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On the night Tony Robinson was killed in early March, a large crowd of people quickly amassed on Willy Street to protest well into the night. Robinson’s east side extended family where he grew up and later died was out in force as was Young Black and Gifted and other concerned community members. Some people were distraught. Some were extremely sad. Others were very angry. The crowd hurled furious chants at the lines of motionless police officers sent to the area to maintain the peace. One of the more popular chants was "F**k the police!"
Lester Moore, an African American police officer who serves the Darbo/Worthington neighborhood, was there that cold night enduring the constant chants and insults. Moore has spent most of his career working in Madison’s most troubled neighborhoods doing the hard work of community building and developing community trust. That night, he talked with some of the near east siders that he knew well and listened to their concerns. But he also listened to the chants. There was no missing them. Like he had done in his lifetime of police work, he let it roll right off him.
"There was a lot of anger, but I was OK with that because people have to vent, and people have to grieve," Moore says. "That was a long night for me. But when I look at the things that YGB[Young Gifted and Black] are doing, for me, it’s reminiscent of the civil rights movement. It’s non-violent civil disobedience. We’ve got it good here in Madison. When you look at Baltimore and when you look at Ferguson … we’ve got it good here. I don’t feel upset when people are out there doing what they are doing. I’m OK with that.
"[YGB leader] Eric Upchurch … I’ve had good conversations with him. He’s a good guy. Even [YGB leader] Brandi [Grayson]. I know Brandi from way back in the day," Moore adds. "There are some things that Brandi says that I definitely agree with. You can’t ignore that Race to Equity report. The things that they are talking about we need to have a serious conversation about."
Police officer is the rare occupation where you can be doing your job passionately and perfectly, and you will still get blamed, scapegoated, denigrated and abused for something that some other police officer did – oftentimes thousands of miles away.
At the same time, there’s no denying that young black men have been disproportionately been the victims of police violence in America. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Michael Brown. And, yes, Tony Robinson. They are just a few African Americans that have been killed by police officers this past year.
"Every time there is an incident like in South Carolina where a person [Walter Scott] gets shot in the back running away from a police officer, that is just devastating to any trust that might have built up," says Wayne Strong, a longtime African American neighborhood police officer and detective in Madison who is now the Criminal Justice Program Chair at Globe University. "Every time something like that happens, it hurts. It’s a major setback."
There’s no doubt that the shooting of Tony Robinson was a significant setback in Madison for police/community relations. Or, maybe it just brought the frustration and resentment to the forefront in a city where police arrest African-Americans at more than 10 times the rate at which they arrest whites.
Living in two worlds
Officer Moore, who grew up around poverty in Houston, Texas, clearly lives in two worlds as a person of color and as a police officer. He can’t help but see both sides. "When I see things that may be police brutality, I want to know more. I want to know what happened. I want to see the video," Moore says. "Because there are things that we do that sometimes the public doesn’t understand why we do what we do. As a person of color, I want to see what happens because things happen to us that are unjust. I need to see because it affects me in two different ways."
Moore has been the neighborhood officer at Darbo/Worthington since November of 2013 where he has worked hard to really become a part of that community.
"It was important for me to build those relationships so when the hard stuff comes it makes it a lot easier to deal with," Moore says.
"Because of the obvious things that have been going on throughout the nation between communities of color and police, I’ve been trying to redevelop that trust with the African American community," he adds. "That’s to say if we ever had it. Looking at the history of people of color and the police … that’s been a rocky relationship, so how do we make that better? How do we make people feel valued and respected and well-served within the community?"
Moore has his rough days on the job in Darbo where he gets pushback. "I had to figure out a way to deal with that emotionally and mentally, and I’ve come up with a mantra that I say to myself: It’s not my job to judge a person’s worth in society. I only have to make a decision about their actions," he says.
Moore does feel like he has to take the time to give a person a positive word if he can. "This is a very unique job. We meet people at a point of crisis and at the worst times in their lives," he says. "We should be giving people something positive. Even if it is small. What a person is today may not be what they are tomorrow."
Moore retells a recent story where he had to arrest an older person who was drunk at the East Transfer Point. "When I walked up, he squared off on me. I quickly got him into handcuffs, but he was like, ‘I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!’" Moore remembers. "I took a long hard look at him, and I said, "Mr. So and So, you remind me of my pops. You look a lot like my pops.’ And we started talking and that changed the whole dynamic. We got to the jail, and I said to him, 'I really need you to take good care of yourself.’ And I gave him a hug. I said, 'I just want you to know I love you, man.’ He said, ‘I love you, too.’"
Moore’s job requires him to be creative and to use outside-the-box type of thinking. "My strong suit is communication … because I talk a lot," Moore smiles. "There’s always time to talk."
