After Dallas: An LAPD Sergeant Shares His Thoughts
The summer of 2016 in the U.S. is already stained by violence and grief. As protesters took to the streets across the country in the name of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, black men shot to death by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and St. Paul, Minnesota, on the night of July 7, a lone assailant assassinated five Dallas police officers during a peaceful protest. Though the 25-year-old shooter was unaffiliated with any activist group, the Black Lives Matter movement was immediately woven into coverage of the shooting, inserted into a now well-worn media narrative that pits activists against police, in spite of movement leaders repeatedly clarifying that to say “black lives matter” does not mean any other lives matter less, and that they have never called for violence against police.
As a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, an African American man from South Los Angeles, and the father of a 23-year-old son, Jody Stiger lives both sides of the debate about race and policing. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran who serves as aide to the inspector general of the LAPD and leads officer trainings on use of force, Stiger has worked in law enforcement for 23 years. The sergeant shared with TakePart his reflections on the current moment in policing. (His comments are on behalf of his personal experience and do not reflect the official stance of the LAPD.) This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
TakePart: What was it like to serve as a black police officer in a black community—the very neighborhood you grew up in?
Jody Stiger: As an officer working in the streets, when you’re working black communities, a lot of times if you’re dealing with someone else who’s African American, they tend to look at you as one of them, not one of us anymore. African Americans in law enforcement understand their frustration because we haven’t been cops our whole lives. Growing up in L.A. in the 1970s and ’80s, crack cocaine and gangs were at their height, and I saw a lot of violence in my community—both police brutality and violence between community members. I was basically taught to hate the police because of the relationship they had with the black community throughout the country. There was a lot of mistrust. As I got older, I realized not every police officer was bad. In the military, I got to know other law enforcement personnel and eventually did research and ride-alongs and talked to people in the community.
A lot of African Americans don’t join law enforcement because of the negativity they’ve experienced all their lives or the backlash you may get from your community or family, and a lot of black officers choose not to work in black communities because of the backlash they get or the potential for arresting relatives and friends. I’ve had to excuse myself a few times because a relative was being arrested or we were executing a search warrant on a relative’s home. You have to know when to step away.
TakePart: What is the mood among law enforcement after the Dallas shooting?
Stiger: About two years ago, five of our officers were killed over the course of the year. Fortunately it wasn’t all at the same time, but it was more than usual—it was pretty devastating for everybody to relive those feelings through Dallas, particularly the way those officers were killed when they were out protecting people’s rights to protest against police brutality. Most police officers feel like we’re in a thankless job anyway. We’re constantly fighting that battle of being the bad guy, even when we’re trying to protect people. When a situation like this occurs, it makes you really think about why you’re even doing this work.
TakePart: As a police officer, how do you reflect on the many videos being released of officer-involved shootings and the community’s response?
Stiger: A lot of times when these videos are released so quickly, the community only sees one side of the story. During an investigation, there’s a lot of information we can’t release. That said, there’s no defending the Walter Scott case. There’s no defending shooting Levar Jones after asking him to reach into his car to get his ID. But some of these videos would be more justifiable if people understood the policies and procedures around use of force. As law enforcement, I think we’ve done a poor job of educating the community on what the rules of engagement are. We have rules and laws, and we have to abide by those laws. I have a 23-year-old African American son, and I’ve always told him if he gets stopped by the police, you do what they tell you to do and live to fight another day.
TakePart: What is your take on the organized response to the lethal use of force by police?
Stiger: I agree with the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, but I don’t agree with how they’re putting that message out. In L.A., there’s a big divide between the Black Lives Matter movement and other leaders in the black community. We’ve had numerous public meetings and church meetings where representatives of the movement have come in and demanded things, disrespected members of the community, and taken over.
TakePart: What would you like to see moving forward as the country continues to grapple with these issues of race, policing, and lethal force?
Stiger: We need to stop using law enforcement to be the fix for everything. I don’t care how many classes I get to take about mental illness—I’m not a mental health practitioner. I may be able to identify somebody who is mentally ill, but if they’re violent toward a citizen or an officer, we have to do what we do to protect the community and ourselves. The biggest problem in law enforcement is the lack of training around use of force and tactics. Most agencies don’t give good or frequent enough training on use of force, because they are so concerned with keeping down crime stats.
There needs to be a dialogue where the community and law enforcement are willing to listen to each other. Some of our laws have changed and made things better, but we still have a judicial system that is broken and needs to be fixed. The more we can talk about built-in biases and be honest about them, the better things will be.