Monday, October 08, 2018

College Student Visits Whitehall PD

Public perception of police is pretty bad among black, and to a lesser extent, Hispanic segments of society. The recent police shooting death of an unarmed Hispanic male outside of Dorney Park stirred up some hostile feelings here locally, even though the officer involved faces voluntary manslaughter charges.  Against that backdrop, a college student who acknowledged she harbored a negative attitude towards law enforcement asked Whitehall police if she could spend some time with them for a role reversal project. They agreed, and this is her story. 

“To Serve and Protect “ these are words you will see on every single police car no matter where you are in the United States. The day in the life of an officer was something I never expected myself to do. I chose to spend a few hours and go on a ride along with the Whitehall Police Department because this is a role I have never considered doing before and being in the presence of police officers is a true fear of mine. Growing up I was afraid of the police, and this same fear has followed me into adulthood. I have always been a law-abiding citizen and have never had the urge to break the law yet every time I see an officer or a police car my hands begin to sweat and my heart begins to race. A lot of this fear comes from growing up in a household that was unstable, I was surrounded by things I knew were not legal and I worried constantly that the “mean” police would come and take me and my sisters away. Now with everything going on in the news, I have grown even more weary of the men and women in blue. My thoughts towards officers have always been that they think they are better than everyone and they abuse their power. My weariness of officers has always made me walk on the opposite side of the street from them and I always evert eye contact. Yet this exercise has opened my eyes and made these brave men and women seem much more human to me. “To Serve and Protect” now makes sense and the wonderful people I was lucky enough to spend the day with has cleansed me of my fears.

My day began by meeting Lieutenant Gregory Bealer at the Lehigh Street Precinct. He greeted me very professionally at first making sure all the paperwork was in order. Once I was granted access into the facility his whole demeanor changed. He smiled and seemed excited. All of a sudden he became human to me, he is a gray-haired man with smile lines which is very telling. I instantly felt comfortable with him, something I was not expecting. I walked around meeting all the administration women, learning how much paperwork is actually involved in police work was baffling. The woman who is in charge of keeping the records informed me that they have to keep murder files for 100 plus years after the case, which surprised me. Why keep something that will outlive the people who were involved in the crime in the first place? The reason; there is no statute of limitation for murder in Pennsylvania. The record room smelled of old books and had one full wall filled with folders, slowly they are becoming digital but must keep paper copies on certain cases. This was like any other office job, just with much more sensitive material

Next, we went upstairs to meet the captain, as we ascended the stairs I could hear his booming voice on a phone call and with each step, my anxiousness increased. Was this the kind of officer I had been expecting, the ones I had been afraid of my whole life? Once the captain was off the phone we were introduced, he was much younger than I expected, his room was large and very put together, everything had its place, the room seemed very telling of the kind of person that the captain was. His presence demanded respect, he was well groomed and a bit intimidating. However, this first perception was not very accurate, as soon as Lieutenant Bealer introduced me the captain became much warmer than he seemed before, greeted me kindly with a handshake and asked me questions about myself. The more and more I spoke with all these men and women the more my self-worth seemed to increase, they were eager to show me what they put their time into every day and they were interested in me as well. They joked with each other as any friends would. They reminded me of my soccer team growing up, everyone had and was appreciated for the work they put in. Being in their presence definitely made my self-worth increase, I felt important, like what I had to say/ask mattered. I asked Lieutenant Bealer if he felt his self-worth increased after becoming an officer and he responded with a resounding “Absolutely, most join to help people, we all get a sense of pride in doing the right thing.” I could feel this pride beaming off of all of them as I walked around the building, it was infectious.

Next, I was taken into the evidence room, what a menacing place. The rack on the back wall was overflowing with boxes full of murder cases, there was a fridge to my left full of sexual assault kits, the storage to my right was full of guns, next to that a locker full of drug paraphernalia, and a small case filled to the brim with surveillance videos. Looking at all this made me feel instantly small, these men and women have to see some of the most gruesome and unexplainable things, things that I could never begin to understand. In this moment my life in social comparison to theirs seemed a lot less important. I know in my heart I could never withstand seeing the things that were now kept in boxes. The two officers in there went about their duties as if it were nothing. In my eyes that takes a lot of strength. I was shown a few very interesting forensic techniques they use, however it is definitely not as cut and dry as the movies make it. These officers have to patiently wait for results sometimes more than a few months, this frustrated me. Trying to see through their eyes, really opened mine. They do all this work and then hit a wall while they wait for the information to come back, meanwhile, they are being questioned by the people also waiting for their results. Everything takes a lot of time when you’re an officer and patience is definitely a virtue in this profession. The more I learned the more I understood why I had previously perceived the police as “monsters”. Standpoint theory, “the theory that a person’s social position, power, culture, or background influences how the person perceives the behavior of others”(70 Beebe, Beebe, Redmond) plays a great role in this exercise. If I saw everything that these men and woman saw on a daily basis, and had to patiently wait on cases that I was invested in I would hold myself in the same respect as them. Everyone is guilty until proven innocent. This defense mechanism makes sense, how could you be anything but cynical when dealing with things of this manner. A quote from Lieutenant Bealer,”this changes your everyday life, my ex-wife used to ask me why I would look in every store when we would be walking in the mall and I would tell here it is just a natural instinct to survey the area, but it’s hard to explain things like that to anyone.” Their social position is of an authoritative nature, they need people to respect their authority in order to do their jobs. I as a civilian took this as them abusing their power and thinking they are better than everyone, where in reality it’s to protect us and to protect themselves.

