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From 'Officer Friendly' to 'Officer Fear'

What happened to "Officer Friendly"?

I find myself reflecting on this question as I continuously mourn the loss of life of young African American men in the inner cities of America. This question comes from my experience as a second grader at an inner city public school in the 1970s in Baltimore. As a child in a predominantly black urban classroom setting, I remember my African American teacher introducing us to Officer Friendly, a large, white, smiling police officer in a crisp blue uniform with a shiny gold badge and a very large black handgun on his side. I remember the teacher communicating to us that this community police officer is here to protect us, and I believed her without hesitation. Although the police officer did not look like me, and I do not remember actually seeing him patrolling in my community, I still felt safe as a child, and I saw each blue crisp uniformed man in my community as Officer Friendly.

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It is now 40 years later, and I am no longer that innocent child feeling a little safer when I see the crisp blue uniform. Today, I actually experience some level of anxiety and fear when I see the blue uniform.

Since that friendly encounter as a child, I have been stopped a few times by police in my luxury car while "Driving while Black" and found myself anxious as I rolled down the window with an intentional smile. I always keep my hands on the steering wheel in order to clearly show them and make sure to say "Yes, sir" as a sign of the respect for authority taught to me as an African American child with five brothers. During these unprovoked stops, I usually answer a few questions while providing the officer with my license and car insurance card before moving on without incident or a ticket. African Americans call this experience living with a "double consciousness" — a required state of awareness for the purpose of safety and survival not experienced by the ones who have historically benefited from systemic racism in American culture, resulting in continuous incidents of racial profiling from the cradle to the grave.

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It is now 2015, and "Officer Friendly" has become "Officer Fear." Today, in our inner cities across the nation, both the police officer and the citizen are afraid. The police officer fears the African American citizen shooting him or her, and the citizen fears the black or white police officer shooting him or her. The only outcome of this fear is death in our inner cities.

What happened to Officer Friendly? I believe the shift came on the back of the "war on drugs in our inner cities. As a result of this racially biased public policy, we have seen the criminalization of the African American citizenry again in American culture; the innocent African American citizen has become a de facto criminal. In addition the city is no longer training the police officer to protect the African American citizenry from the criminal element in the community. We saw the development of the surveillant police state in the inner city at the end of the 20th century in America, as we saw an influx of drugs coupled with high unemployment, and the desegregation of education undermined by property tax policy in the inner cities.

Our citizenry, both white and black, needs to hold our mayors and city councils across this nation accountable for the racially biased policing taking place in our cities today resulting in the victimization of innocent African American citizens across this nation. We need to put more resources in community policing with actual foot patrols with and without handguns. We need to ensure that our police forces look like the citizens that they are protecting from the criminal element in our communities. Officer Friendly, we need you to return to our communities across the nation so we can continue toward the American Dream of justice for all of our citizens regardless of race.

Jessica Davis, a native of Baltimore, is the senior pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church and the president of the Faith & Public Policy Institute. Her email is president@faithpolicyinstitute.org.

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