As I was writing,” the phrase “Officer Friendly” popped in my head. I vaguely remembered the phrase. I Googled it and an article entitled “Whatever Happened to ‘Officer Friendly?’” came up. I laughed and thought to myself, so there is such a thing as “Officer Friendly” I took this as a nudge from the Holy Spirit to investigate further. Here’s what I found:
“The Chicago Police Department created the Officer Friendly program in 1966. Amid marches and demonstrations, it was designed to address anti-police sentiment and offer children a kinder, gentler face of law enforcement. Officer Friendly reached more than 10,000 children that year, according to newspapers during that period.
The Sears Roebuck Foundation soon sponsored the successful Chicago program and underwrote others in some 200 U.S. cities through 1986.
Thomas J. Loftus, America’s first Officer Friendly, died in 2015 at age 79. His widow, Patricia, remembers the three years he befriended local school kids.
“In 1966, we had race riots, people not talking to cops, not liking the cops,” she said. “The Board of Education and the police department said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to get into the schools and get the kids comfortable with the police department and learn how they can protect themselves from strangers and protect their families?’”
But since their 1960s through ’80s heyday, most Officer Friendly programs have been abandoned or defunded. Among other replacement community-policing programs, “school resource officers” have moved into middle and high schools. By then, students are likelier to encounter police in conflict situations.
“I remember Officer Friendly used to come from 1st to 4th grade, teaching us that the police were our friends,” Chris Newman wrote on Old Time D.C. “Then, in 5th grade, it went from ‘I am your friend’ to ‘I am not to be trifled with.’ That is a very jarring experience.”
Americans older than 40 might recall this program and its intent. But younger Americans only know “Officer Friendly” as a phrase, sometimes with conflicting definitions. Some equate Officer Friendly with numerous community-policing initiatives. Others use the phrase as a cynical synonym for zero-tolerance and increased militarization in law enforcement.
Even major police departments can be confused about Officer Friendly. Years of attrition and re-organization have erased institutional memories in many agencies.”
I was born in 1964. The timeframe for the Officer Friendly program coincides with my childhood. I am from St. Louis, so I figured that they probably had the Officer Friendly program in St. Louis during my childhood. I did a Google search and found a special news segment that aired in Feb of 2020 entitled “Proud to Serve: $1,000 given to St. Louis officer for community .”
It was about a young black five-year veteran police officer named Staff Sergeant Darious Rutling. Here’s what he said about the effort he is involved with:
“I’m in a unit, its called the school empowerment unit, for the 2nd district that I work for. It’s a unit me and my partner started where we work with the kids in each individual school inside of our district. Every single day I’m putting a smile on the kids’ faces. Basically, changing that perception of a police officer.
(Interviewer) Why do you continue to do all these things for the youth in our community? Why is that so important to you?
(Response) When I was growing up, when I saw a police officer, it was always associated with something wrong or something bad. These are people too. We’re people too. So when you see police officers say, hey, they can be my friend. Not necessarily, oh, who’s going to jail or who’s in trouble? So that’s one of the things when I did become a police officer, I wanted to change that perception. When you see me, you can come talk to me. I’m a friend. I’m a person just like you.”
I thought this was a restart of the Officer Friendly program, but Sergeant Rutling confirmed that it was something that he and his partner started. I am from St. Louis. When I grew up, it was a deeply segregated city with very distinct boundaries for where black people live and go to school and where white people or certainly the affluent live and go to school. It would have been a very interesting dynamic to see a white officer interacting with black kids. I think there is a greater need for the building of trust there. This interview took place several months before George Floyd’s death. I would love to see how Sergeant Rutling handled the kids' questions about his death.
Why did I feature the Officer Friendly story? I believe it sets up everything else that I want to talk about. Sergeant Rutling said, “I’m a person just like you.” And it’s true the police are people too. They are not all bad or good; no one in any profession is. I believe it is the system that these good and bad people are put into that is the problem. America has a system of policing that needs a relook, an overhaul, a redesign. Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House in Dallas, TX has an excellent quote about “excellent people” both “black and white” who do “heroic things” are all part of a “system”:
That “incident that happened to George Floyd it’s not indicative of all police officers. I have police officers at my church, black and white, who are excellent people who give their lives for little bits of money to protect us…who pull us out of car wrecks, who do amazing, heroic things but if we don’t have any way of policing the police, then too much power is put into the hands of a person that is never questioned or judged when they misappropriate that power it creates a toxic, cynical view of the whole system”
Bishop T.D Jakes
When you hear the term systemic racism and the police, it is referring to a system that regularly, consistently, predictably produces outcomes based on race. Yes, many of the people in the system may be good, but the system that they are in with its governing policies, laws, written and unwritten codes of conduct and culture will regularly produce similar outcomes.
So if I put “Officer Friendly” into a system that profiles African Americans or Latinos, or says approach them with a certain view, or with a certain objective, even “Officer Friendly” will be predisposed to a negative outcome. Suppose the system of policing in a certain area suggests that the officers in it are supposed to treat someone suspected of or committing a crime in a certain way, then to some degree, the officers in that system are more likely to follow the guidelines, written and unwritten within that system, and their training versus what a person outside that system viewing the situation would think was appropriate.
