[From the July 10, 2015 issue of “The Republic” by Megan Cassidy.]
“Police chiefs they have to own up to what has happened. The public is justified in being out there… in order to develop trust, whenever there’s an unarmed shooting, forget about the potential lawsuits and the gag orders. We need you as a chief to show empathy.” S. Otieno Ogwel, man whose brother was killed by police.
“I come to you today hopefully not as the future ‘drug dealer’ in your books, should I ever be unlucky to meet a fate as my brother Rumain Brisbon,” S. Otieno Ogwel said, referencing the unarmed Black man who was killed by a Phoenix police officer weeks earlier.
“But today I come to you as a citizen who hopes to remain a husband, father, college graduate with no prior records and a citizen who is concerned with what the current state of affairs is,” he said.
On Friday, Ogwel brought his concerns to Washington D.C., where he spoke before 60 of the nation’s police chiefs, including his travel companion, Phoenix Police Chief Joe Yahner.
The visit was part of a Police Executive Research Forum conference that invited police chiefs and one activist from their city to all make brief speeches on community policing.
For his opening, Ogwel offered a breakdown of Arizona’s demographic makeup. The state is comprised of three types of people, he quipped: “Blacks, Latinos and Republicans.”
Tensions high in December
Tensions were high in December, when Ogwel made his first appearance at a Phoenix City Council meeting.
A string of high-profile officer killings of unarmed Black men had roiled the nation, reigniting a heated debate on race and policing.
The national discussion had hit home for Valley residents weeks before the meeting, when Brisbon was shot and killed by a Phoenix police officer who mistakenly thought he was drawing a weapon.
Ogwel was one of a procession of community members to chastise the council for allowing a once-promising outreach program to fizzle, and for being out of touch with a community who believed relations with police had continued to backslide.
Ogwel, a Kenyan-born Arizona State University alum and local entrepreneur, had never considered himself an activist prior to last August, but he said the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson struck a chord.
“I started realizing that my part of the story is not being told—a young black male .. who is married, who is a father,” he said. “I said, ‘You know what? I need to start being involved.'”
He marched in the Phoenix rallies protesting Brisbon’s death and held one of Brisbon’s friends as she cried in his arms.
But Ogwel said that while the screaming and rallying cries at the marches were cathartic, at some point he realized no one was really being heard. Riot-geared officers lined the streets waiting for mayhem, and the national media favored images of protesters throwing bricks and looking like “thugs,” he said.
So at one of the demonstrations he approached Gerald Richard, then-assistant to the Police Chief, who quietly marched alongside the protesters. Ogwel said he asked what he could do to get involved, and Richard suggested he try one of the agency’s citizen academies.
Ogwel signed up for the academy, spent a night riding with officers in the South Mountain precinct, and was soon tapped to join the City Manager’s community police trust initiative. His experiences have spurred a greater understanding of the complex role of an officer, and he said he’s urged other Black men to partake in similar activities.
Marchelle Franklin, Phoenix police’s director of police community affairs, said Ogwel was a natural selection for the D.C. trip—someone who was critical of police but not necessarily anti-police.
“We already knew that he was engaged in a meaningful way, could come and bring balance to the dialogue,” Franklin said.
‘Own up to what has happened’
Ogwel took the stage Friday just prior to Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King. He used his two minutes to tell chiefs there’s a human element missing from the fabric of U.S. law enforcement when it came to use of force.
“I told them that as police chiefs they have to own up to what has happened,” he said. “The public is justified in being out there… in order to develop trust, whenever there’s an unarmed shooting, forget about the potential lawsuits and the gag orders. We need you as a chief to show empathy.”
Ogwel said he’s going to continue his efforts to bridge the gaps between Phoenix’s minorities and those tasked to serve and protect them.
“It was a great experience,” he said of the conference. “I wanted so much to take that feeling of being in that room and being able to give that to someone who was young, to make a change. Even if change was not made, I fell like they got a chance to release their voice, and actually be heard.”