I wrote a questionnaire for Lieutenant Bealer so that I could better put myself in his shoes, I asked him how being an officer impacted other areas of his life. From just the few hours we had spent together I could feel how much these men and women sacrifice. His answers only reaffirmed my initial feeling. He said “being an officer puts a lot of stress on other areas of your life, there is a very high divorce rate, 70%, there are very long inconsistent hours, many missed holidays and special occasions and it makes you very unemotional because you try to protect the people in your life from what you see every day and they, in turn see it as you hiding things from them.” This is not verbatim but what I had written in my notes. This made me look at myself a bit differently, I am about to get married and I tell my fiance everything, how would I feel if I couldn't do that. Here these people are putting their lives on the line and because of this, they are almost isolated. If I was in his shoes my looking glass self would be 100% encompassed in being an officer, you're very isolated from other people outside of the department because they can never truly understand what is going on inside of your mind. The men and women that surround Lieutenant Bealer are like a big family, they all reinforce the idea of being an officer. If I was in his place this would be the only thing that would make sense to me, they are the same and they're the only ones that understand the struggle of living a life outside of being an officer.

I do not feel that this exercise changed my self-concept at all. As much as I tried to see through their eyes I know I never could fully understand the weight of being an officer. I got to hold a taser and feel the weight of an AR-15, I got to see the strength and obedience of their police dog Mex thanks to Officer Apgar, I was shown the ins and outs of being an officer yet I could never imagine wearing their shoes. I am an artist, a lover of life, this profession consumes them. They are much stronger than I could ever be. I do not feel my material or social self was influenced in any way because as I stated before I could never be them. My spiritual self, on the other hand, was affected, my beliefs about officers have completely changed, instead of fear I feel safety, my view of them had once been dark but now I feel the calmness that is associated with the color blue like their uniforms.

Perception is a funny thing from the outside looking in on any group you can believe that your opinions are right because they are unchallenged. When you put yourself in their shoes and see the world from their eyes you learn that not all is as it appears. Nothing is black and white, life is constantly grey, especially when it comes to perceptions of others. You can never really know someone or something until you are in their place. I learned so much from this group. I learned that doing the right thing is something to be proud of, that everyone no matter their choice of profession are just human. These people are not robots they have feelings and have to internalize a lot of darkness so that we can all remain safe. They truly showed me how real they are, everyone has bad days and everyone makes mistakes, nobody's perfect and that's ok. I felt a lot of pride being around these men and women something I was shocked to feel, my whole life I viewed these people as monsters when in reality they are closer to angels. They are people just like you and me, going to work and going home to their families. I have never seen officers are regular people before and this has truly opened my eyes. My perception of them was dead wrong and I learned from this exercise that I should not judge until I can fully understand what it’s like to live in that person's shoes.


Anonymous said...

Let her spend time with the Allentown cops and she will award them Purple Hearts.

Anonymous said...

where are all the comments?!?!?

Bernie O'Hare said...

I deleted a few racist comments. Other than that andwhat is here, there are no comments.

E Mest said...

A veery telling story. Proud to see that she had the courage to do this. Maybe many more should try this to open their eyes.

sezary said...

Some police departments run citizen's academies. I participated in the one run by the Slate Belt Regional Police Department. Thanks for publishing her experience. Kudos to her for being willing to face her fears and experience some of "the other side". If we all practiced empathy or were willing to explore "the other side", what a more civil and improved world we would have.

Sandra Weiss said...

A great story Bernie.More people should walk in a Cops shoes for tha day.And I applaud her for concuring her fears and Kudos to Whitehall for allowing her to discover just how committed our first responders are.Whether it is Police EMT's or Firefighters.A really great way to start off the week Thanks

Anonymous said...

"I feel the calmness that is associated with the color blue like their uniforms."

Blue uniforms? Sure she wasn't at the post office?