I was thirteen years old in July of 1967. I could see the glow of the fires eighteen miles away from my bedroom window. Newark, New Jersey was on fire. My own city, Plainfield, would also fall into rioting in the days to come, and Officer John Gleason would die in the fray. In Newark, twenty-six people died, over seven hundred were injured and fifteen hundred were arrested in five days of civil unrest.
The studies that followed the Summer of ’67 concluded that a number of factors contributed to the unrest in New Jersey as well as in almost every major city in the US that year. The police profiled black youths, stopping them and questioning them with and without reasonable suspicion; unemployment was high in the black community; government officials were slow to respond to the needs of the poor and economically disadvantaged; and the police were too far removed from the community that they served. Of course, there were more reasons and individual incidents that sparked the events of that summer, but these are the big ones.
Fast forward to January of 1973. Fresh out of high school and eighteen years old, I entered the law enforcement academy at Daytona Beach Junior College. One of the topics that we addressed in class was a new idea called “Community Policing.” (While Community-Oriented Policing would emerge in the early eighties, the basics for COP were already there ten years earlier.) With CP, the police were supposed to be more friendly, more available, more approachable, and less frightening to the public. Veteran cops thought that it was all high-level bullshit, and said so. But, the change was on, and those who didn’t like it were eventually eliminated from the departments…at least, most of them.
I went on the road on patrol in July of 1973, the visions of Newark and Plainfield nothing more than a distant memory. Treat people fairly, use only enough force to gain compliance, and don’t let the badge get too heavy. Wait for backup. Ask for help when you need it. Follow the rules.
Since that time, I carried a badge of some description for most of forty years. My adult life from high school until now has been spent enforcing the law, training cops and support personnel, or educating both sworn and civilians in criminal justice topics. I am also proud to say that I was never the target of an internal affairs investigation and was never disciplined for misconduct. I was also never hip injured in the line of duty, with the exception of a sprained ankle I got in a foot chase during Spring Break one year. (I caught him, too!)
It has been forty-two years since I first took the oath to uphold the laws and the Constitution, and I am so glad today that I no longer wear a uniform or carry a badge. The world of policing has gone mad. I don’t know why, but I remember my father, himself a part-time cop in New Jersey and later in Florida, lament about the conditions that led up to the riots and burning and death in 1967. I feel the same way today.
I don’t know where we are headed in policing in the near and distant future. There are those in our society and in our communities who are convinced that the police use force as sort of a sport, even keeping score and seeing how many people they can brutalize in a shift. Articles online talk about police not knowing the law, and worse yet, knowing the law and refusing to abide by it. Video is everywhere, with citizens trying to bait officers into some level of what they term as mistreatment. It is out of control.
Remember Officer Gleason, killed in 1967 in Plainfield? It seems that there was a confrontation between some local rioters and looters and some members of the Pagans Motorcycle Gang, definitely “white supremesists” bent on killing blacks, known even today to be a ruthless, violent and murderous bunch. Officer Gleason stepped in – literally – between the groups and convinced the Pagans to leave, which they did. The remaining crowd – the ones that John was protecting – then turned on him. John did fire one shot that wounded a young male, but the crowd continued to attack him with a grocery cart, kicking and punching him until he was near death. They then took his service weapon and shot him with his own gun. Two people were arrested in his murder and convicted.
John Gleason was a member of our church. I was in the choir and sang at his funeral.
John Gleason was killed forty-seven years ago by the people he was trying to protect, and did indeed protect them. Because they just hated cops.
Are we headed back there now? If so, how do we fix it?