50 Years Ago Today!

Fifty-years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee and I was standing in a line of police officers armed with shotguns ready to march into the black community in north Minneapolis in response to the looting and burning that was going on in response to his death.

I was a young patrol officer on the tactical squad and anxious to move in and quell this burning and looting. But then, my boss, after talking to headquarters told us to “stand down.”

I remember how angry we were. Stand down? And the city burning?

The mayor of the city was a University of Minnesota professor in government. Two years later, I had him as a professor in my graduate seminar in public administration.

I thanked him for the courage to make the decision he did that night. It saved many lives and prevented me from having to take one or more of those lives.

I had learned.

After that event, I wrote in Arrested Development:

“I left the tactical squad to try out some ideas I had about foot patrol—especially a foot patrol on Plymouth Avenue on the north side of Minneapolis. Plymouth Avenue was an area of the city that was predominantly black and earlier was the location of the frequent civil rights disturbances that culminated in a night of arson that took place after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis.

“I could try out my ideas because of an unusual leader at the north side precinct, Captain Ken Moore. He was a stand-up guy and agreed to my request to walk a beat on Plymouth Avenue, which was in his precinct. To anyone’s recollection, it was the first foot beat in an all-black area of the city. This neighborhood resented police, and only a year or so earlier had torched many white-owned businesses in the district.

“This was a good place to try and put my new ideas about neighborhood policing into practice.

“The central location on my beat was a newly established neighborhood center called The Way. When I started walking the beat on Plymouth Avenue, I went around and introduced myself. That was my first encounter with community policing. I remember that I didn’t want to wear my uniform hat because I wanted people on my beat to know who I was— that I wasn’t a faceless member of an occupation force. I wanted them to know I wasn’t going to act like other cops they had encountered. I wanted to be there to help and to work with this community. So, I went about establishing relationships (like any good community organizer) and tried to listen, meet community needs and work to solve the problems in the neighborhood…

“My experience on that foot beat, working intimately with people in the neighborhood, caused me to think about police-community relations in a real sense. I knew that without officers who forged good relationships with the people they served and who could gain their trust, the police could do little to solve neighborhood problems, control crime, or keep peace in those neighborhoods.

“Walking my beat alone one day, I thought of a book I had recently read for one of my classes. It was James Baldwin’s, Nobody Knows My Name.[1] Baldwin gave a stunning account of being black in America… [a statement] I remember even to this day. According to Baldwin, the white police officers he knew had to walk in twos and threes in his neighborhood. They had to do so for safety reasons. They couldn’t walk alone because, Baldwin said, the only thing police knew to swing in Harlem was a nightstick. I didn’t want that to be me.”

It no more strongly applies than it does today. Closer is always better.

[1] James Baldwin. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Dial Press. 1961.

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