I know. I dropped down on my knees to ask God please don’t let them be overwhelmed that they would consider taking their lives. Sad and desperately wanting to see them and to talk to them to say “You’re human. We all have things we’d rather not have published in the news” I wondered, “How could this have happened?” “Were they depressed?”, “Perhaps dealing with stress on the job?”, “Did they have the support they needed from the community?” Or “Is this simply a way of life?”
The shift in my perspective towards law enforcement began while directing Theater for Humanity. Theater for Humanity combines a set of tools to address the decision making processes that often lead to conflict, misunderstanding and even death between formerly incarcerated persons and law enforcement officers. After the pilot project a friend asked me how my relationship with the police participants had changed. It was significant. At the start of the workshops I was focused on the needs of the formerly incarcerated population. I saw the officers as being present to perform a duty that they owed to our community. They were there, I felt, to help these men who had fallen from the way. My perspective toward the officers wasn’t “this population needs a voice because of what we don’t understand.” It was more so “Get them to share so that the formerly incarcerated group will be able to see the humanity in them.” It wasn’t intended to be a means to giving them a voice for the sake of their own evolution and expression and fulfilling their need to be understood.
But the truth is that we all need to start thinking more about the state of mind of our police officers. Regardless of our attitudes, the only difference between an officer who shoots a black man dead because he may have seen a gun and a community that condemns and judge’s officers without hearing or knowing the facts is this: _______________________________ (space intentionally left blank.) Now more than ever, the repetition of incidents that breach trust between law enforcement and lay citizens demands that we turn an eye and an ear to law enforcement. The state of our nation today warrants the consideration of new approaches to resolving matters. Reassignments and resignations leave the roots of the problem untouched and the community is further away from the understanding and the trust that it so desires. The result? Ruined careers of our officers, the ruined life of a young Richmond woman, and the resulting tension, resentment, and, upon all this, still no trust has been achieved. We have only a community that feels a false sense of a “win” that we got “the bad cops”. However, it doesn’t seem to me that we actually did.
Officer Jerred Tong came to every Theater for Humanity workshop early. He would help me bring the breakfast snacks inside and sometimes set up with me. He would stay afterwards and talk with the formerly incarcerated participants. He was engaged in the workshops and he would often talk to me about the curriculum, asking me endless questions about theater, things that just sort of seemed natural to me but that I was excited to talk about. He seemed fascinated by theater and the process of mapping our personal narratives together and the possibility of finding ways that we could create dialogue between these two groups which was wonderful. His constant questions prompted me to find the language to explain what I was doing with them and how this work would make them more empathetic.
The first workshop that Officer Tong missed was as the result of an Explorer’s event at which the youth he had been training won an award. I’d never seen him that happy and proud – we all felt proud for him. His success was our success and we all felt the genuineness of his care for these youth. After spending time with the formerly incarcerated participants, he talked of wanting to bring other youth into the Explorer’s program – those who were not traditionally seen as the ones who would become law enforcement officers, men like the ones he worked with in the workshops.
Lieutenant Andre Hill supported Theater for Humanity like only the most dedicated community policing advocate long before it was even called Theater for Humanity. He attended recruitment events and encouraged his officers to participate. Once the list of officers was together he accompanied them to the first workshop wanting to ensure no conflict emerged but also to understand the work himself. He shared with me how he felt encouraged after attending a community policing training in February 2015; he was excited to implement the new learnings and he wanted to be sure that the workshops were a suitable environment for his officers. He also wanted to be sure that his presence did not interrupt their ability to share in strict confidence. He was firm but fair and discipline was a priority. Much of the nervousness I felt recruiting officers was alleviated by his presence – he reassured them and me that this work was important.
He wasn’t obligated to come and listen to our discussions of police brutality, to hear the experiences of formerly incarcerated men and watch as his officers listened, he didn’t have to go out of his way to secure support for the officers who came but he did. I admired and appreciated his dedication to the process.
All of the officers had a major impact on my life. When I see them now I see partners and allies. My judgement is not clouded; I realize that there are legitimate concerns from the community. But my concern is this: if the kinds of officers who engage in and support work such as Theater for Humanity are the ones being reassigned, then what are we to think of the culture of law enforcement generally and its’ impact of their work on their personal lives? After all, their life’s work requires that they engage with the worst aspects of our human existence on a regular basis. I conclude that it is truly necessary that we begin to think about proactive ways to build community and law enforcement relationships. Resignations and reassignments will not change the culture of law enforcement nor will they change our community; they will only promote a “don’t get caught” mentality.