There is a video that went viral of a white police officer in uniform responding to a 9-1-1 complaint about noise. The officer, Bobby White, responded by stopping to play basketball with the black neighbor kids who had caused the complaint. In that setting, Officer White’s actions mirrored the setting in the news coverage of Sergeant Rutling, Rutling is shown throwing the football around with the kids. Back to Officer White, what would happen if the setting changed with different kids, who had a different response to his arrival?
“Chanae Jackson, a real estate agent who was born in Gainesville, has a different understanding of policing in the city. Her son had a troubling encounter with law enforcement in 2018, and she became a vocal critic of the department. This May, someone sent her a different video of White: A cellphone recording of him slamming a Black teenager into the hood of his patrol car…
Shot on a cellphone, the video showed an encounter from 2014. Semajiah Ferguson, then 16 years old, stands next to White, looking at the ground as the lights flash on the patrol car at nighttime.
“He bothering us Black folks for no reason,” says Ferguson’s cousin, who was recording the video. “Can you tell us what we did, sir?”
White later told his superiors the teenager had committed two minor traffic violations — running a stop sign and having improper lighting for the bike — but on the video, the officer mentions neither. Instead, he tells the teenager to sit on the ground. Ferguson says he doesn’t want to.
White suddenly grabs the young man, and pins his knees against the hood. The boy goes limp. The officer then throws Ferguson’s upper body against the hood of the vehicle twice, and a loud thud can be heard.
“Down! Down! Lay down on the car!” White shouts.”
Same officer, different black teenagers. I believe that the “system” that Officer White was trained in triggered a pre-programmed, inappropriate, abusive response to a challenge of his authority as a policeman. It may even be an unwritten, pre-programmed response to a minority teen that is a part of the culture of the department where he works. I don’t know the man, and I am neither trying to absolve him of his moral responsibilities as a police officer nor condemn him for what most people would consider wrong. I say most people because I believe that in America, there are far too many people that would say that a policeman is justified for roughing up black kids, especially boys. A 2016 article from Forbes shows that African American are were more likely to be roughed up by police in New York, even while complying with instructions:
“In contrast with his analysis of police shootings, Fryer found consistent and robust racial differences in the use of nonlethal force, such as grabbing a suspect, slapping him, or pushing him into a wall. Based on the New York Police Department’s data, he found that blacks “are more than fifty percent more likely to have an interaction with police which involves any use of force.” The difference was smaller but still statistically significant after Fryer took into account various other factors that might affect the use of force. “Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made,” he writes, “blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to endure some form of force.
The policing “system” in New York at that time produced outcomes where force was used on African Americans who were complying, and no arrest was made. So it might not take a great stretch of the imagination to envision a Jekyll and Hyde type transformation for Officer White, when confronted with an African American, who was not complying, even though he was a minor and even though he ran a stop sign, ON A BICYCLE! Often black teens are predisposed by their appearance, their music, the neighborhood they live in, to be thugs, to be dangerous. As in the case of Officer White above, their race seems to become a greater consideration than their status as a minor, for how they are treated. That is the underlying premise in the tragic story of Travon Martin.
“ born February 5, 1995, was an African-American high school student who lived in Miami Gardens, Florida, with his mother, Sybrina Fulton. In February 2012, Martin was visiting his father, Tracy Martin in Sanford, Florida, after receiving a ten-day suspension from Krop Senior High School. The suspension stemmed from the discovery of drug residue in Martin's book bag…
February 26, 2012 - George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, calls 911 to report "a suspicious person" in the neighborhood. He is instructed not to get out of his SUV or approach the person. Zimmerman disregards the instructions. Moments later, neighbors report hearing gunfire. Zimmerman acknowledges that he shot Martin, claiming it was in self-defense. In a police report, Officer Timothy Smith writes that Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and back of the head…
March 13, 2012 - Sanford Police Department's homicide detective Christopher Serino recommends Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter. Zimmerman "failed to identify himself" as a concerned citizen or neighborhood watch member on two occasions that night. Serino reports that he thought Zimmerman's head injuries were "marginally consistent with a life-threatening episode, as described by him, during which neither a deadly weapon nor deadly force were deployed by Trayvon Martin."
For those not familiar with Travon Martin’s death, Zimmerman was found “not guilty” on the charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Travon Martin’s death and the verdict triggered national outrage and rallies, not unlike what has been seen after the death of George Floyd. Some media outlets tried to portray Travon Martin in the way that I have previously alluded to, as a thug. In these portrayals, he was a person who walked around in a hoodie, who had gold teeth and tattoos, who had been suspended from school for suspected drug use. They did not portray him as a son, a boyfriend, a 17-year-old minor, who was not committing a crime. These portrayals didn’t show him as a teenager aggressively approached by an armed adult, who approached against him against the instructions of the police and who also twice failed to identify himself as a person with some limited level of authority.
This is not too different in application than those who tried to paint George Floyd as a thug, a hoodlum who was somehow not worthy of a trial for a $20 crime, and that somehow a “lynching,” a public execution was warranted. Racism speaks. It says “lynching,” both determination of guilt without trial and execution, is warranted, even today if you are black and you are a criminal, no matter how small the crime. Racism says that you have the right to consider the death of this person as somehow in need of less sympathy and certainly not mourning because they were a “bad person” of a certain race.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish