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Black Lives Matter

North Carolina cop: ‘This fear of black men is real’

At the same time police officers are thinking, ‘just stay alive’

This essay is by Shaunte Southern, a sergeant in Gaston County, North Carolina, just 20 miles outside of Charlotte, who expresses to The Undefeated’s Mark W. Wright that he believes inherent fear and distrust can be traced back to slavery.

To be honest with you, I think that African-American males are treated differently by law enforcement, and that’s my honest opinion. I think this fear of black men is real. As a black officer, sometimes you feel like people expect or want you to pick a side — when in fact you can be both pro-black and pro-police.

I encourage my fellow officers to get out of their cars and meet people. Interact with people who are different than you. It’s not a good thing for me to interact with people only when I’m taking them to jail. It’s good to get out and know these people before something goes wrong — so now you have built up some kind of relationship, a trust.

To be honest, I think that inherent fear comes from our history. For whatever reason, we as black men are looked at as the ones who are going to harm your daughters, the ones who are most likely to rob and steal and kill. Historically, dating back all the way to slavery, the picture that’s been painted of black males — you’re not educated enough, you’re just a breaker, a mule — continues to permeate our psyche and culture. I think that has a lot to do with the perception black men face on a daily basis. It goes back to the relationship black males and white males historically have had.

I’m from the ‘hood, so when I see a black man, I don’t think he’s going to do something to harm me. He’s not a threat to me. Of course, we’re making progress — no question. But we have to keep working toward that. But it’s important that we acknowledge the genesis of the matter, and that can’t be ignored.

I’ve been trained and taught that a 90-year-old woman can kill you just as quickly as a 19-year-old black, white or Hispanic male can. So if I’m stopping a car, the first thing I’m thinking is, ‘Let’s get my information out, and get myself in a position where I can exit my car as quickly as possible.’

The most important thing about any stop is the officer’s safety, and being able to execute this stop as safely as possible. With that being said, the civilian’s safety is also important. A lot of times I’ll jump out of my car quickly and the person I’ve stopped will also jump out of their car. When that happens, I’m reaching for my gun. Some people panic when they get pulled over, and just jump out of the car. My mindset is safety — mine and theirs — and to be professional. The two go hand in hand.

It doesn’t matter who I’m stopping. I’m actually more relaxed when I stop persons of color. As an African-American police officer, I’m not tense about stopping black people. I speak to people the way I would have them talk to me. My goal is to put you at ease. The first thing I’m going to say — if the person I’ve pulled over is an African-American male is, ‘Hey, my brother, I stopped you because of X, Y, Z.’ At the end of the traffic stop, I will tell them, ‘Be safe.’ The last thing people want to hear, after getting a citation is, ‘Have a nice day.’ Even that can be taken the wrong way. I tell people to be safe.

I can’t speak for every police officer. I would be speculating as to their thoughts on color or race; I don’t think that way. But the thing I’m passionate about, as a black police officer with kids, is my entire behavior and mindset being governed by three words: Just stay alive.

I coach high school football, and I tell my players: ‘Don’t worry about what they did, take care of you.’ That simple message holds true for anyone who is caught in an altercation with law enforcement. It sounds simple, but when you interact with the police, do everything they ask you to do. Don’t argue. Don’t go back and forth with them. Do everything they ask you to do to the 10th power. I mean everything — so you can go home to your family and so he can go home to his family.

If you already believe that white cops are afraid of blacks – if you truly believe that – then set him at ease. He has a gun. Don’t be combative. It’s not an approach you can afford to take.

Working with kids, I’ve found that kids often don’t respect their parents or their teachers. Then they get out in the world and there’s no respect for police — that respect for authority just isn’t there. That’s where we have the problem.

Sometimes the toughest thing to do — especially if a police officer is blatantly overstepping and being overly aggressive or abusive — is to stay disciplined. I tell my kids — kids I coach — that discipline is not what someone does to you; discipline is what you do in response to it. Remember, this officer has a gun. You already know this, so don’t make it a habit in being loud or aggressive with somebody who has a gun. He has the authority to take your freedom and your life. So, take care of you.

You can’t control what that officer does. We can only control what we do — not what others do. That’s old-school, but it resonates today.

When I saw the protests in Charlotte, it didn’t surprise me. Peaceful protests happen all the time – and that’s the right way to do it. But when the protests went south and went to the rioting, I was disappointed in my black people. And to know that they were trying to stop cars on the freeway, I was disappointed in that. That could be my wife in her car — with our kids, trying to get home. I was really disappointed in their behavior. That wasn’t justifiable behavior.

I know it wasn’t just black folks out there. There were other nationalities out there – but what you saw was us out there, as the majority. We’re not even the majority in this country, so I don’t think we need to be the majority in a riot.

The way law enforcement is portrayed makes it difficult for us to do our job. All of the negativity only does one thing: incite fear.

It might be hard to hear this, but things are getting better. We have more transparency today than we ever have. We’re policing ourselves way better than in years past. You can’t police the way you used to. Police got away with stuff years ago that won’t fly today. My thing is I have a family to take care of, so I’m not going to lose my life over something you’re doing and I know it’s wrong.

As officers, all this is going to do is make each other better when we hold each other accountable. We need to do that more now.

Is there tension between black and white police? From where I sit, I say no. We have these conversations and ask tough questions when we see shootings: Was this shooting justified? What did the person do to make the officer take action? Or what did the officer do to exacerbate the situation? A lot of times we’re pitted against as everybody else. So when we’re together — blacks with whites — we have to be united because we’re often pitted against everybody else.

I hope things get better, I really do. When something goes down, people are quicker to record what’s happening on their phones than they are to assist. So everything gets documented some kind of way.

If people were to really see what goes on with police — I’m talking about a routine night — they’d be shocked. Before you go into an uproar, take a closer look at our day-to-day encounters with people.

It’s going to take effort for things to get better. And not the kind of effort where we’re all posting on social media, making comments and not actually doing anything to make things better.

I’m afraid things could get worse before they get better. But I also believe that with a little bit of effort from both sides, we can repair the relationship between law enforcement and civilians, black men in particular.

Shaunte Southern, who has been with the Gastonia Police Department since 2006, was promoted to sergeant earlier this year. The father of three (and part-time high school football coach) is a N.C. State University alum who served primarily with patrol and the SWAT Team.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.