If the concern is for the youth in our beloved city I believe they should first be taught the meaning of due process. If not the law itself, then the character and record of service of these officers demands that we allow due process to take place here at the local level. The results of the local investigation should be the basis for determining whether further intervention is needed.
The demand that our officers be perfect in everything they do is as unjust as it is unrealistic. Beyond this, such demands place undeserved pressure on our public servants who are already handling murders, rapes, theft, and not to mention the daily threat against their lives. These demands are, I believe, at the core of the methods of escape they seek. This is an opportunity to not be an example of intolerance and to not exhibit the same attitudes that we say we want our systems to abandon. It seems to me that if we want equality, community policing, healing and reconciliation we have to be the example of it. This means that we must realize that it’s not community versus “systems”.
We say: the more power the more responsibility. With that I agree. Yet often this is interpreted as the more power the less human. Law enforcement officers are people who serve and they should be a part of the community not separate from it. If no laws have in fact been broken, then, if the community feels nevertheless that its trust has been breached because of the context of the development of these relationships here lies an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and to have an impact on the culture of local law enforcement. By organizing community discussions and creating an atmosphere of truth and reconciliation with community specific solutions we can work together to create solutions that solve the unique problems of our local community. Through dialogue our concerns can be heard and potentially met. Through judgement, ignorance and anti-police bias we only condemn those who are deserving, in the very least, of our listening ear.
What is our goal for the role of law enforcement? To sit outside of and above the community, incapable of human error? Or is it the equal application of the law and the pursuit of social remedies that bring us closer to mutual understanding and trust? If the goal is trust, trust does not exist when it is only received in a single sided relationship. Trust is a mutual agreement, a bond, it requires us, we and togetherness. One party cannot make another trust, rather all parties involved must take steps, actions, risks, and hopefully, through this exchange, we build an unbreakable bond.
If the concern is truly for our youth and young adults, then we should teach them to be better than us, we should teach them to build the kind of community where young women, such as the one involved, do not fall into this type of lifestyle, or better yet, we should choose to build a community where we don’t police the bodies of a young woman who chose to engage in sexual relations with multiple men. While we may not share these values, we should respect her right to choose and her ability to know her own mind. Eighteen is the legal age of consent. While these relationships may be frowned upon, they are not against the law since we have decided to give persons of that age the right to govern their bodies and their sexual lives. If the concern is truly for our youth and young adults, then we should teach them to build a community that works, one where officers receive the support and attention that they need to address what stressors may be triggering the behavior we think we have the right to judge and condemn, a community where open conversations happen because there is a spirit of forgiveness and restoration rather than criticism; a community, that does not disgrace the term it bears, one where all people are treated equally with care – not just the ones we say are deserving of it because of their age.
What is evident to me is that in order to change community-police relations, we need tools that build community. Punishment, condemnation, judgement are not tools for community building. And if you don’t agree, consider what you might feel after seeing the things you have done in your private life, past or present, being exposed for anyone and everyone to scrutinize, we would find that no one in the City of Richmond is above reproach. It is nothing for me to advocate for solutions that promote reconciliation because I know that, in the end, there is no other way to solve the great divide between law enforcement and community than for people to come together and talk about how to make things better.
Theater for Humanity envisions a community where we are policed by our neighbors, people whose names we know, whose lives we care about and who we support and take care of because they take care of us. A community where law enforcement officers and formerly incarcerated persons are a part of and engage with the communities where they police and live respectively. Officers are members of the community whose role is to protect. Theater for Humanity achieves this by providing space for officers and formerly incarcerated persons to have dialogue and build solutions for local policing strategies. Ideally, Theater for Humanity should become a space where officers who violate the community’s trust should be asked to come and participate in order to earn the right to serve a particular community. Theater performances are used as a tool for the wider community to engage in conversations that emerge from the workshops. If implemented widely, the program has the potential to change the entire culture of community-police relations. This is because theater is a space for healing; it humanizes the experiences of people who are voiceless and carries a people’s history. I assumed that the formerly incarcerated persons would be more dehumanized or demoralized when I started Theater for Humanity but I found that the officers, who were expected to be our protectors and yet who we also lambaste, critique and shame, need this humanizing experience just as much, if not so much more.
Michele Wells is an award winning playwright, performer, producer, and she is the creator and director of Theater for Humanity a 12 week theater workshop series for formerly incarcerated men and police officers produced by Run On Productions LLC.
As an advocate for formerly incarcerated persons she has served on the Community Advisory Board and the Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project.
Her unique perspective has evolved from a combination of research, work with community based organizations, and producing socially conscious theater performance.