On Christmas afternoon, 1971, my father and I went for a long walk in our town, Satellite Beach, Florida. We had reached the sidewalk of our local shopping center, the top of our return loop toward home. The breeze that had pawed at us for a mile died as we passed the closed storefronts. In the empty parking lot to our left, seagulls faced away, toward Highway A1A and the ocean. There at the north end of Atlantic Plaza, in front of Publix Supermarket, a police cruiser startled me as it pulled beside Dad. Then it glided past, close to the curb. Dad ignored it. The car stopped and a cop jumped out.
“What are you doing?” he said, hands on hips, staring at us over the car’s trunk as we approached.
“We’re walking,” Dad said, without breaking stride.
The cop spun and jumped in his car. Its engine revved and the car peeled away toward the ocean. Dad’s body blocked my view, but I heard a long circling squeal. The car flashed ahead of us and t-boned the curb—BOOM—and bounced onto the sidewalk. The driver’s door flew open and the policeman jumped out and dashed around the hood toward us.
I realized this was the cop who’d hassled me and Winn Dixie’s other bagboys one night, at the other end of Atlantic Plaza. We’d stocked shelves and mopped floors and were talking beside our parked cars, our keys in our hands when a cruiser roared at us across the lot and skidded to a stop. This cop, leaning out behind his blinding high-beams, said, “Move along.” I was shocked by his rudeness—and even more by my own response, anger.
Now that officer was running at me and Dad. He pumped his arms and jerked his head. I was 16, a high school sophomore, and my stomach went hollow. Dad kept walking. We were almost on him, and I could see his red face and his eyes flashing white. He was young, I saw—maybe early 20s, I think now—and stood with legs planted, arms bent, glaring at Dad.
My father commanded respect. That day he probably wore his brown slacks, a white button-down, a peach Izod sweater, brown leather shoes. He was 53, an ex-three-pack-a-day man now four years past his first heart attack. What little else I knew about him came from my mother. Mostly that when he was fourteen, on a Thanksgiving morning in their Detroit mansion once owned by Henry Ford, he’d found his father with his head blown off, a suicide.
At nineteen, he’d gotten thrown out of Cornell University, where he was studying agriculture, for landing an airplane on a campus lawn. He attended flight school in California and became an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II. Mom met him in San Diego, where he was racing cars and airplanes and running a fertilizer company. He finished spending his inheritance with her, on failed ranches in California and Georgia. Then he went to work for an old flying buddy at Kennedy Space Center.
“I asked you what you were doing,” the cop said.
“I answered you,” Dad said, still moving, unruffled. “We’re walking.”
We brushed past the cop and around his car. I heard it scrape off the sidewalk behind us and chug away. Dad had just done the bravest thing I’d ever seen—stand up to that cop—but he didn’t seem to notice my awe. Anything could have happened. His lack of concern afterward puzzled me more than his usual lack of affect did.
Now when I hear news about excessive violence by police officers, I think of that encounter. Lately I’ve been wondering what America could do to better prepare its police officers for their awesome responsibility, for their burden. What interventions could save police and civilian lives? What would have helped that kid cop hopped up on testosterone? Law officers face good people having bad days—and bad people on their worst days. I believe most officers are motivated by a heroic impulse: catch criminals, protect the innocent, help victims. They run toward active shooters; they revive babies who’ve turned blue.
But we’ve had so much tough talk from the top. We often do. Maybe it’s worse with rapid-reload semiautomatic weapons on all sides. With our wars in the Middle East, with terrorism, with torture. To counter such toxic effects, my dream is a national infusion of intellectual, emotional, and physical continuing education for the women and men who serve and protect us. I imagine these ideas and skills taught regularly in every town’s police station. Officers would earn post-academy certification, but nurturing community would be the real reward.
The core might include: a course in the history and philosophy of policing; training in emotional self-management, including in the Buddhist principle of non-attachment to emotions and in meditation; and teaching a nonviolent martial art, such as Aikido—with its ethos, which seeks not retaliation but a redirection of energy that shields everyone involved from harm.
I know—what do I know? I’m a writer and teacher. But I know how mad I can get at other drivers, how I personalize their bad behavior. I know how much those around us influence us. How important leadership is at all levels. How education and empathy can spur growth. I believe people are good but need models and tools. To deal with my own emotions, over the years I’ve buttressed my Methodism with therapy and Eastern philosophy.
I know there’s more continuing education for law officers, but not the type of overarching federal effort I envision. I told my ideas to a police chief I know, and he said figuring out how to hire the best candidates in the first place might be the easiest fix. My youngest brother, doubly retired from police agencies in our home county, similarly told me there are bad actors in any profession. Both these veteran lawmen added that the Golden Rule goes both ways.
I felt silly after surveying them. All because a rookie cop was mean 45 years ago? But I’m a memoirist, and that allegedly navel-gazing art has taught me that self-inquiry can ripple outward. Maybe that cop’s father was as silent as mine. Maybe he had a chip on his shoulder because he couldn’t understand his father. Maybe he needed love. I’m sure he needed community, and maybe to widen his notion of it—both hard to come by in our town. Maybe still hard in so many burgs frayed by financial pressures.
In Dad’s Greatest Generation lexicon, the guy was a punk. Not worth a second thought. But not deserving of contempt. Dad had engaged with him respectfully, if minimally. Wherever he’d lived, my father—isolated by his tragic damage, as I saw him—was just passing through. But he was changing, I see now. Before he died, he talked of working with disabled people when he retired. And after his death I learned that he’d been sending checks to his local ambulance service, supporting the first-responders who would try to save him from his final heart attack.
After our cop encounter, I felt hyper. Atlantic Plaza receded as we moved across our beach town’s grid of empty Christmas streets. Dad walked fast, and it was hard to keep up, but if you wanted to spend time with him, that’s what you did. I wondered how Dad could win a fight without fighting.
Upon starting high school, I vowed inwardly to stand up to bullies, but I hadn’t fought anyone yet, just squared off. One guy shrugged and walked away in the hall; another time a coach pulled me and this kid apart after we’d collided on the field and stepped back, our fists up. I was afraid to fight but too proud to run. After my own encounter with the cop, I sensed that what really scared me was the anger I carried below my fear. Dad and Mom wouldn’t let me show it, and it shamed me. Others were mad too, and my rage was like a magnet for them. That last kid, behind his fists I saw his hurt eyes. Hitting him would have been like the time I looked in the bathroom mirror and punched my own nose bloody.
What might have happened that day at Atlantic Plaza, I now wonder, if Dad had shown fear or anger? If he’d stopped instead of kept walking? If he’d lacked authority and its silent moral dimension? Or, yes, if he’d been any color other than white?
Dad stayed silent as we neared home, and I couldn’t imagine what he was thinking. In all the miles we’d walked together, he’d spoken only to that cop.
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