by Roy Fisher
I am a cop’s kid. My father was the first African American to retire from the Washington State Patrol. Knowing what my father had to endure to reach that milestone, it is with a sense of pride that I write those words. Twenty-five years, I can only imagine what he went through. My father started a Black Law Enforcement group to support the many African Americans to wear the badge. I grew up with a profound love and respect for officers. My godfather, also a police officer, was shot during what he thought would be a routine traffic stop. The story goes that if the gun had been a larger caliber or he had been a little closer he would have died. While my father was never shot, he did total his patrol car during a chase. I have an intimate understanding of the risks associated with being a police officer.
In my life, my father, my godfather, and the many officers I grew up around were real-life superheroes. Up until my father got too sick to get out of the house on his own, he and a group of other retired Black officers (members of the Washington State Patrol, Seattle PD, and King County PD) would gather at Tully’s Coffee on Rainier Avenue and chop it up. I would go with him occasionally. It was just like when I was younger, wanting to be around them, to hear their stories and learn from their experiences.
I also have other experiences of police officers. As a kid who went to a private high school and whose friends lived in neighborhoods my family could not afford to live in, I know what it feels like to be pulled over for driving while Black. I’ve been questioned about why I was in (insert given neighborhood), where was I going? Or who was I visiting? My white friends couldn’t believe it happened or said I was overreacting, that the police didn’t just stop people randomly (this was in 1986). I’m 51 years old and still have a certain anxiety when I drive on I-405 north of I-90, or once I pass the Seneca offramp heading north on I-5. There are a number of other places in King County that I have to have a serious conversation with myself about before getting on the road.
I attended the University of California, Berkeley (1987–1991) and used to ride a scooter to get around campus. Up until 1992 you didn’t need to wear a helmet, so I didn’t. I would be pulled over because apparently, I fit some description. I was 6’7”and skinny. At the time, the only description I fit would be with the character Raj from the TV show “What’s Happening!!” Getting pulled over became so common that I stopped being surprised when it happened. The most memorable occurrence was when Berkeley PD saw me and one of my white female friends on the street late at night. Apparently, they thought she was at risk and decided to protect her by throwing me on the hood of a patrol car. If I didn’t have her account of the story, I’d swear I was imagining a similar scene from Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and claiming it as my own. Because of these incidents, the lyrics to NWA’s “F*ck tha Police” resonated with me, but what to do with the feelings of pride associated with my father and all the other Black officers that I revered?
On March 3, 1991 the world watched as Rodney King was beaten by several Los Angeles police officers. I sat in my living room with my white roommates watching one of my worst fears occur on screen. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs “SEE, this is what I’ve been telling you for 4 years … I’m not crazy!” I called my father to help me process. Over the years, we had our share of conversations about interacting with the police. Of course, he had already given me “the talk” that all Black men get about keeping your hands where they can see, etc. etc. I had grown up with a deep love for police officers, but this time it felt different. When you witness one of your worst fears come true, even if it happens to someone else, the effect is jarring.
Fast-forward fifteen years. Like many of the Black men I know, I have many stories related to my interactions with cops. As a clinician, I recognize these racially based interactions have had a profound effect on my mental health. The anxiety I experience at times while driving is significant. In 2016, after Philando Castile was murdered and the subsequent shootings directed at police officers in Dallas, I was driving to work and wondered, “what would I do if I was pulled over right now?” For the first time in my life, I didn’t have an answer. That’s not entirely accurate, I still knew what I should and would do, but was unsure if it would be enough to get me home safely. With that realization, I needed to pull my car over and catch my breath.
One of my motivations for becoming a therapist was to support Black folks. I believe when anyone enters therapy, they come with these four questions.
- Do you hear me?
- Do you understand me?
- Can I trust you?
- Can you help me?
For African Americans, the questions sound like this …
- Do you hear my pain, hurt, and fear that feeds my anger?
- Can you understand my experiences as a Black person? Do you see that while my anger may be directed at you, it is not you I’m fighting — I continue to fight an unjust system and you keep getting in the way.
- Can I trust you? The system continues to oppress people who look like me — why should I believe you have my best interests in mind?
- How does what you share improve my life?
My father passed in 2015. His celebration of life was attended by officers from all the major police departments in our region. My brothers and I heard over and over what a difference my father made in the law enforcement community. One officer said that when he entered the State Patrol my father was just getting ready to retire. He said, as a Black man, it meant so much for him to see someone who looked like him, that it was helpful to be able to envision what his career might look like. My father died before Colin Kaepernick took a stand by taking a knee. I know he would have supported Kaepernick’s position, not because of the First Amendment, but because he agreed. My father experienced both the pride of being an officer and the pain of navigating the world as a Black man.
There are many days I miss my father. During times like this, I want so badly to talk to my dad. I want his calming presence to help me work through my stuff. I want to ask him how to deal with the dissonance … how to exist in the both/and. That I am a Black man and until there is some change in policing, it is appropriate for me to both love and fear the police.
Roy Fisher is a Seattle-based therapist.
Featured image: David Robert Bliwas.