Collision or Cooperation: Policing and Race

Collision or Cooperation: Policing and Race

Last week the Tribune sat down with Loudoun’s top cop Mike Chapman and local NAACP president Phillip Thompson, to talk about policing, traffic stops, Black Lives Matter and more. The following are excerpts of that conversation.

Are relations between the African-American community and local police worse than in the recent past, or are incidents more visible thanks to body cams, cell phone cameras, YouTube and the 24/7 news cycle?

THOMPSON: Nationwide you’ve seen acts of violence against unarmed black men where there have been no consequences. When there are no consequences there is a concern that it’s open season. When you fly in a plane you’re taught to believe it’s safe until you see pictures of a plane crash. Then you start thinking about how safe it is. It’s the same thing with violence against young black men. Seeing it on television makes us feel less safe, and that adds to the perception that there’s a problem between law enforcement and the African-American community.

With everything going on, we haven’t had an act of racial violence here in Loudoun and my goal is to make sure it doesn’t happen.

CHAPMAN: Loudoun is a safest community in the metropolitan Washington area when it comes to crime. I can’t speak for other jurisdictions, but the percentage of racial incidents here is very small. Cameras and the internet have certainly changed how we get news, and sometimes the first thing we see isn’t everything that happened.

Could we do more community policing in Loudoun, could more deputies “walk a beat”?

CHAPMAN: We can do some of that in a few areas, but most of the county’s 519 square miles are pretty spread out so the way you walk a beat is to stop when you can, get out with your radio and talk to some people, then get back in your car and drive some more and do it again.

What you have to do is be visible in other ways. We use Loudoun Alert, Facebook, and technology to reach as many people as we can. We also do it through DARE, our school resource officer program and community meetings, and events like child safety day.

You both urge residents to file complaints if they have a bad experience with law enforcement, but isn’t that intimidating for most people, especially if it involves a racial matter?

THOMPSON: There are a lot of people who get intimidated, and these days the officers wear more on their body than I did when in the military. I saw one of the school resource officers in front of a school recently. He was strapped up with all this gear and I said to myself “come on man, get real.”  We didn’t even have all that stuff going to war.  But there’s an understandable intimidation factor, and although Mike won’t say it, I will. Police are intimidators, that’s their job. They have to be the baddest gang on the block.

Most African-Americans are just not inclined to talk to the police. It’s not in our DNA.  – Phillip Thompson 

Most African-Americans are not inclined to talk to the police. It’s not in our DNA. We’re taught to leave the police alone. The less interaction you have with the police the better.

I tell people you’ve got to file complaints, even if it’s online.  If you ask me what else to do, the Sheriff could communicate more with churches and get information out on church web sites. I think that’s where you’ll start to break some of the ice.

Thompson_Chapman Interview 1What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement? Is it raising legitimate issues or is it inciting racial division?

THOMPSON: I’m not going to denounce the Black Lives Matter movement, but I am going to disagree with those calling for killing people and separatist things.

Black Lives Matter should be bigger than interacting with the police. It should also about the safety of communities themselves. A lot of black people live in neighborhoods that for the most part have been ignored, the health care delivery system is not good, old people are dying early, and babies are born without enough help.  A lot of black people also live in areas that are environmentally tainted.

I have property in downtown St. Louis [MO] and I don’t go there unless I have a gun. What does that tell you?

CHAPMAN: I was part of a small group of law enforcement leaders who met with President Obama and the Vice President earlier this month, and we talked about this. It’s not easy when you’re dealing with an organization that doesn’t have a lot of structured leadership, nor all with the same goals.

I get concerned that there are some people in the Black Lives Matter movement who stoke the flames, and that heightens the potential for conflict.  – Sheriff Mike Chapman

It’s important to have the public’s trust so that if something does happen people know you’re going to handle it in a responsible way.  We need to keep making a sincere effort at integration in law enforcement as well as building the trust of the community about what we’re doing. I get concerned that there are some people in the Black Lives Matter movement who stoke the flames, and that heightens the potential for conflict.

