Listening Helps

Carolyn Carter

It’s been three years this month since I last wore the uniform. 

 

My home still showcases artifacts of my past: A folded American flag sits above my desk with challenge coins retentively lined in a row; a framed copy of the corrections building original revenue bond paperwork hangs in my living room with handcuffs below, a gift from a former chief of police; a photograph of my graduating class from POST Academy sits on the windowsill above my desk. There were twenty-two of us. I spent four years as a cop on patrol and as a School Resource Officer in the Detective Division. 

 

I left the profession after working my final summer on patrol. My husband and I had talked extensively about starting a family and we worked for two years to get out of debt so we could survive on his income alone. We had met a divide in the road. I was approaching my five-year mark and a coworker had told me if I stuck around after five years, I would be in it for life. Looking back, I see how those words motivated me and created an urgency within me for us to leave.

 

I left on good terms. The Sheriff and Command Staff asked if there was anything they could do to make me stay and gave me a kind parting letter on parchment with gold flaked lining that highlighted my accomplishments. When I returned to college last summer, the sheriff wrote a recommendation letter for my scholarship applications. The dispatch center gave me flowers and cake on my last shift. As I checked out of service for the last time, my sergeant queued over the radio and wished me good luck on my next adventure. That same sergeant was a beacon of light for me. He held high expectations of those under his purview and was kind to our community, both the rich and the poor. Ask any cop and they can probably tell you of a cop like him - someone of that caliber that should be the poster boy for the profession. I’m thankful for him and for the department.

 

There is an ongoing conflict in my mind between the dichotomy of good and bad in law enforcement. 

 

My husband and I attended the vigil at the Boise capitol building for George Floyd. We wore masks and sat quietly with our infant son in Cecil Andrus Park. The counter-protestors drove around in lifted pickup trucks, horns blaring and Trump 2020 flags rippling in the wind behind their exhaust. I took special notice of Boise Police Officers protecting the vigil and blocking off the streets and the counter-protestors’ access to them. I held the city in high esteem for processing grief and suffering in a nonviolent way that did not steal from the credibility of the message for reform. 

 

I signed a petition for Gov. Abbott in Texas to grant clemency to Quintin Jones, a Black man on death row who was requesting his life to be spared and to be allowed to live out his natural life in prison. The victim’s family had also requested clemency. My family and I prayed daily for the miraculous to happen in Gov. Abbott's heart. I wrote a letter to Mr. Jones a week before his execution. I wanted him to know a former cop in Idaho had heard his plight–I wanted him to know his life mattered. I found my unopened letter returned to me in my mailbox, “Return to sender” written on the front, two weeks after Mr. Jones’ life was taken from him by the State.

 

The internal warfare in my mind was rampant. I argued with “Blue Lives Matter” supporters on Facebook, who were shocked at my stance – people who stated that Black children are not raised with the same moral standards as their white counterparts. I closed my computer in disbelief.

 

I had heated arguments with friends of mine who are still police officers – arguing for what reform should look like, and discussing the biases on both sides. Police officers often see the worst in humanity; I have friends who’ve been shot at, stabbed, their families threatened, and sued. These altering, life-changing events should not be passed over lightly. I saw them attempt to cope with the wave of criticisms that came in 2020. We had tough discussions, too. I talked with previous coworkers about the racism we had witnessed by others in the field as well as the lack of accountability in the force. These conversations are uncomfortable, and at times they disagreed with me and I with them, but my friends were willing to talk through it. 

 

But not all cops are willing to have the conversation. And I live with a memory that pangs me – an event we were called to respond to. At a gas station, a white male pulled his semi-truck into the parking lot, a confederate flag hanging in his cab, where he pulled up next to a Black couple who were traveling and had stopped to shower and eat. The white man threw a bag of his own urine at the Black woman as she exited her vehicle. He took her shower bag from her and chased her, trying to hit her with it, and successfully struck her several times. There were no known connections; the white man was a total stranger. 

 

There were witnesses. The store manager was adamant the white man be trespassed from the property. A sergeant on scene, the primary officer, trespassed the white man from the property, and issued him a misdemeanor citation before releasing him. 

 

There were other charges the primary officer could have elected to charge the white man, to make an arrest, including, but not limited to: Assault, Theft or Robbery, Public Nuisance, or Malicious Harassment. 

 

After the suspect left, I spoke with the victims while other officers finished collecting witness statements. They were kind and kept their cool under intense pressure. They were hurt, upset, and angry. The Black man looked at me and said, “If I had done that to a white woman, I would be lucky if I was still alive.” I listened to his words and felt the sting of truth in them. 

 

I saw the Black man’s pain as he had to watch a white man hit, chase, throw urine onto, and steal from his wife without cause. I saw the pain in having to keep his composure, to trust the system only to watch the other man be released. 

 

Potent injustice. I felt the woman’s fear and trembled. I got into my patrol car and wept; I called my sergeant, and he fumed in anger with me at the conclusion of the event. 

 

Afterwards, and at the direction of my sergeant, I wrote a complaint against the primary officer and turned it into their agency, but I could not undo the moment. I could not wipe the smug off the white man’s face as he left. I could not look the victims in the face and tell them it was rightly resolved or that what the officer chose to charge, at their discretion, was justice fulfilled. I knew it wasn’t.  

 

We still argue over what reform, or accountability, looks like in law enforcement. Most often, I’m told it should be handled within the ranks, but I question if this is effective. I don’t know what happened to the officer after I sent in a formal complaint. I remember being told what they had done was enough, but was it? I don’t know if the complaint was marked on their record, or if they had to take unpaid leave or receive supervision of any kind. I do know they began to play petty games with my family, intentionally seeking members of my family to harass whenever they found a cause to do so. To be clear, it was nothing big: petty warning citations on parking, archaic vehicle codes no one ever enforced. The department handled my conflict for me, and I did not have any continued incidents with the officer after I brought it to my leadership. But there is a backlash to breaking the blue wall of silence, however small it is. It exists. 

 

With this, I can also tell stories of the best of law enforcement. Men spending hundreds of their own dollars to feed families in the poorest sectors of our community. Countless hours left unclaimed, pro-bono work done for the betterment of our community. Officers’ discretion used in the right way; graciousness given. The conflict I must cope with is the knowledge of both.

 

There are names we’ve read about and forgotten, people who have suffered in our country at the hands of injustice that we were too uncomfortable to sit with, to learn about, to remember. There are people in our communities who do not know about Daunte Wright, Andre Hill, Manuel Ellis, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, or Tamir Rice. Or even Emmett Till. 

 

There are people in our communities who assume values and morality are racially variant. There are people who believe the color of our skin makes us more or less likely to commit violence, and others who let the color of our skin excuse the violence we do commit. There is the white man smirking as he leaves the scene after abusing a Black woman.

 

As I return to college to further my education, I return as a former police officer, a white woman, a mother, an Idaho native, and a Christian. I take a highly debated class that discusses systematic racism, and I listen. I listen because I know I need to. I listen because praying for change hasn’t been enough. But I also listen because I have seen what happens when we don’t. 

 

More importantly, I have seen unmerited grace extended to law enforcement. Our duty and responsibility at the reception of that grace is to listen and to do better. 

 

Botham’s brother, Brandt Jean, and his family were perhaps the ultimate example of this grace. During his testimony, Brandt offered a hug to the police officer who murdered his brother. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Judge Tammy Kemp spoke, saying: “I think Brandt Jean gave us an example, that the person is more than just the act, the horrific act, they’ve committed.” I listen to Judge Kemp’s words and know these words must be heard. By police officers especially. 

 

If there’s an easy answer to this conflict, it’s one I have not found. I cope with the conflict by immersing myself, as best I can, in both sides, starting with the side I am least familiar with; their stories and their experiences are ones I must remember, names I must know. 

 

I don’t know the answer, but I know it’s not to restrict, bar, defund, or exile information that contradicts someone else’s viewpoint. I don’t know the answer, but I know listening will help us find it. 

Carolyn Carter is a returning student to Boise State University. She lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and their son and loves coffee dates, watching and playing sports, and being with her family.

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