A Former Officer and a Former Inmate: Who's Actually the Bad Guy?
A Look at the Dichotomous Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Low-income Minority Communities
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, MARYLAND – What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “police”? You might recall the most recent incident of police brutality that was shared on every social media platform. Or maybe you think about a time when an officer made you feel safe and protected. How about when you hear the word “inmate” or imagine someone who has been incarcerated? Perhaps you associate these people with danger or allow your perception of them to linger on their delinquency, maybe even their race. Or you might be reminded of loved ones who need more guidance and love.
Hashtags and movements that are targeted at exposing injustice at the hands of law enforcement on minority communities alongside opposing advocates are easily and frequently spotted. The trending hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was soon followed by the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter. Depending on which side of the dispute you fall, it is nearly impossible to truly see the person behind the profession or the crime.
From the Eyes of a Former Officer
The same way that any child dreams to be a firefighter or an astronaut, my brother Joshua Jenkins dreamt of becoming a police officer throughout his childhood. Sure enough, that is not what drove him into the profession nine years ago. After graduating from Bowie State University with a degree in Theater Arts, the two most important things on his agenda were to get a job and to earn a sustainable income. With a competitive major, he anticipated that he would have trouble securing these things in the arts industry. Before he knew it, Joshua spent seven years on the police force in Prince George’s County, Maryland. With 909,535 people, it is the second most populous county in the state. It is also one of the richest counties in America with a predominately African-American population. As of 2010, according to the United States Census, 64.5 percent of the population is African-American. A 2011 list compiled by the United States Census Bureau also included Prince George’s on a list of the wealthiest counties in America, ranking it number 69 out of 98.
As with most places, pockets of this community are poverty-stricken. Joshua generally patrolled one of these areas in district four. Bordering Washington, DC, district four is classified as a high crime and low-income area. Being responsible for district four came with its own challenges and revelations.
“When you came into work, you were already behind. Every time I clocked in, we were five to ten calls in the hole,” Joshua explains.
A high crime area is particularly demanding and difficult to truly maintain. On a typical day, Joshua would come into the office for roll call followed by a debriefing of the areas to be patrolled. Immediately after that, police were out and on the streets, attempting to close the continuously expanding gap between calls that had not yet been responded to and those resolved. As a result of this ongoing game of catch-up, Joshua feels that his patrolling was always reactive and not proactive.
Though exceptionally taxing, working in district four shed light on issues that Joshua would not have been sensitive to otherwise. Joshua grew up in a loving family and never had to worry about financial troubles. Six siblings, two parents, a nice house, and no meals skipped. Do not get me wrong, our family has had its own share of problems, but we never struggled to make ends meet and have always been close knit.
District four quickly made Joshua aware of how tough it was for some people to simply survive. Although crimes in these areas do not often get airtime with local media, he was aware that the issues existed. Even still, witnessing them first hand gave him a whole new appreciation for his own upbringing.
“I never realized how broke people really are. People who live in these areas really make a lot of the choices that they do just in order to make it. Going off of that, I also realized the way black people treat each other. I have friends who grew up in the area, and it’s like they’re stuck. They never leave. It’s like putting two lions in a ditch with one piece of meat. What would you expect them to do? They fight and take from each other,” he says.
Joshua was trained at the Prince George’s County Police Department. In fact, the police academy he attended was top-of-the-line when it came to tactical training for officers. According to Dr. Robert Kane, Professor and Director of the Criminology and Justice Studies Program at Drexel University, the average metropolitan American police officer is trained exceptionally well when it comes to tactics.
“American police are excellent at car stops. They are safe, they know how to do this stuff. They can do building searches, they can extract people who are barricaded, they are very tactically sound. As a result, a lot of police around the world send officers or send their trainers to the United States to learn American police tactics,” says Dr. Kane.
