My first regular patrol partner and I both joined the police department at about the same time. When we started, we were both green and inexperienced, but, out of necessity, we rode together a lot. Ideally, very new officers would ride with more veteran officers to sort of learn the ins and outs of the job, but in today’s police departments, that’s rarely possible anymore.
LC was, well he still is, black. We patrolled in a fairly mixed neighborhood as far as race and ethnic groups go. LC and I hit it off right away as we were both young, dumb and liked to drink after work. It’s not easy to spend 8 hours per shift in a car with just any person. Not everyone can stand it when there’s no conversation and will try to force conversation to fill the air with some noise. LC and I didn’t give two shits if there was nothing to talk about; the silence was fine.
We also worked out a fine arrangement whereby LC would take the lead in talking to black suspects/victims and I’d do the same for the white ones. Some of you will think this sounds terrible, but it really wasn’t. The reality is that many black people don’t trust the police at all to help them out, so a black officer is the lesser of two evils as far as many of them are concerned. Same with whites. Some of them will straight up tell you that they’re not talking to a white cop or a black cop. Whatever. While we wouldn’t go out of our way to send a black or a white officer on request, since there were one of each on the scene already when LC and I arrived, it didn’t hurt to make people think they were getting their way.
The impetus for our arrangement came one night when we got a call for a disturbance. It was a hot summer night and everyone was crabby because the heat had been unbearable for several weeks in a row. We got a call for a disturbance related to a family member supposedly stealing jewelry and cash from other family members. In typical ghetto fashion, sides were drawn, neighbors unfamiliar with any facts became involved for no good reason and it was a mess of 40 or 50 people getting ready to brawl in an intersection of a pretty busy area.
LC and I worked very well together as a team and we rarely called for backup unless it was obvious that we were about to get our asses overrun due to sheer numbers or there were some other exigent circumstances requiring more help. Sometimes, bringing more cops onto a scene makes a bad situation worse. We trusted our instincts as well as each other to know when to call for more assistance.
The crowd of 50 or so people were all fired up and LC and I were trying our best to separate them into their respective groups so we could get a handle on what was going on. We’d push one group to one side of the street so we could go talk to the other, but as we were talking to the other, the original mob would cross the street cursing and shouting their displeasure at whatever it was the other side was saying.
Even though it was late at night, it was still muggy and hot. While the crowd of fine citizens was no doubt hot as well, they weren’t wearing bullet resistant undergarments, long pants or combat boots. Plus, they were outside in the heat of their own volition while I had to be there against my will.
LC and I, especially for young officers, were both very patient and allowed people to vent their frustrations more than most officers would. There’s a fine line between letting somebody just get something off their chest and allowing somebody to be verbally abusive. Again, you just have to have a feel for the situation. So while trying to convince the pro victim of theft crowd to nominate a single person to tell us what happened, the pro accused crowd came charging across the street again to hear what the victims were saying. This was about the fourth or fifth time that this happened so I’d had enough and it was time to threaten the old everyone is going to spend their Friday night in jail if they don’t behave. With that in mind, I told the crowd something to the effect of “If you people on this side of the street don’t stay on the sidewalk and out of the street, we’re going to start hauling you off to jail.”
I remember the look on one particular guy’s face as he cocked his head at me and shouted, “You people?!” “You people?! Hey y’all, this white man just called us you people!” And just like that, we lost the crowd.
Apparently, “you people” is racist in any given context, so the crowd got ugly fast. It only takes one or two folks to incite the rest of the group into a frenzy, and incite they did. LC pressed his emergency button because he saw what was happening and, within seconds, we could hear the sweet sweet sounds of sirens headed our way.
At the end of it all, nobody got hurt and the woman being accused of theft finally did admit that she had taken stuff from her family members because she has a drug habit (as though that makes it forgivable). She had jewelry and cash crammed in her shoes, bra and even up her twat. Yep, that happens a lot! The crowd that supported her was deflated and they apologized profusely to the other side and even to LC and I for acting like fools.
LC laughed for a good 10 minutes before he finally asked if I’d really called those people you people.
“It’s 100 degrees out here with the humidity and they were acting like animals. They were lucky I called them people at all. How is telling people “you people” as in “you people” over here to stay on the sidewalk racist?!” I asked of LC while sucking down my gas station ice tea.
“It just is to some people, Don. It’s stupid, but stupid is all some of these people know.” LC said. “I know you didn’t mean nothing by it, but why don’t I do all the talkin’ to the black folk and you can talk to all the honkies from now on?”
“Honkies? You can say honkies but I can’t say ‘you people’?” I asked.
“Is honkies offensive to honkies?” LC asked. I think he was genuinely curious.
“I’m not even sure, honestly Buddy. It doesn’t bother me, but I’d not use it around everyone. I’m Italian and you can call me a Dago all you want and I’d care less, but some Italians take it really offensively. I guess it depends on context and the individual.”
“Well I’ll be damned.” LC said. “I always just thought honky was a funny word and never thought nothin’ of it being offensive.”
“Context brother. It’s all about context sometimes.”
And with that, our arrangement was born.