|A Dallas police officer picks up balloons and flowers July 11 in front of images of the five slain officers after a candlelight vigil at Dallas City Hall. A gunman shot and killed five police officers and wounded seven during a peaceful protest July 7 in downtown Dallas. CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters|
When Deacon Thales Finchum heard that five police officers in Dallas had been killed while providing security at a Black Lives Matter march to protest the killings of two black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, he felt a bond with his fallen brothers in blue.
“I was up until 3 o’clock in the morning after I heard,” said Deacon Finchum, who retired from the Metro Nashville Police Department in 2006 after 33 years on the job.
“It’s a very sad, sad time. It’s a very depressing time,” said Deacon Finchum of the Cathedral of the Incarnation. “You bounce between anger and sadness.
“How someone can see that as a solution, to murder an unsuspecting police officer because they were a police officer?” he added. “That was the only reason those guys were killed.”
The shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, a former U.S. Army reservist who had served in Afghanistan, told police negotiators he wanted to kill white police officers in retaliation for the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in confrontations with police in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively, earlier in the week.
The shootings on July 7, which also left seven officers and two civilians wounded, occurred near the end of a peaceful march to protest the deaths of Sterling and Castile. After a standoff that lasted several hours, police killed Johnson using an explosive attached to a robot.
The mourning was not limited to police officers and their families. “I was appalled. I was hurt,” said William T. Robinson Jr., who has marched with the Black Lives Matter movement in Nashville and is a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Church.
“The majority of police officers are good and we respect them,” said Robinson, a columnist for Nashville Pride, a newspaper that covers the black community in the city. “We feel as much pain and hurt for the families of the police officers as we do for the people who were hurt by the police. …
“The Black Lives Matter movement does not advocate violence,” he added. “One of the main objectives of this movement is to create dialogue” that will lead to changes in policies and procedures to ensure the lives of African Americans are valued like those of everyone else. “We must have dialogue and we must have changes,” Robinson said. “It cannot be trivialized anymore.”
Since the Black Lives Matter movement was launched in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown in a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the deaths of other blacks in confrontations with police have fueled continued protests and a national discussion about relations between police departments and the minority communities they serve.
“Unfortunately we live in a system where we don’t feel like bureaucracies and systems treat black people the same,” Robinson said.
Criminal justice reforms are part of the agenda of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, a coalition of religious congregations, community organizations and labor unions working to give voice to traditionally marginalized people. One of the group’s goals is to work with the police, courts and school system to eliminate the racial disparities in police stops, school suspensions and juvenile court referrals.
“People in the African American community feel they are policed to a greater degree than the white community,” said Pat Halper, a member of NOAH’s Criminal Justice Task Force.
Although African Americans make up 28 percent of Nashville’s population, they make up 44 percent of the vehicle stops by police, Halper said.
Some of the discrepancy is related to “broken tail light policing,” in which police pull over a driver for having a broken tail light and then find evidence of a more serious crime, Halper said. While members of the African American community might view it as harassment over a minor offense, police officers see it as a valuable tool that can help them prevent more serious crimes if they find weapons or drugs in the car, she explained.
“But is that right, is the question,” Halper said. “I would also say that this is something NOAH is concerned about. … We haven’t come up with any great solution to it either.”
Former police officers Deacon Finchum and Deacon Ron Shaw of St. Ignatius of Antioch Church in Nashville, who was a Metro Nashville police officer for 22 years before retiring, reject the notion that police officers target African Americans.
“There’s no chief out there who wants a gun happy racist on his force,” Deacon Shaw said.
In many of the cases of people dying in confrontations with police, it appears the officers’ actions are triggered by fear, Robinson said. “Of course you’re going to have fear at times,” but those situations should be addressed better in the officers’ training, he said. “You don’t have to kill people for petty and misdemeanor crimes. It doesn’t make sense.”
Deacon Finchum agreed that training is key for a police officer. “In the end that’s how you survive on the street,” he said.
“For a police officer to pull his gun with the intent of stopping some infraction, everything has to click in his head, all his training, all his education,” Deacon Finchum said.
When working with rookie officers, Deacon Finchum would tell them, “Don’t fight with them, talk them into the back seat. Remind them they are a human being, you’re a human being. There’s something beyond the moment,” he said.
“Deadly force is the last thing you ever want to use, and if you use your head, you don’t have to,” echoed Deacon Shaw.
The key to good police work is love for other people, Deacon Finchum said. As a field training officer, Deacon Finchum would tell his trainees, “If you don’t love people, you’re in the wrong profession. Find something else to do.
“The vast majority of police officers love people,” he said. “They see their mission as making sure people are safe.”
“I always tried to treat people like I would want to be treated, as long as they would let me,” Deacon Shaw said. And it’s through their actions that police officers can earn the trust of the community, he said. “It’s just treating people like you want to be treated.”
“You do the best you can to help people and to make a difference in the community,” Deacon Finchum said. “The reality is you spend time with individual people and you make a difference wherever you are with that person, in that instance.”
As is the case in other cities across the country, the Metro Nashville Police Department is working to improve relations with the community.
“We do have a good police force here,” Halper said. “We have a chief who is aware and does a lot to try to mitigate problems.”
“Every day of my career, I worked to improve community relations,” Deacon Finchum said. “Because that’s who you serve. We serve in our community. Our purpose in life is to make their lives better. You pray for them or you pray with them sometimes.
“This is a national problem,” Robinson said. “Nashville is better than most. … Nashville is not perfect.”
Just as Deacons Finchum and Shaw brought their faith into their roles as police officers, Robinson’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement is an expression of his faith. “Sometimes we have a tendency to acquiesce when we see injustice,” he said. “It’s part of our Christian duty to do something to bring about positive change. …
“It’s about justice, it’s about righteousness,” he said. “It’s about right.”