April 17, 2018

No easy answers

Photo by Mike Stevens

An interview with a Brethren police officer

Ronald Robinson is a member of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va., where he and his wife, Stephanie, attend with their son, Rex. The congregation recently called Ronald and Stephanie to serve as deacons. Growing up in both Prince Georges County, Md., and inner-city Baltimore, Robinson is a 2007 graduate of Bridgewater College and has been a police officer with the Roanoke City Police Department for 10 years.

Messenger asked Tim Harvey to interview Robinson for his perspective on matters involving race, police shootings, and Black Lives Matter. While arranging this interview, the Parkland (Fla.) school shooting occurred. Robinson has served as a school resource officer, and that became a relevant part of the story as well.

MESSENGER: Your background is a significant part of your story—including why you became a police officer, and how you view many of our discussions about race. What events from your childhood were most significant for you?

ROBINSON: I was surrounded by many significant role models who helped me form a healthy perception of myself. My mom was a huge force in my life, and taught me so much about how to be a loving parent through the way she loved me. She sacrificed much so that I could achieve the goals in my life.

My dad essentially abandoned us when I was nine, but his best friend stepped into our lives and made sure I had a strong, positive male presence in my life. He was a successful black man, and took me places that boys like to go—basketball games and football practice, to name a few—and helped me fill out all my college applications.

In high school, my Sunday school teacher was Brother Don Montgomery. He made sure I was in church every Sunday, telling the church bus driver to “wait for this kid.” Don was also a successful black man, and his intentional efforts to know me convinced me that I could be, too.

While working at Camp Bethel, I saw Salem DARE officers interacting with youth from different backgrounds in significant ways, and it made me realize that I had many of these same skills and interests. This is what turned me on to becoming a police officer. It would be outdoors, and would involve working with and investing in other people.

Was your neighborhood safe?

Looking back, it probably wasn’t as safe as I might prefer, now that I’m a parent, but we didn’t live in fear. Mom let us play outside relatively unsupervised, but we also knew to go inside if a stranger appeared. It was just what we knew to be normal.

How were the police perceived in your neighborhood? Did you fear them?

They were not perceived well, but I did not personally fear them. Our reality meant that my mother gave me “the talk” on a number of occasions—where black parents talk to their kids about how to interact with the police. I didn’t even realize that this was just a “black thing”—it’s what everybody did: Always keep your hands visible. Show respect. Don’t make any sudden movements. Say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” Don’t say anything unless you are specifically asked. This was an ongoing thing.

My mother didn’t have “the talk” with me because she feared I might be killed—or if she did, she didn’t present it that way. She just knew that, as a black kid living in a high crime community, I was a target. I might be hassled by police for no reason; yet if I escalated the encounter and became “disorderly” I might go to jail.

I assume you, as a police officer, have studied deadly encounters like these. What do you learn from them?

One significant lesson is that the initial headline shapes the later narrative. One of these shootings happens, and the headlines read, “White police officer shoots unarmed black male,” and then people retreat into their predetermined opinions and assume there is nothing more to the story. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. In some of these cases—like Philando Castile—the police officers are clearly in the wrong. They shot, even though the people were doing exactly what they had just been told to do.

But in other cases, there are different issues that lead to a shooting— issues that are not immediately obvious. A closer examination reveals that skin color was not a factor in any way, and mitigating circumstances exonerate the officer. But it’s not popular to say that because it’s already been framed as “white police officer kills black male.”

In those times when the responding officer was in the wrong, many want the officer prosecuted. Would you agree?

That is a terribly difficult question. Police officers are unique in that we are allowed to use firearms on citizens— even deadly force. And even though we are trained in numerous techniques to either de-escalate the situation or use minimal force, we cannot be prosecuted for using the amount of force necessary to make the arrest.