THOMPSON: I agree with what Mike is saying. Some years ago there was a guy walking around Leesburg hitting people with a hammer. I remember wondering why we didn’t get the word about what was going on until we saw something in the DC press. The Leesburg police chief said he told a local pastor, and I replied that telling one person doesn’t mean we all know.

Is the media part of the problem in covering race relations?

THOMPSON: Whenever there’s a problem in the black community the media likes to find the most buffoonish person to talk to.  There’s often an effort to portray us in a less serious way by the media. That’s just life in America, and you deal with it.

I live in a different world than many in the African-American community. I’m an attorney, former military, and I’ve prosecuted cases. I don’t know the latest rappers and dialects. The minorities in Loudoun are mostly different than what you see in the inner cities, but some things are the same.

When I first took this job with the NAACP, there was a Martin Luther King rally and one of the other papers had a big article on dogs and a tiny blurb on Martin Luther King. Come on. When I found out there was going to be a cricket center here I thought that was good for diversity, but you don’t hear about it. But you would sure hear about it if we were opening a tennis or equestrian center, or another winery.

Last week a Loudoun deputy was charged with domestic assault. Another deputy was charged with the same unrelated offense a week earlier, and a third was arrested six weeks ago for felony animal cruelty. You’ve only had seven charges brought against your personnel in the four and a half years you’ve been in office, and four were the result of internal investigations. These other three just happened. Is something going on?

CHAPMAN: I don’t know if they’re isolated events or if other stress is contributing to this.  We’ve talked about it internally, and we’ve reviewed County programs for assisting our employees as well as our chaplain program. Even though this kind of assistance is kept confidential, some probably feel there’s a stigma attached to asking for help. We’ve also hired a psychologist with a law enforcement background to be available to listen and serve as an avenue to relieve stress. It might be coincidental that there have been three of these events recently, and I don’t think it has to do with external things going on with law enforcement around the country.

Is profiling legitimate, and if so what’s legitimate profiling and what’s discriminatory?

THOMPSON: If you talk to 90 percent of the African-Americans my age, they’ve been profiled. When I was younger I had a jaguar and the police officer who pulled me over asked if the car was mine. I was a smart ass and said “well, it’s not yours.” As a result, I ended up getting a good look at the paint finish on the hood of my car.  Things got worked out, but I didn’t think it was an appropriate question, and he didn’t ask me first for my ID and registration.

I couldn’t be a police officer, it’s not an easy job. I couldn’t listen to all the nonsense from people who get stopped and make excuses, or are involved in criminal activity. When I was growing up things were different. We spoke the Queen’s English at home, we cared about what we said and how we looked. Now, with the way some people act, dress and talk, it can be harder to tell who’s in the game and who’s not. Back in the day we knew who the bad guys were. Now, it’s harder.

I don’t ever know when I get pulled over whether it’s because I did something or because I’m black.  – Phillip Thompson

Still, I don’t think profiling is fair, and it causes a lot of problems. I don’t ever know when I get pulled over whether it’s because I did something or because I’m black.

CHAPMAN: It would not be appropriate for someone to do what happened to Phil., to ask a question like that. But we do look for anything that might be suspicious when we pull a vehicle over. We’re not going to stop a vehicle just to stop it, or because of the color of whoever is driving it. Racial profiling is not right.

We’re not going to stop a vehicle just to stop it, or because of the color of whoever is driving it. Racial profiling is not right. – Sheriff Mike Chapman

Any final thoughts?

THOMPSON: It’s interesting living in America today as a black man. I’ve had a lot of success come to me as a result of hard work, but still I struggle every day and wonder if I’m going to be seen as legit.

I’m a big black man and live in River Creek. I stopped going to the club there because I got tired of being asked if I played for the Redskins. One day I was asked by a group of guys and said, “no man, but I used to be a pimp in DC.” And they’re all sitting there wondering how to react. Finally, one of them says, “hey, what was that like?”

That’s the world I live in.