The recent shootings in Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana have renewed attention on the relationship between police officers and African-American citizens.
Earlier this week on Tri States Public Radio we heard from demonstrators at Black Lives Matter rallies in Galesburg and Macomb. Today we’re going to hear from the other side of the protest line. Illinois Public Radio’s Brian Mackey spoke with Chris Southwood, the president of the Illinois Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
On how being a police officer has changed since the rise of Black Lives Matter
Clearly it’s changed, changed dramatically, and I don’t believe necessarily that its changed for the better. I think the social media has had a tremendous impact on law enforcement, and without a doubt, what I’m seeing is our officers are being tried in (the court of) public opinion based on snippets or small portions of something that’s been played on social media. But unfortunately these often don’t capture the totality of the entire circumstances.
On whether police have gone “fetal” — that is, pulled back on enforcement for fear of being vilified
I absolutely believe that there is something to the idea of the "Ferguson effect.” I don’t know how you can look at the numbers of traffic stops and police stops — and certainly the city of Chicago stops — how you can look at those stats and see how much they’ve fallen off and not believe that there isn’t some type of a Ferguson effect. But I still believe police officers are answering the call; they’re still doing their duty.
When I saw the images happening in Dallas the other night, the one thing that really struck me was the fact that every police officer I saw was going towards the gunfire. And a lot of the protesters — who, as you know, were actually there to protest the actions of police officers — were running away. How sadly ironic that five police officers lost their lives defending a group of people who were protesting the work that they do. Tragic.
On whether there’s a “wall of silence” that keeps good police officers from reporting bad behavior by colleagues
I would venture to say that 99.8 percent of law enforcement officers out there are good law enforcement officers. Look at the statistics. Look at how many contacts we have on a daily basis: tens of thousands of interactions between police officers and citizens. Tens of thousands, and yet so few are even reported as bad or whatever. It just clearly shows just how professional our police officers are, not just here in Illinois but across the nation.
And let’s go back and examine some of the “bad apple” incidents. For instance, do you believe Ferguson was a bad apple police officer? A lot of people say, well yeah. Really? The officer was completely vindicated in his actions; completely justified. When you look at what happened in Baltimore with Freddie Gray, those officers are being vindicated. Even the ones that are initially perceived to be bad apples, few of those are found to be in violation.
We have so few that tarnish the badge and so many that honorably serve, and to me it’s miniscule. There’s always going to be problems out there, and they should be dealt with.
On whether there’s systematic racism in America’s criminal justice system or among police officers
That’s hogwash. I dedicated over a quarter of a century of my life to protecting and serving, and I worked with thousands of police officers here in Illinois — state, local, federal. Obviously got to know many more serving in the capacity that I serve now (as president of the Illinois FOP). And I have never ever known a police officer — never known one — that said, “I can’t wait to go to work tonight so I can go out and harass a minority or do whatever.” The idea that that’s prevalent within law enforcement across the nation is really offensive to me. I used to scoff at it, but now it’s offensive. It makes me angry. Because it’s simply not true. It’s simply not true in any place that I’ve served. It is absolutely not true.
We don’t target color. No police officer I ever worked with targeted color; we targeted criminals. It doesn’t matter what color they are.
On whether African-Americans and Latinos are subject to more unconstitutional policing methods
Based on my experience as a police officer out there on the street, I reject that 100 percent. Absolutely, without question.
On his statement that President Barack Obama has "done little to correct” when others "demonize and urge violence against police officers"
I stand by that statement. And I have taken some flack over that. But I stand by that statement. When you go clear back to 2009 (the “beer summit”), initially the president made statements that the officer “acted stupidly.” I don’t know what the officer ever did to act stupidly. but once again what I see here is a quick judgment of a situation that you didn’t necessarily have all the facts.
Ferguson — look what happened there. There were things done immediately by the president (that) almost seemed to immediately find fault with the officer there, sent the Justice Department in quickly. For how long was it allowed — this notion that Michael Brown was shot in the back, the “hands up, don’t shoot” nonsense that went on, and the media’s a little bit to blame there, too, without a doubt. But this continuing, what I see as an individual who’s obviously a very powerful individual, but I don’t understand why he hasn’t learned from his past mistakes why he hasn’t learned to be cautious when something like this happens. Don’t come out and make inflammatory statements, and certainly no divisive statements.
On an analysis showing police work is safer today than it has been for decades
I don’t think so at all. I think ambush-style police shootings are on the rise. We’ve had three of them in the last 36 hours across the nation — nobody’s talking about them. That’s what I’m referring to.
I have a son, and today’s his first day with his field training officer — he’s a trooper, not here in Illinois. But it’s tough for me. I’m very proud of my son — very proud of his for what he’s went through. And thank goodness he had the fortitude to choose this path, that he answered the call to serve. But I don’t know if that’s the choice I would have made for him if I could have made another choice today.
On what role the FOP can play in ending the unrest of the past few years
I think we have to get out there. We have to meet with community leaders, faith-based leaders, we need to establish a relationship with them. We need to establish open, honest communication — open from both sides.
We’re going to get through this. How fast we get through it, how well we get through it, depends on whether or not we can come together and unite, and the leaders can bring us together and stop the divisiveness. Let’s stop this divisiveness that’s going on right now. Because I really do think when you claim this racial picture — these claims are ridiculous to me, and we have to stop that. We really do. It has to stop.