Sixty years ago Tuesday, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. A police officer made the arrest that set off the modern civil rights movement. Today police recruits in Alabama’s capital city are being schooled in that history in a course designed to eliminate bias in policing.
If you want to be a cop in Montgomery, first you have to take a bus tour of sorts. About two dozen police recruits, in cadet blues, are in the Rosa Parks Museum in downtown Montgomery, standing in front of a replica of a city bus.
In silhouette, through the bus windows, they watch as the driver orders Parks to give her 11th-row seat to a white passenger. She stays put.
Parks’ act of defiance led to a year-long boycott of city buses, headed in part by a young preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Museum Director Felicia Bell welcomes the police recruits, and suggests there’s a lesson here that’s relevant today: “When citizens protest peacefully, that we should support them. That dissent is the highest form of democracy.”
The museum tour is part of a broader course called “Policing in a Historic City: Civil rights and Wrongs in Montgomery.”
“You can look at our history of civil rights, particularly down South, and go, ‘OK, well that was just the time back then,’ but that kind of sugar coats it. That kinda lets us off the hook too early,” says Public Safety Commissioner Chris Murphy.
And, in Alabama, law enforcement played a major, often brutal, role in resisting civil rights protesters: The state troopers and sheriff’s deputies who beat voting rights marchers in Selma; and Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor, who unleashed dogs and fire hoses on young demonstrators.
In Montgomery, Murphy says, older residents will recognize the patch local officers wear on their uniform. “This is the same patch you’ll see on the shoulder of the person fingerprinting Rosa Parks and arresting Martin Luther King,” he says.
Murphy says that history can set the stage for unnecessary conflict today if young officers don’t understand the context in which they are policing.
He cites as an example when the department was planning for the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march earlier this year. It had to contend with record crowds and an appearance by the president.
“One of the officers said, ‘Well what we’re planning on doing, once they finish the sweep, is having the bomb dogs and we’re just gonna walk around the crowds.’ And I said, Oh no, no, no. You cannot do that after Bull Conner. You cannot have that image. … that’s why history is so important.”
The Montgomery Police Department has a history of mistakes that continued after the civil rights movement. Murphy calls one case from 1975 this city’s Ferguson. Officers shot in the back and killed a black man, mistaken for a robbery suspect, and then planted a gun on him to cover it up. No one was ever criminally charged, and the city has only recently admitted responsibility. A few years ago, police discovered one of their officers was stealing from undocumented immigrants on traffic stops.
Critics say things are slow to change in a place where mistrust of law enforcement is passed down from one generation to the next.
“Learning history is great. Reality is real,” says Karen Jones, who started a Black Lives Matter group in Montgomery. She says there’s still a lot of mending to be done.
“When I have young kids who are terrified of police because they’ve seen their family members slammed, thrown, arrested, and that in a child’s mind, you hurt my family member. Now these kids don’t trust police,” Jones says.
Officials believe they’re making progress through community policing initiatives, and the training that emphasizes the city’s historic role.
Lt. Stephen Lavender remembers when he first realized trust was broken as a young cop responding to a fight. “Well I’m business, so I had my mean face on. You gotta stop fighting,” he recalls saying. The fight was in a neighborhood that was the site of a clash between black residents and white police officers in the 1980s. Lavender was not welcome.
“I couldn’t get … . OK, I understand you might not want other officers, Caucasian officers here but I’m African-American. What’s the problem? And it had nothing to do with the color of my skin. It had all to do with that uniform and that situation that took place years before I became a police officer.”
Now he’s teaching the history of that neighborhood and others at the Montgomery Police Academy. He says he starts with Dred Scott and moves from slavery through the civil rights era, and to today’s tense relationship between police and communities of color.
Lavender says the lesson is intended to change the tactical mindset of officers. No more mean face, he says, but instead try to understand what’s behind the situation you’re responding to.
“You’re still firm, but a little bit more de-escalating,” he says. “Instead of trying to add to that fire that’s already burning. Try and see if we can put it out a little bit. And that’s what policing in a historic city is all about. It’s trying to put out the fire that’s been burning too long.”
At the Rosa Parks Museum, recruits finish their tour at an exhibit that shows civil rights leaders sitting on the front of the bus, as they make a “victory” lap after federal courts struck down segregated buses.
Cadet Greg Purnell says the experience gives him a new appreciation for the legacy of his hometown. “Seeing this first hand gives you an idea of what they went through,” he says.
He thinks it will affect how he interacts with people on the beat. “Instead of just tuning them out, you say, OK, I understand what you went through. I understand why you think the way, or why you speak the way you speak. So I think it helps you to understand them better.”
He may be policing a new generation today, but the feelings and experiences from 60 years ago linger.