Some people in law enforcement would view that as weakness. Moore views it as a strength. "I talk about everyday things with people," he says. "I call it working in the community versus being in the community. I like to be in the community.
"Having me riding around in the neighborhood [and] walking in the neighborhood should be a regular thing that they see as non-threatening. It’s just ‘Oh, that’s our neighbor – Lester Moore.’ He works out here, but he’s also a part of the community and is somebody we know, we love and we can trust to do the job to the best of his ability,’" Moore adds.
But no matter how hard he tries, there will always be people that see him as the bad guy.
"Whenever I have a kid that says, ‘I don’t like the police. I’m not gonna talk to you.’ …. That’s a challenge to me. I just smile big and say, ‘You might not like me today … but in about two months you’re gonna love me.’ I’m going to keep coming and keep coming," Moore says.
Strong in the community
Strong has spent a lifetime working on Madison’s south side, sometimes in very dangerous situations like in the early ‘90s when he was an undercover copy trying to get crack cocaine and other drugs off the streets and out of the hands of young people. In ’94, he started to work in the south side neighborhood as their Baird-Fisher neighborhood officer. "That was, by far, my most rewarding experience as a police officer … working with the community and being a liaison between the police and community," Strong remembers.
Even as an African American, south side community members didn’t always readily accept Strong. "They wanted to know how much I really cared about the community I was working in," Strong remembers. "So breaking that barrier – what I call that blue barrier – and people seeing me through that uniform was important. That I was there to serve and protect but also be an advocate for those in the community working with different neighborhood groups and associations and civilian groups around South Madison."
Globe University–Madison East criminal justice program chair Wayne Strong
Strong’s perspective comes from decades and decades of police work but also from coaching and mentoring youth that come through this South Side Raiders football and cheerleading program. The Raiders pride themselves on being much more than football, and the coaches are often surrogate fathers for troubled youth who need some positivity in their lives. Strong has been working in troubled communities in Madison for a long time now — for so long that some of his work was done before many in the current Black Lives Matter movement was born.
"I support Black Lives Matter. We need that kind of dialogue. We have to have that kind of dialogue … but I would also encourage people not to paint the broad brush that all cops are bad," Strong says. "There has to be a give and take, and there needs to be a very difficult and tough conversation that takes place so we can get to a place where we can move forward and better serve all of our people.
"In life, everybody brings a different perception and a different history to the discussion. It’s critical for everybody to listen to other people’s points of views," he adds. "It’s a chance for dialogue. Once we get past our immediate differences, then we begin to find out the many things we have in common. What is our end goal?"
Strong wants to see accountability and scrutiny and improvements. Everywhere.
"I look at Black Lives Matter, and I say that’s a great movement … but what concerns me is the fact that if you are a black person in this country you are far, far, far more likely to be killed by another black person than anybody else. We have to look at that, too," Strong says. "When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we have to make sure that we are not only holding police accountable – and we should because cops in America kill far more people than they should – but we’ve also have to look at all of the violence in our own cities in terms of the black-on-black crime rate. It doesn’t mean that we are excusing, mitigating or minimizing in any way, fashion, shape or form the fact that we are dying at the hands of police … which we are. But we’re also dying at the hands of each other – far more frequently than we’re dying at the hands of the police.
"Whether you die at the hands of a police officer or another black person, you are a statistic. You are a dead person," Strong adds. "We want to save lives and prevent tragedies from happening. The way to do that is to keep the dialogue open and to keep collaborating. Because if we say that we’re not going to talk to them because they’re cops or we’re not going to talk to them because they are protestors, we’ve really lost. We can’t afford to do that right now."
It's all a matter of trust
Strong does not hold back his disdain for bad cops. "We need to weed them out. We don’t want them as police officers in any city in our country," he says. "Let’s tighten up the hiring process. Let’s do better background checks. Let’s do better screening. Let’s do aptitude tests, and let’s find out what people’s attitudes are towards people who are different than they are. Let’s figure out a way to get the best people out on the street who do the best job in protecting all of our people going forward."
That will really cut down on the mistrust. And that, Strong says, is huge. "That mistrust between the black community and law enforcement is historical. That goes waaaaay back. There’s room for improvement. There’s a lot of work that we can do in building those bridges between the police and the community. That, to me, is the important work. That’s my life goal: to increase that. Increase the peace."
The Madison Police Department – and police departments across the nation, for that matter – could go a long way towards solidifying that trust by examining how, when, where and why they pursue and arrest different racial groups. I point out to Strong something that I’m sure he’s probably aware of: Study after study shows that white people use drugs at a rate higher than black people do but get arrested and go to prison at a tiny percentage.
