Having ‘Those’ Conversations
There is something frustrating about working on a film that shows police officers as humans while so many openly share their negative feelings toward officers. It was about 2-months into the project when I felt confident enough to stand up for my profession on social media.
I learned a lesson early: you can’t win those arguments. That’s a nice way of putting it. But it was a few months later, when I had an opportunity to have a conversation with a stranger where I saw what we can do.
We had been working on Officer-Involved about 8 months when I was on bicycle patrol and riding through a park in the community where I was assigned. I heard a woman talking to her boyfriend as they rode bicycles past me.
“I’m just saying . . . if a police officer ever tries to arrest me, I’m going to have to kill him.”
What did that even mean? What was she talking about? I could sense that she was frustrated. I could hear it in her voice. There was something else happening. So, I did what any community-minded police officer would do and I rode up to her on my bicycle.
“Hi – I’m Officer Shaver,” I said as I positioned my bicycle in between them. They were moving and I kept pace. “I heard you say you were going to kill a police officer and I just wanted to make sure you weren’t talking about me.”
She wasn’t amused that I had been listening to her conversation, but what can I say – I have an ear for these situations and, all kidding aside – any cop is going to hone in on someone who says the words “kill – police – officer.”
She began telling me about Eric Garner in New York City and how he was “murdered” by Daniel Pantaleo over a loose cigarette. She said that fighting a police officer is the only way to survive.
I said, “let’s talk about that.” I explained to her that when the police have a legal reason to stop someone, that person has a duty to stop. They don’t have to admit guilt. They don’t even have to speak. They can just stop and do only what they are ordered.
I asked her what she thought would happen had Eric Garner stopped and put his hands behind his back. She said that he would have gone to jail over a cigarette.
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe. But we don’t know what would have happened, because we know what did happen when the situation escalated.” She was upset about a police stop over a loose cigarette. I told her that, no matter how ridiculous someone thinks the law is, police officers have a job to enforce it.
There was something that caught me off guard. “If I’m arrested,” she said “I’m going to lose my job. So I’m better off fighting to protect my image.” That one threw me for a loop. The point that she was making was in line with something I’ve heard people try to reason before; that the criminal justice system stops at the arrest.
“Police officers are just the entry-way to the criminal justice system,” I told her. “Only you, a judge, and a jury can decide if you’re guilty. Why would you fight a police officer and make it worse than it already is?”
She continued on and was upset that multiple officers were involved in his arrest. I explained to her that when someone tells me that they aren’t going to jail, I start to worry about myself getting hurt and making it home to my family. “We can’t just let people go because they don’t want to go to jail. So much of what we do and how we do things depends on cooperation from the public.”
We weren’t disagreeing with each other. We were just talking. By now, we had ridden about 3-miles together, passing the same points multiple times, but truly engaged in a conversation. She warmed up to me and actually began asking questions. She asked about the law and where I stood on certain topics. There was no name-calling. Sure, we disagreed on some points, but we did it while we spoke. Two civilians and a cop riding bikes together while discussing criminal procedures. What better way to connect with the community than on their level – literally – a bike seat on a beautiful day in the park.
I took the opportunity to talk to them about what we had set out to do with our film. What better explanation could I give than the one I just had. “When I first rode up here and started talking to you – you probably had some feelings about me already, right?”
She got it. She knew exactly what I was saying. In our 15-minutes or so of casual riding around the park, we were able to break down those barriers and she was able to see that I was a living, breathing, human being with thoughts, opinions, and a passion for connecting with others. I’d like to think that she had also reconsidered her tactic if ever stopped by the police. We exchanged cards and she went on her way. It was the perfect end to a conversation that started with “I would kill a cop.”
I was fortunate in that I was able to make a connection with a stranger over a topic that I’m passionate about. Times come and go on the job where we aren’t able to say anything and there are times where the things we say make situations worse. But, having worked on Officer Involved for as long as we had, I appreciated having that opportunity in person to have one of those hypothetical conversations that we all talk about.
I’ve done this now more times than I will ever be able to quantify since working on the film. Every single one is another opportunity to give a look inside our profession. After all, that’s how people communicated before social media. They actually talked.
Patrick W. Shaver is a police officer in the State of Georgia and the filmmaker behind the groundbreaking documentary Officer Involved. He has his Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from the University at Buffalo (UB) and Master’s of Conflict Management from Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He is a certified law enforcement instructor and hostage negotiator.