I’m sitting in the police station compulsively chewing my finger nails. This is the moment that I have been dreading for weeks. The officer walks around the corner while I am mid finger nail.
“Are you here for your police ride-along?” I want to say no, and then just go home, but I know that I can’t. I stand up and gather my courage.
“Yes, thank you,” I manage to choke out.
I follow him through the bowels of the police station. We are passing by things that most civilians pray that they will never have to see. I have no time to stop and observe them fully because my officer is moving very quickly through the halls which are so familiar to him, and alien to me. I push my short legs faster and follow him out of the back door as it closes on my heels. His squad car gives off a soft red glow. I climb into the front passenger seat. I notice how small and intimate the space is as he connects his CAD, (computer aided dispatch) to its base. He seems to feel that too. I think he is only a little more comfortable than I am. After he is settled in, I ask his name. He tells me and return with mine. He asks me why I am doing this ride-along.
“I am here to learn about how poverty hides in Suburbia. I am training to be a pastor. This is a Seminary trip. Pastor Keary, our leader, believes it is a good idea to ride-along with police to get a different perspective on the community. He thinks seeing it through the eyes of the police will help us understand the area.”He is surprised by my answer. He then turns to his CAD and looks up our first assignment. He tells me that a girl has gone missing. She is probably a run away. He has been to this house before, more often than he would like. As we travel, the awkward silence that only two introverts trapped in small space together can understand sets in.
In the silence I think back weeks ago to when I found out about this requirement. I was terrified. Most people assumed that I was scared because it would be dangerous. They thought I was worried that I might get caught up in some kind of accident or a shoot out or something. I wasn’t afraid of that. As someone who supports and writes about the Black Lives Matter movement, and as a Black person who has experienced racism from law enforcement you might think that I was nervous about what might happen to me. We have seen a lot on the news lately that substantiates those fears. That wasn’t what I was afraid of either if I am honest.
My real fear was meeting the officer himself. What if I liked him? What if he wasn’t a scary racist person? What if he is a cool person? What if I had to change what I thought about cops? My fears were fully realized.I have found that divisions between people are broken down through relationships. I have seen it happen again and again. I meet racist people who spend time with me and suddenly, they start the process of unpacking their prejudices. I have seen the most hateful of heterosexists become the best of allies when someone that they love comes out to them.
Relationships change hearts. You have to see a person as a person when they sit with you as their authentic selves. When you look a person in the eyes, and share a smile, a laugh, or shed tears together, you see God in them. You see the image of the Creator and Lover of the world reflected in them. You can no longer deny their humanity. When that happens, hearts change. Walls fall down.
So, here I was walking up to a run down apartment building with the officer. I watched him do his job. I watched him take the description of the young girl, 15, long hair, pink backpack. He’s been through this too many times. I can hear it in his voice. We got back into the squad car. He told me that the “frequent flyers” are the ones that make him the most upset, angry and annoyed. He sympathized with the girl’s mother and told me that if she goes missing too many more times then child protective services will take her away. The officer was upset by it, and so was I.
We spent the rest of our hours together looking for speeding cars, answering calls, and chatting with other officers as he worked on paper work. I tried to ask him deep and probing questions about race and poverty, but he wasn’t very excited about answering those kinds of questions. He was very open to answering my questions about himself though. He is a Christian, he studied chemistry in undergrad, he prefers Lucky Charms to Captain Crunch. I told him to get back to me on that last one after he has tried Captain Crunch in vanilla ice cream.
The most important thing that I learned on my ride-along is that if we want to change the world, we have to learn how to build bridges. We have to build bridges between the police and minority communities. We have to build bridges between men and women, between the able bodied and the disabled, between the rich and the poor, between the young and the old, between Black folks and White folks. Bridges, relationships are the only way to cross the chasms of division. Throughout scripture, Christians are told to live empathetically, being mindful of others and their needs. We need each other to survive. The way to end the fear and hatred that is caused by division is to seek community with people who are not like us. Not so that we can change them, but so that they can change us.