"I agree. We need to have enforcement strategies that are just not targeted to one group," Strong says. "If you are caught on campus doing drugs, you should be punished for that. You shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it because you are a white middle or upper class student. There needs to be consequences, I think. You need to have enforcement policies that are fair across the board."
One could argue that fairness always ends with rich white kids’ attorneys. As Ray Charles once pointed out, just like you can buy grades of silk, you can buy grades of justice. For minorities, harsh sentencing policies often turn minor crimes into lifetime sentences. The same minor crimes that become a slap on the wrist for the wealthy white kids who have fantastic attorneys. Strong agrees that work needs to be done on the disparate impact of the drug war on people of color.
"I think we need to look at what impact we are having on furthering the disparities that exist within the criminal justice system," he says. "You look at who’s in prison for drugs, and it’s more black and brown people. We have work to do as a society. A lot of work to do."
It’s not just the justice system that is out of the control of dedicated neighborhood officers, individual police officers did not set these economic policies that limit opportunities for people of color nor do they segregate the community along racial lines. Almost 75 percent of African American youth (compared to 5.5 percent of white youth) live in poverty in Madison.
"What I see the most every day is poverty, and we really need to put some money into solving issues of poverty and homelessness," Moore says. "I don’t think people realize how poor some people are in this city. There are a lot of homeless families and a lot of homeless kids in the school district. Having everybody feel like they’ve got something."
"If you can’t work inside the established economy, you have to get it some other way," Moore adds. "You’re looking at people with no safety nets in life … literally living day to day. I would take money out of incarceration and put it into things up front like social programs and drug treatment. I would support a lot of programs that are already working but don’t get a lot of pub like Mentoring Positives [Darbo program run by Will Green that works with youth]."
The curtain needs to be pulled back so the rest of Madison can see what is going on in these communities. "A lot of people are oblivious to what’s happening in parts of Madison. I think we need to do a better job of exposing that … putting it out there so that people understand that there are kids out here who are really suffering. There are kids out there who have food issues, home issues, school issues … and they are all related," Moore says.
"We need to have a knowledge of what some of these kids are going through that lead them to get in trouble so we can work to prevent it up front," Strong says. "Sixty percent of the kids in JRC [Juvenile Receiving Center] right now are African American children. It’s a cradle-to-prison pipeline that we need to stop. As a society, we really have to be a safety net for our children … because they are our future. This is the future of our city. If we continue to neglect it now, it will be troublesome later."
In trying to solve this problem, Moore, like many of people of color in Madison, is not afraid to put Madison itself on blast.
"When the racial disparity numbers came out in Madison, it was no surprise to any person of color. It’s very liberal on the surface and very conservative underneath," he says. "I’ve had a lot of experiences here based upon my race and color. I’ve had more experiences here than I’ve had in North Carolina, Virginia and even Texas. It’s different. It’s covert rather than overt. It hurts more that way … because you say you’re this but you’re that. You’re thinking it’s good; but then you find out, ‘Woooooah. This isn’t cool.’
"I have always had talks with my kids about how to navigate the system and about being stopped by the police. And I’m a police officer!," Moore adds. "I get nervous when I’m driving my personal car, and I have the police behind me because of my experiences in the past with police. I know what that feeling feels like. It’s a horrible feeling, and I don’t want anybody to feel that way. I think that’s the motivation on why I do things the way I do."
But true to his nature, Moore doesn’t dwell on the negatives when asked about the prospects of his city.
"I’m optimistic. I’ve got officers coming up to me and talking to me about what they want to do," he says. "They are just really positive about going out and having these connections and building these relationships with people.
Officer Lester Moore (4th from left) meets with Darbo community members at the Salvation Army.
"There’s a great possibility for us to turn a corner. People are working hard. There’s a lot of good that’s beginning to happen," he adds. "People are tired. They want to see something different, and they want to see something better and I think they are open to letting those happen … even in the face of everything that’s going on right now – every officer-involved shooting of an unarmed person, every officer killed in the line of duty. People are still willing to have conversations. People are still willing to talk to people wearing the uniform and talk to people who don’t look like them. I think Madison has good stuff going on; we just have to keep pushing it forward and believe in it.
"We’ve got to continue to work and develop these relationships across both sides. If we don’t, it’s gonna be ugly," he continues. "I think there’s hope. Especially here in Darbo. I’m seeing fathers get involved in the neighborhood. I’m seeing kids getting active in politics and social work and in the community. That’s something we haven’t seen since SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and back in the day."
Strong says less segregation, more community engagement and more resources to fight poverty. "We need to be out there talking to people about how we as a city can address issues related to poverty, joblessness, education. We have to make sure that we have strategies in place," Strong says. "I’m optimistic in the future that things will get better, but that’s going to take work on everybody’s part. Everybody in this community needs to be invested in it, not just a few."