While his training was centered heavily on tactics, Joshua quickly recognized that he was not trained well on how to be a community officer nor given true problem-solving skills. In the police academy, the emphasis was on being safe, avoiding getting killed. Safety was the priority, not community relations. While in training, it was as if a mind game were being played in hopes of deciphering if police candidates were cut out to face what would come with the territory, as if they were preparing them to be ready for all of the craziness that would be encountered after graduation.
“You’re different when you leave the police academy. You spend over six months being treated as less than a person and yelled at like children, then you have no time for recovery. You jump into being an officer and all the while have to regain who you are,” he says.
Dr. Kane shares that the American policing system evolved from the London Metropolitan Police Department which was established in 1829. The most successful bureaucracy in the history of Britain was the British Army, so when the police department was developed, they modeled the organization after the military because they knew that it worked. American police departments also adopted the military organizational style, he says.
“Police often think of themselves as small armies. There’s the war on drugs, the war on crime, everything is a war with them. Because of that, police academies tend to be like boot camps. They talk to you like you are a flea, as if you are too stupid to follow the most basic instructions. They do that because they're trying to build discipline but none of that ultimately generalizes to the street where there is a live, uncontrolled environment. All of that quasi-military discipline really doesn’t apply, and that is the problem. Acting like a military is really what has gotten us into this mess of cops shooting people they are not supposed to shoot and abusing people in neighborhoods,” says Dr. Kane.
Joshua presumes that this is where a power complex comes in for many officers. Once he graduated from the police academy, Joshua saw many of his colleagues dehumanize the people in the communities where they worked.
“Once they began patrolling the streets, the people they interacted with became subjects. They were labeled and referred to this way. They were not seen as actual people who deserved empathy. Some of the people I worked with were really just ruthless,” Joshua says.
In one instance, a fellow officer called for backup and Joshua reported to the scene. Once he arrived, he witnessed the unnecessary and harsh way that the officer was treating the individuals involved with the call. Crude language was thrown around alongside unwarranted cuffing and forced kneeling. Once he realized the way that the officer was behaving, Joshua says he confronted the officer and left the scene because he did not want to gain a reputation in the community for treating the members in such a terrible way. Much of Dr. Kane’s primary research was done studying police forces across the country and in Europe, and he recognized many of the same trends that Joshua points out.
“American police tend to rely on coercive authority more than other countries do in the European context. It means they get into a lot more fights, a lot more conflicts. And they win, but there is a big cost to that. American police training is so heavily based on coercion and the control of people that it makes very little allowance for other kinds of, for lack of a better word, treatment. So think of police as a treatment. The police are immediately thinking about how to control a situation, how to control a person, don’t let people get close to them. And while all of that might be tactically sound, it is not always the best treatment,” Dr. Kane explains.
Joshua was used to interacting with people of different backgrounds and showing compassion no matter what. He always strived to do more reasoning when it came to responding to calls and took on an approach that might be comparable to that of a counselor. Joshua grew up in church where his father was a pastor and this ultimately played to his benefit in light of his one-track training. Unfortunately, this was not the case for many of his coworkers.
“My first goal was never to take anyone to jail. They even nicknamed me ‘The Warning Guy’, while some of the officers I worked with went from zero to one hundred real quick. To them, every situation was white or black, there was never any gray area. They were excited to lock people up but I hated it,” Joshua says.
After seven years on the police force, Joshua resigned because he knew that this career was not his true passion. In fact, he points out that those who want to pursue a career as a police officer should first make sure it is truly aligned with his or her calling in life.
"Many officers act brutally because they are not true officers. Being on the police force is just a job for them when in actuality it should be your purpose. You need passion and compassion," he says.
“The best cops are not the people shown on TV. The best cops are the ones out in the communities doing good by the people who live there. The best cops are the ones stopping bad guys from becoming worse,” Joshua says.
In the midst of recurring police brutality tragedies, officers all over the country have been forced to recognize the issues within police forces. Along with this realization comes more sensitivity and an increased effort to be mindful in daily routines. For district four, Joshua feels that the relationship between law enforcement and the people it served was weak, and that the root cause of this was the lack of community officers. For this reason, he became one himself while on the police force.
While there are many assumptions floating around about police officers and some of them prove to be true, there are also some things that people do not know about being a part of law enforcement. First, officers have to encounter both internal and external battles. They rush to handle disputes within the community but also have to deal with tensions within their own department. Joshua says his experience was peppered with racism and segregation from the people he worked with each day.
“Once, someone refused to back me up just because they didn’t like me. The public would never know that there is all sorts of inner turmoil going on within police departments,” he says.
Second, there are also pressures that arise from leadership in the police department and how officers are regarded. Productivity tends to be measured by tickets and lockups. Although no quota exists, which many people assume, it is expected that an officer will make as many arrests and write as many tickets as possible.
“This really isn’t the best way to judge an officer’s success out in the field. They ask, ‘How many arrests did you get today?’ but how about asking ‘How many people did you help today?’” Joshua says.
Dr. Kane explains that these organizational expectations are often built into performance evaluations. A traffic officer may be expected to write two tickets a day and a patrol officer is expected to make a few arrests per week. If an officer makes a felony arrest, it is like he or she will receive a gold star. More clout and cache within the organization come along with higher-level arrests, he says.
“To me, that is a real problem within policing. It is always about the number of coercive interventions you made. They don’t count how many potentially violent encounters you de-escalated so that nobody got hurt, or how many domestic violence calls you showed up to where you kept the two parties away from each other long enough for a social worker to get there. It is built into the paradigm of American policing that officers will be tactically sound and they will use their coercive authority as their primary tool almost all the time and this orientation is reinforced by the incentives system that is built into the police organization. If you are evaluated based on the number of arrests you make each year then guess what, you are going to try to make more arrests, and that is not always the best thing for a neighborhood,” says Dr. Kane.
The Voice of a Former Inmate
Two states away, the fifth ward of the impoverished urban neighborhood Allison Hill in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was home to Jonathan Queen. Jonathan was the oldest of five children who shared a drug-addicted mother and an absent father. Without the support of his parents, Jonathan and his siblings were on their own at a young age. As early as the age of 10, Jonathan began getting involved with criminal activities.
“I had a very adversarial relationship with the police early on. I lived in a high drug-trafficking area and my family saw nothing wrong with drinking or doing drugs. All of my influences from the generations above me saw the police in a very negative light. We were pretty much raised to see police as the enemy, as our opponent. You know when you’re a kid and you play ‘cops and robbers’? When I was younger I may have wanted to be the cop but by the age of 10 that was like the worst thing in the world for you to say. So then when we decided to play if you had to be the cop, you bickered until you were the robber,” Jonathan explains.
Jonathan, a young African American male, only saw the predominately white police officers in his neighborhood when it was time to arrest someone or to investigate a crime. Naturally, once he began stealing, breaking into cars, and eventually selling drugs, he avoided the police at all costs. Every interaction he had with an officer was due to a conflict, he says.
Jonathan’s first arrest occurred after he had been dared by his older cousins to steal something from Giant food store. The entire process frightened him, and his 11-year-old mind raced as he realized that all the stories he heard about the way officers would treat you were true as he was interrogated and threatened about life on the inside before being sent home.
As a teenager, Jonathan was a bright young man. But in the neighborhood where he grew up, no cool points or validation were given for being smart. He never carried his books to school even though he was studious, and he felt no need to brag about the fact that he made honor roll. There was no celebration for academic success, so Jonathan turned to things that did get celebrated among his peers: The best sneakers, nice jewelry, and girls. By the age of 15, Jonathan was drinking, smoking, and selling drugs. A year later, Jonathan dropped out of high school and had his first child.
“These things were like a rite of passage. It was expected. Since I was the oldest of my five siblings with a mother who was struggling, becoming a drug dealer was what I felt was the necessity,” Jonathan says.
At 18, Jonathan thought he had everything figured out and could manage the system on his own. He knew not to talk until his public defender arrived. But he did not realize that he would receive one to three years in jail, which were out of the guidelines for a first-time offender. Jonathan had been arrested for drug possession and did nine months in a county prison after he fought his own case from the inside and was resentenced to this lesser punishment.
As soon as he was rereleased, he picked up his drug selling business and landed himself back in jail, this time at a state facility. His next interaction with law enforcement was a bit more intense and was when he truly saw how the criminal justice system operated. Since Jonathan had no one he would snitch on, he was dismissed by prosecutors as not being important enough to have a true conversation with. After being shown a plea deal alongside the minimum and maximum sentences for his crime, he was advised by his public defender that if he went to trial, he would receive the maximum sentence so he accepted the plea deal, he says.
After being released a second time, Jonathan again chose to return to the streets. At 23 and arrested for the third time for drug possession, which included crack cocaine, Jonathan was labeled by the courts as a career criminal and received a federal sentence that was capped at ten years. He was sentenced to ten years for an amount of drugs that would have usually called for less than three years. Because of a point system that took into account his criminal history and made a distinction between crack and powder cocaine, his sentence was significantly increased. He was given the same option that he heard during his previous case. Take a plea deal for ten years or go to trial and receive 30 years to life in prison.
“I’m 23 years old hearing a judge say, ‘We sentence you to 120 months in a federal prison.’ That’s where my life took a dramatic shift,” Jonathan says.
It was not until 2010 that the Fair Sentencing Act was signed by President Obama. This legislation was designed to decrease the disparity between the way crack and powder cocaine was punished. Before it was passed, people like Jonathan who were arrested for possession of crack cocaine received harsher penalties than those arrested for possessing powder cocaine. Five grams of crack cocaine would automatically grant someone five years in prison while it would take 500 grams for someone with power cocaine to receive the same sentence. This imbalance had devastating racial implications that led to a higher number of African-Americans serving lengthier sentences. The United States Sentencing Commission published data in 2009 showing that 79 percent of 5,669 offenders serving time for crack were black, while only 10 percent were white, and the other 10 percent Hispanic. Their data also showed that of 6,020 people serving time for powder cocaine, 28 percent were black, 53 percent were Hispanic, and 17 percent were white.
“They told me, ‘We have a 95 percent to 98 percent conviction rate and we are going to put you in jail for life if you don’t take the plea. It was not a hard choice to make,” he says.
Jonathan went to prison and after spending the first few years inside paralyzed by his anger and committed to rebellion, he began to recognize his gifts and that just maybe he had been using them in the wrong way, he says. He knew he had always been a leader but instead of using this skill to spearhead a gang, he could have used it in a positive way. He knew he had always been persuasive and articulate but he only ever used it to get people to do the wrong thing.
“While I was in prison, God exposed me to some of the things that I could use my gifts for that might bring love and life to the world,” Jonathan explains.
After serving eight and a half years of his ten year sentence, Jonathan returned home as a newlywed motivated to raise his four children and start a new life.
With new connections to Pennsylvania Probation and Parole, he gained access to officers and many people he once considered enemies. He began working with several groups to help other former inmates as they emerged and reentered society. With much pride, Jonathan went from being labeled a career criminal and offender to being identified as an expert on all things reentry, reintegration, restoration, and redemption in the prison system.
He feels that one of his greatest accomplishments is being a part of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives. His relationship with the organization has allowed him to use his experiences to train officers and executives on sensitivity. He gives these sensitivity trainings because officers can become desensitized by the work that they do and often lose the ability to show compassion. Jonathan has also grown to be more sensitive to the role that police officers play. Before, he looked at them as an entity and not as human beings wearing a uniform. He has grown to have a high respect for the job that officers do, but he is also an advocate for challenging them to do their job well, he says.