There are no easy answers to these situations. We spend a lot of time in training, but there are no perfect people. Shootings are always tragic, and we should seek to avoid them. But we don’t want our cops second-guessing themselves in a moment of crisis, either.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement emerged from shootings like these. What are your thoughts about BLM?

The significant thing about BLM to me is that it is a unified movement among black people; historically, that is a very rare thing. And to the degree that it has brought attention to the difficult relationships between police and poor, black neighborhoods, I’m glad for it.

Unfortunately, there has been a degree of hooliganism from some who have attached themselves to BLM. But we also saw this by white people after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. But somehow that’s “different,” even though it’s really not. We don’t define other events by the bad behavior of fringe participants. Why do we judge Black Lives Matter by these standards?

What have white Americans missed in BLM?

They have missed the fact that our experiences of life—and especially relationships with the police—are different based on where we live. But because we live in different neighborhoods, and tend to only engage on social media with people like us, it doesn’t occur to many middle- and upper-class white people that other persons have to worry about the police in the places they live, or have “the talk” with their children.

Let’s change directions and talk about the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla. You’ve served as a school resource officer (SRO). What do you see here?

The one thing I know to be true is that an SRO’s two primary jobs are to know the kids and de-escalate any conflict. These are the best ways to reduce any kind of conflict in our schools.

During my training, my training officer stood at the front door of the school each morning, watching kids enter the building, and talking with them. If he saw someone that looked like they were upset or having a difficult time, he would pull them out of class later that morning and ask how they were doing.

At this point (late February), it looks like two of the biggest problems with the Parkland shooting were that everyone missed some very obvious signs that this kid was in trouble and that the SRO stayed outside instead of engaging the shooter. As a police officer, that is an unforgivable black mark on this officer’s career. Ever since Columbine, standard procedure for situations like these is to enter the building and engage the shooter. We protect life. Even if it means laying down my life, I am not allowed to do nothing while others are being killed.

Some are saying we need to arm teachers. Are we better off if we arm everybody?

The Trayvon Martin story gives us one answer to that, doesn’t it?

Carrying a gun made George Zimmerman respond in a way that was not necessary. Who is to say that a teacher might not do the same— become fearful in a school situation and use their gun to respond?

We also need to be careful to not criminalize rule-breaking—discipline issues might creep into criminal issues. If a student is suspended and then refuses to leave the building, do we really want to charge them with disorderly conduct? Who de-escalates that situation?

It is also true that people have a very hard time keeping secrets, and if we know the people around us, then we can often find out what is going on and perhaps step in to do something about it.

We also need to distinguish between the “illusion of peace” and “actual peace.” We can install metal detectors, or arm everyone, and we might feel like there is peace. But is that really peace? Unfortunately, if people want to cause harm, they will find a way.

So much of our political discourse is paralyzed between “conservative” and “liberal” viewpoints. As we reflect on all of these things, what is something you have learned that people with a conservative view point might find hard to hear?

No one is coming to get your guns. That was a huge rallying cry for people when President Obama was in office. But step back from that a minute— who would be the ones to come get your guns? Police officers? Do we really think law enforcement officers are going to go door to door and confiscate weapons? It’s a ridiculous thought, at face value.

Okay, now the other side— what might those with a liberal view point find hard to hear?

Police are not supposed to be arrested for shooting people. It is written into the code of Virginia that I cannot be charged with assault if I am doing my job correctly. People often don’t know that, and they may not like to hear it, but consider it this way: If I respond to a call and encounter a person holding a knife, I have to respond quickly. If they won’t put the knife down at my verbal command, I could use pepper spray, my Tazer, or my gun. But what if I opt for a lesser amount of force, and they harm themselves, or someone else? Or what if I hesitate among my options and they cause harm?

Our imperfect system functions as it was created to. That also is not easy to hear. What is easy is to sit back at a distance and think we know what a police officer should do in a tense moment. In such moments, I see my job as trusting my training, seeing others as human beings, and trying to de-escalate every situation as much as is possible in the moment.

Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.