As Public Scrutiny Over Policing Tactics Increase, Words from the Past LBPD Chief Hold Eerie Foresight
Photo above courtesy of the Long Beach Police Officer Association. Photos below by Brian Addison.
Uttering “Black lives matter” is actually controversial—so controversial, in fact, that appropriated forms ensued: “All lives matter,” “Blue lives matter”…
It is actually controversial to say that a certain person’s life matters. Not that it’s better or worse; just matters. Matters. It matters. Just saying that black lives matter in today’s society is fucking controversial.
Of course, the misunderstanding on the latter side—especially the Blue Lives side—is that those lives already matter. When an officer is killed, there is swift justice—and rightfully so. Justice doesn’t solve everything but a trial provides solace, perspective, and some form of resolution in the tragedy of it all. Something I believe anyone would support, that anyone would desire. These men and women put their lives at risk to protect us.
“When a man takes the oath of a police officer, he has been employed by all the people and not a chosen few… He must be fair in his dealings with the public and if a mistake has been made, he should be man enough to rectify that error.” – Former LBPD Police Chief J.S Yancy
But they aren’t protecting everyone the way they should: unarmed black people are shot and killed at double the rate of whites. 17 of the 100 largest police departments in the nation shot black men at a rate higher than the murder rate in 2015. 14 of the of the 100 largest police departments solely killed black men in 2015.
Perhaps what is missing most on the other side, from the ones who get angry when I don’t write about an officer being shot, is that police officers are not citizens. They are not bystanders. They are not laymen. They are men and women who have the authority to determine, quite literally, whether someone should continue living or not.
That is an enormous responsibility. And when that responsibility is dismissed rather than heightened because of policing’s authority, we run victims and offenders through an incongruent application of justice.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the mistakes being made by these officers are largely going unrecognized from a criminal perspective. Only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officers being charged with a crime, and only 2 of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved. Only 1 of 2 officers convicted for their involvement in Matthew Ajibade’s death received jail time. He was sentenced to 1 year in jail and allowed to serve this time exclusively on weekends.
So when an anonymous person sent me a gift package filled with historical articles from and about Long Beach, there was one particular item that stood out—the article that included that precise quote above. It was the 1928 Long Beach Police Officers Pictorial published by the Long Beach Police Officers Association.
The opening essay of the publication is entitled, “What Is a Policeman?” and was written by then-Chief of LBPD J.S. Yancy—and his words ring eerily true for being nearly a 90 years old.
In his opening, he says he “does not feel any injustice in the general public having” the conception of police officers as forms of authority “in a star-bedecked uniform who is drawing a salary from the city government.” For all purposes, his essay is “brought about with the express purpose of keeping all of humanity in line to appreciate the true value of progressive things.”
Going onto a dictionary definition of a police officer, one which every police officer must “keep the morale of a city’s inhabitants under the calm influence of the principle of everyday common sense, which is the highest human concept of right, that all citizens may enjoy the fine privilege of being participants of true citizenship.”
It is here where Yancy takes a subversive turn: “[I]t is humanly impossible for a human to be a good policeman… When a man takes the oath of a police officer, he has been employed by all the people and not a chosen few.”
Yancy discusses the superhuman nature of the officer, a job that requires every person to be “absolutely on the square and covet the confidence of the people.” Hence, it is why police officers should be held up to such a high standard: “At the beginning of his service until the end, he should not forget that in this business, his character is his capital and he should deal honorably with all personals and hold his word sacred no matter when, where, or to whom given.”
Not only have these sentiments largely been lost—and one must examine these sentiments through the lens of the times, where scrutiny over municipal spending was increasing shortly before the entire market fell out during the Great Depression—but hold up a future mirror toward our own times, as we become critical of the excessive force being used by a group that “should always control [their] temper and use common-sense in dealing with the public.”
Yancy goes on brilliantly [our emphases]:
[A police officer] should sell himself to the people that they will value his protection and friendship.
When a man takes the oath of a police officer, he has been employed by all the people and not a chosen few, and he must see that the down-and-outers get a square deal. He must be fair in his dealings with the public and if a mistake has been made, he should be man enough to rectify that error.
In the pursuance of his duties he must, as far as possible, avoid laying himself under special obligation to anyone. He should lend a willing ear to all complaints made to him in his official capacity; the most unworthy have a right to be heard and a word of comfort to the afflicted or of advice to the erring costs him nothing and may do much good.
In ordinary cases, if finds himself in a position of not knowing exactly what to do, he had better do too little than too much. It is easier to excuse a moderation than an excess.
He should remember that, by virtue of his police commission, his duties extend only to criminal law. Every police officer should be familiar with the law or the ordinances he is about to execute and he should also know enough of civil law to distinguish between the two. […]
In his dealings with the public, he should maintain an attitude of kindness, firmness, and fearlessness so that he will command the respect of the people he serves. […]
It is quite human for a policeman to become insensible to many of the finer things in life, especially when his daily work is dealing with the coarser elements of human nature. A phase of this same thing is found in the work of the stone mason. No stone is too big for him to place; he is used to big rough stone blocks, but let him attempt to lay a mosaic floor. As a layer of rough stone he can be a fine workman but as a workman who can lay either rough stone or fine tile, equally as well, then he is by far a better workman. And the policeman with the qualities I have mentioned above, the capacity to handle the finer things of human existence equally as well as the coarser things, has the confidence and good will of all its citizens.
It seems hindsight is always 20/20.