Ronald Hampton worked in law enforcement in Washington, D.C., for 23 years, first on the street, and then as a community relations officer. He was also heavily involved in program development, education and crime prevention. He retired from the police force in 1994, but continued his work as the executive director of the National Black Police Association. Today he teaches criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia.
As we report on protests in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, we asked Hampton about his experience navigating relations between the police and the communities they serve. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
In 23 years, what was your experience working in communities hostile to the police?
I asked people to see me as me, and not as the stories they read about cops in the paper. If I saw stories where I thought the police were wrong, I’d say that. We’re supposed to be public servants. We work for the people. Our job is to de-escalate, not to escalate situations.
For a lot of the people who police in our community, they don’t understand the community (that is, black or brown people). They’re misinformed and then become frightened and afraid, and so the gun is their friend because it’s the only thing that protects them.
Did you ever witness or intervene in an arrest of a black or brown suspect when you thought that arrest was being mishandled?
Yes I did. And I reported it. A call went out for five or six people shooting craps in this alley. I wasn’t the primary car, but arrived on the scene second or third. When we got there, the guys threw dice and money and ran. A white officer chased them. When he caught up with one guy, he grabbed him. The guy didn’t resist arrest, but the officer said, “You don’t make the police run,” and started beating on him. He was taken to the police station. As I’d witnessed it, I went too.
At the station, they took the guy to a back room to process him. All this time, the officer was taunting him, calling him names. He was handcuffed to the desk, as is policy. They charged him and gave him a $25 fine. At no point in the documentation was there mention anywhere about the cop taunting him. The guy paid the fine, but as he was leaving, he got fed up and punched the officer in the face. Hard. All the cops then jumped him, cuffed him and charged him with assault on a police officer.
The key to all this is what’s in the report — and the same goes for Eric Garner’s report. They wrote in the report, “D1 (Defendant) struck the C1 (Complainant) without any reason or provocation.” Now, is that what happened? No. The man was provoked. He was constantly being taunted.
Because we were all in the station and the man hit the cop in the face, our policy states that we have to write a statement. Five of us were involved. Four wrote their statements. I wasn’t asked to write one. I did, though, and my statement was different [from] the other four. They lied about the taunting. So now the case is in the system. My statement ended up with the prosecutor. He called me up, and asked me to come down to his office. I went and he pointed out that my statement was different from everyone else’s. I told him what happened, and he said they would have to drop the case because they couldn’t have police officers disagreeing with each other in court.
As a cop, how do you make split-second decisions in volatile situations?
This may sound strange, but I don’t think decisions are made in split seconds. They’re made based out of your experience. Example: I was a cop in this city for 23 years. I’m African-American, very politically aware and aware of what goes on as it relates to these issues. When I was working, I’d come across a situation in my community, working with young black males, and as a result of my background and conditioning, I wasn’t afraid. My decisions were based on what was in my head and how it informed me on how to relate to people. So I led with my mouth, not my gun or my fists.
In police training, there was supposed to be training during the firearms component to help you make those decisions. But the training itself is not free of bias, and sometimes reinforces [it]. Example: The paper target we’d shoot at was black. I asked about it. Why were targets black — not grey or white? He thought I was trying to be funny. It reinforced the idea that you could shoot black people.
I believe we make decisions based on what’s in our mind, not in a split second.
How did you deal with the different perceptions different ethnic groups had of the police, and how did you negotiate them as a cop?
I think the power that police have is not the power of arrest, it’s the power to influence the quality of life of people. That’s how I did my job. The white community tell their children when in trouble, go to the police. Black people don’t do that. We protect our kids from police.
At the dinner table … white families will tell children how to interact with the police. They tell them the police are there to help. Blacks do not. My son is autistic and doesn’t drive or speak, so I give this message more to my daughter. I tell her, “If you’re stopped by police, this is the way you have to behave.” That’s not something white parents need to worry about.
Just because I was wearing the uniform, didn’t mean I could say my kids were safe, because in the end, they looked like me. Every day I would see things happening to people because of the color of their skin. When I was working the streets, everyone hanging on U Street was potentially a criminal, and that was how they were treated by other officers. I didn’t accept that and couldn’t be involved in that. When I was there, I was aware there was inequality when it comes to how the police treated black people, so if I had the chance, I felt I had the obligation to speak out against injustice. And as a result of that, some people I worked with didn’t like me.
Did that affect your career?
It did in terms of moving up in the system. The system won’t embrace those who are indifferent to it. I went to work every day on time, did what I had to do, but there were certain people who didn’t want to work with me. I didn’t have a problem with that.
Did you ever have any civilian complaints against you?
No, I never had any civilian complaints against me. And I don’t say that arrogantly. But I lived in the community where I worked — in Adams Morgan, and then Petworth where I live now. People knew I was a cop because I walked to work in my uniform. I never hid the fact. … Because when you treat people decently, you don’t have to worry about that. When you mistreat people, that’s when you have to worry.
Are arrests usually violent?
I arrested people in my time. I don’t remember a violent arrest. It’s always about how you handle a situation. Just because a person breaks the law, it doesn’t mean that we have to demean them. Most people who break the law acknowledge that they have done something wrong. There’s a humane way of doing things to not antagonize the situation.
What is a police officer’s authority to use necessary force?
If I go to arrest someone and they are resisting, the policy is that I am authorized to use force necessary to make arrest that is equal to force being applied. I might be wrestling around them, but all I need to do is get the cuffs on them and get them to the police. Anything beyond that violates the policy.
Once cuffed, they are under control. If a person has a knife and I have a gun, a gun is more powerful than a knife. But I’m not going to get close to him with a knife; I’ll give as much time as he needs to get rid of the knife. If he lunges at me, then I’m going to have to shoot him. But I won’t shoot him just because he has a knife in his hand.
What do you take away from what’s happened in Ferguson, Mo.?
If I were investigating this, I’d first go to Ferguson and speak to the people who live there. The citizens will tell me about the relationship in that community. I haven’t been, but I’m willing to bet you that the past relationship was based on cops’ and citizens’ difficult perceptions of each other. And that’s key. Because what happened in Ferguson is like a room full of gasoline, and Mike Brown’s death was the lit match.
And that’s what it’s like in a lot of these situations — there’s no relationship there to build on.
What should young black men take away?
They should take away that you can’t fight the police on the street and win. You need to understand and have a strategy about collection of information. Make a written report; get a lawyer. You have to figure out how to [create] a win-win situation, and that won’t happen in the street. It’s not about kowtowing, it’s not about being weak. It’s about winning. But to win, you have to still be here. And hopefully Eric Garner and Mike Brown’s deaths will create strategies that will help.
I would hope that young men and women of color continue to be interested in joining the police force, for themselves and their communities. Because they would be the safeguard [against] abuse, and they would definitely have a voice. And I can say that because it works. So I’d seriously tell them to consider jobs in the police force or fire department, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to witness and deal with [abuses of] the system.
Tanvi Misra contributed to this report.