I was the last person anyone might have thought would get his shoulder length hair cut and join the Baltimore City Police Department. Today, almost 50 years later, it feels more like it was a year-long dream, one that returns as a confusing nightmare with each new report and image of a police killing of a person of color.
It was late in 1973 when I realized I would be finishing my college coursework a semester early. All I knew about my future was that I wanted to get to know the world better, and I wanted to serve others. I turned the last page of a novel by former Los Angeles Police Detective Joseph Wambaugh, “The Blue Knight,” and decided I would sign up. It all happened fast after that — a psychological evaluation, a military-like physical and an interview before a panel of stern detectives who wanted to know everything about my personal life. In just 14 weeks, after an intensive academy training and a background investigation, I was assigned to the Southwest District.
After two weeks with a supervisor, I climbed behind the wheel of a cruiser and called myself “10-8” into service over the city-wide radio. I was terrified, with a map on one knee and the weight of my service weapon resting next to the other. I was a cop. I kept telling myself what I’d told my parents, that I was an officer of the law and that, if called upon, I had the authority and, yes, the power, to help keep the streets safe, to help people in need.
Before I would call out of service on Day One, I’d made my first arrest. It was clumsy, dangerous and, according to my sergeant, successful. I got a bad guy off the street, and neither of us got hurt, he said. He understood my worst fear, not just the natural one about staying alive, but a deeper one, the one where I dreaded hurting or even killing someone else.
For the next 11 months I got no relief from that deep worry. And now, all these years later, I find myself unable to square the horrifying police body camera images with anything I experienced as a police officer. To be sure, I dealt with plenty of violent crime — disarmed suspects, arrested car thieves and encountered death close up. And there were no cameras. No one wore body armor or carried Tasers, and we still walked a beat for part of our shifts, twirling our batons and chatting it up with folks on the street. We wore white shirts and black ties; we didn’t look at all like commandos.
In mid-July that summer, many officers participated in a walkout, a strike for more pay, picketing the station houses, jamming communications and leaving the city defenseless. The streets erupted into unrest; those of us who didn’t walk out worked double shifts for days. Morale plummeted, and, afterward, returning officers threatened those of us who crossed the lines. I tendered my resignation two months later, taking a job teaching school nearby in West Baltimore.
Looking back, I can’t help but think that the single year as a police officer is the one I can’t find a place for — a less dreamy place where I experience memory the way I’m able to reflect on my years in the classroom. It was a long time ago, and I left “the force” knowing that I was temperamentally ill-suited to the profession.
Since that time, I’ve watched even small-town police agencies evolve into paramilitary squads armed to the teeth. The role of a police officer as I remember it has changed. What we see with our own eyes is not what I remember. It seems clear that many of the current practices of policing must change. Until we figure this out and train for those new principles, we can’t expect today’s militaristic, aggressive, racially biased, adversarial and escalatory policing to improve. The bad dream will continue.
William Waters (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired as an English teacher at The Bryn Mawr School.