About a month ago, as I was walking out of church on Sunday, someone tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned, I saw an African-American gentleman I estimated to be in his early to mid-thirties, about six feet tall, well-dressed, with the muscular appearance of someone who perhaps worked out in his spare time. “I’d like to take you out to lunch,” he told me. Thinking that he might have a spiritual matter he wanted to discuss, I accepted and met him at a cafe in downtown Atlanta.
At lunch, this gentleman, who still had not told me his name, said he had heard from another member of the church that I was a writer. I told him I was. That being the case, he said he had a story he needed to tell me. A story he had lived and was relevant to everything in the news recently about police officers being accused of killing young black men and then not being charged by grand juries. He referenced Ferguson, Missouri, and the Eric Garner case in New York City.
Taking out my notebook as I listened, I told this fellow congregant that I needed to have a name to call him by. He shook his head, then smiled and said I could call him Quincy. “That was my grandfather’s name,” he said. “I’ve always thought it sounded strong and noble.” I agreed with him that it was indeed a good name.
Quincy began his story: He had been a member of the Atlanta Police Department (APD) for three years and had resigned a little more than a year ago because he grew tired of the racism and racial profiling he had seen at every level of the police power structure. That seemed unusual, I countered, in light of the fact that the APD is predominantly black (57%) and the Chief of Police, George N. Turner, is also African-American. “True,” he replied, “but that doesn’t change the way things are done.” Intrigued, I agreed to meet Quincy on five separate occasions in the weeks following this initial conversation, and what he told me was, to put it mildly, disturbing.
Officer Quincy joined the Atlanta Police Department in his mid-twenties after being honorable discharged from the U.S. Army. He was given a patrol assignment, meaning he was issued a police car and partnered with another rookie officer he referred to as Chuck. Chuck was also African-American and had relocated to Atlanta from North Carolina to be closer to his parents, both of whom were in failing health. At the morning briefings held for officers, Quincy said, it soon became clear that blacks were always suspected of being the most likely to commit crimes:
“The officer doing the briefing would say we should be especially vigilant when it came to blacks we saw on our patrol routes. One of the most common things we would be told is that a majority of young black men are gang members and will be armed if you stop to question one of them. After a few weeks of this, I started to see that this kind of thinking was written in stone for the higher-ups in the department. If a crime occurred, they would send us out with the instruction to look for black suspects first. One sergeant even told us directly, ‘Blacks commit most of the crime in this city and are our primary focus.’ And the sergeant was black! It was like a bad dream at times.”
While investigating a shooting on his route, Officer Quincy was approached by a detective who gave him a bit of advice that sounded like something from a police show on television:
“He said if I ever had a case where I had to pull my weapon and discharge it, and if I struck a civilian with my shots, especially if I killed a suspect, I should be carrying a ‘plant weapon’ so I could place it near the suspect and make it look like my life had been threatened. When I told the detective that wouldn’t be right, he glared at me and hissed, ‘Just do what you have to do and cover your ass, rookie.'”
By the end of his first year on the force, Quincy said he felt “corrupted,” even though he himself hadn’t done anything wrong:
“I started asking myself how I could be a part of something so wrong. I felt dirty, like I was a part of the problem instead of helping others. I talked to friends and family about it, and they told me to just hang in there, it was gonna get better. But it didn’t. It got worse and I got more immune to it. Pretty soon it was clear the only way to live with it was to become a part of it. So I held my feelings in check and just did the job. I thought I could be two people. One that did the job and another that was the real Quincy. That’s a confusing way to live. And it catches up with you.”
Part II of this article will run December 28, 2014