“My goal is to show them the difference that working with someone positively can make,” says Jonathan.
Jonathan even points out the sense of credibility that comes along with being both affiliated with law enforcement and someone with a street reputation. He is now able to go places he would have never been invited when his life was centered around crime. Officers he works with are also able to have effective communication with people in communities they would not otherwise have immediate access to thanks to Jonathan’s credibility in those neighborhoods.
Jonathan applauds people who dedicate their time to improving the criminal justice system and helping people who are victimized by it. He is quick to acknowledge his own faults, but has also identified that, in some cases, rehabilitation would be far more useful, he says.
“When I was 23, I needed to learn how to use my skills in a productive way. I needed to know how to change my lifestyle when I had fallen into a cycle of generational curses. I was repeating what I had seen my parents and their parents do. Help tackling these issues would have helped me. I made a lot of choices because I didn’t believe that there was anything better for me,” Jonathan says.
Jonathan believes that the biggest mistake the criminal justice system makes is trying to fix its problems by adding “restorative” laws on top of its issues instead of getting to the root of it all, he says. Working within communities to prevent youth from following destructive paths and focusing on rehabilitative approaches for those who already have could be far more useful.
Jonathan wishes he had known that there was so much more he could do and become if he had applied himself in a positive way, that he had known there were people who would celebrate his success rather than his cool points, and that he had the opportunity to learn who police were from the human standpoint rather than just learning what their job was. After teaching a GED class for seven years while he was incarcerated, he saw a strong correlation between people who dropped out of school and ended up in prison.
“If you can see that 87 percent of a prison population has not received a high school diploma then there must be something said about what education does in regards to keeping someone out of prison. We need to do whatever it takes to create programs, organizations, and opportunities to help people do better, especially when they’re in areas that they can’t by themselves,” he says.
Jonathan wants to get one message across: There is potential and possibility in every single human being. If they are given the right direction, guidance, and love they can make better choices. Are there bad people? Yes. Are there people who need to be in prison? Yes. But at the same time, our criminal justice system has managed to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people, and some of them would be better served with rehabilitation. Some of these people even suffer from mental disabilities and need help, not incarceration, he says.
Jonathan does attribute much of his success to his time in prison, and says he feels that his experiences shaped him into the man he is today.
“I wrote my first book while I was incarcerated, and my biggest realization was that if you change how you think, you can change who you are. I used to blame everyone else for my poor decision making. A poor education system, my mother being on drugs, my father being in and out of my life,” he says.
During his time in prison, Jonathan gained his work ethic and life skills, but his point is that young people do not have to go to prison to learn this. They should be helped now while they are struggling before they get there. After Jonathan learned that the Residential Drug and Alcohol Program he was in costs $250,000 per person for just nine months in jail, he decided to put everything he learned into a book.
“If someone was in jail for 18 months, that’s half a million dollars. All I could think about was the fact that they closed the free lunch program down the street from my house but were spending $500,000 on someone incarcerated. I want people to learn what I did without having to go through what I did,” he says.
So, where are they now?
After resigning from the police force in 2015, Joshua focused on pursuing his passions as a playwright and also works as the Drama and Young Adult Director at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. His productions attract thousands of people each year, like the annual Christmas play at his church that fills the 4,000 seat sanctuary. A year after tying the knot and a few months after welcoming his son into the world, Joshua also just finished filming his first feature film, Sinners Wanted, which premiered in January 2018 during the Sundance Film Festival.
Jonathan is now a youth pastor at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. He received his Master of Divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary in 2015 and is now completing his doctorate in Ministry at Regent University with the encouragement of his wife and six children. As a part of his dissertation, he is starting a faith-based reentry program through the church.
Though they occurred in different places and at different times, their parallel experiences seemed to boil down to the same thing: There are solutions to bridging the gap between law enforcement and low-income minority communities with high crime concentrations, and it starts with building a relationship based on compassion and understanding between the two.