With all of the controversy of the day surrounding cops, each day I get questions and statements from some community members regarding my white counterparts. Questions like:
How can you work with those white cops?
I bet with all the good you do for the community, those white cops must really hate you.
If you would have been there, Joseph, those white cops wouldn’t have shot that dude.
Well… I have been on my department for 23 years. I have worked with human beings from all walks of life, and I can say that most of the people I work with match the human race. They are mostly decent people doing a tough job.
But if that general statement is not convincing for you, allow me to break your tunnel vision a bit. I have received many accolades, awards and news coverage for the work I have done. Of course a bulk of the credit goes to my parents.
Yet there is one man who also played a huge role in shaping how I policed for the rest of my career. His name was Bill Snowden. Here is my best recollection of him. He was an LAPD legend. He was a tall, white man, with sandy blond hair and blue eyes. He had the big mustache and all. Physically, he was every black person’s (who thought of cops in the stereotypical sense) worst nightmare.
But he was the most professional police officer who ever trained me. Snowden was known for making 2,300 arrest for narcotics sales and violent crime in the Oakwood area, an area mostly populated by African Americans at that time.
As a new probationer on the brink of getting fired thanks to my previous training officer who berated and humiliated me at every chance he got, I was now assigned to the hardest-working cop on the department and I just knew that because I was so behind the curve for not being trained properly that working with this legend called Snowden would seal my fate.
Everyone in the station said to me, “Joseph, you better get your shit together. This guy is the real deal.”
When I met him, I was carrying two bags, a shotgun, a Taser, a bean bag, and wearing my long sleeves in the summertime.
I was nervous as hell and he knew it as he towered over me. He smirked and said, “I’ll take some of those off your hands. I’m not going to treat you like a boot (a probationer). You are my partner. By the way, it’s hot outside. Go change into your short sleeves and let’s go have fun.”
I calmed down and was finally excited about learning my job. A job which I struggled with at first as it pitted me against my perceived “Blackness” at the time.
As we patrolled the Oakwood area of Venice Beach, there were black gangsters and citizens yelling his name, and waving hello to him. “SNOW!” or “WAS UP SNOW!!” I smiled and asked him who all the people were that were waving at him. After all, I was told that black people were supposed to hate cops, especially after the Rodney King beating. Hell, even I did before I put on the badge. He smirked at me and said, “I probably arrested half of them.”
I was perplexed. Then I became concerned. Was this some dirty cop who had the people of the community so terrified of him that they were compelled to say hello?
He looked at me and said “Joseph, we have a job to do. Oakwood is a dangerous drug-infested place and we are here to keep people safe from many of the people I arrested. But you don’t have to be an asshole to be a cop. We do not judge or mistreat the people we have to arrest. We treat them all with dignity and respect, because in the end, they know we have a job to do. All they want is for us to respect them when we do it. Do you understand, partner?”
I still had my reservations until one day we saw a 6 foot 7 inch parolee who was over 350 pounds standing in the street threatening to fuck up the first person he saw. He was stoned or completely out of his mind. Snowden looked at me and said. “Put out a back-up. We gotta deal with this before someone gets hurt.”
Now this man was twice the size of Snowden and I put together, but Bill did not hesitate. If he was afraid, he did not show it. As I sat sizing up this Goliath of a man, he barked at me “Joseph. Let’s go!” I got out of the car and we approached the man. I just knew we were going to end up shooting this man. Not because he was black. Not because he was poor, but if he got his hands on either one of us based on his size and strength and demeanor, he would have killed us with his bare hands.
I could hear the sirens of the other units coming as the giant taunted us and challenged anyone in uniform or not to stop him. Snowden said to me, “Let’s get him detained before the other units get here, I think he forgot to take his meds.”
Snowden approached him using a calm voice, and said, “I heard about your mom. I’m really sorry man. I know it hurts, but she wouldn’t want this for you at all.” The man looked at Snowden and said, “It’s fucked up Snow. I feel like killing someone right now!”
Snowden responded, “Well we don’t want to hurt you, and we won’t. It’s me, man. Have I ever done you wrong?” He looked at the ground and said, “No. You always been cool with me Snow.” “Then let me help you man. I gotta handcuff you. But I promise you won’t go to jail.” He looked at Snowden and said, “You for real?”
Snowden said, “I always keep my word, don’t I?” He bowed his head and said, “Only for you Snowden.” To my relief, he turned around and placed his hands behind his back. Snowden looked at me and said, “OK, Joseph. Cuff him so we can get him to the hospital.”
Trying to handcuff this man was a challenge. His wrists were the size of my 21-inch arms. Other officers were approaching to help. I did my best not to make him uncomfortable, but as I cuffed him, the cuff pinched his wrist. He screamed and started to turn on me. The other officers sprang into action. One pulled out his baton as I tried to keep this man’s large arms behind his back. He was so strong, but I held on for dear life. The officer tried to use the baton to pry the subject’s arms loose so I could detain him. Though the officer would have been justified to do so, Snowden looked at him and yelled “Put that thing away!! Right now!” The officer backed down out of respect for Snowden.
Snowden focused on the man again and said, “You gotta calm down. He didn’t mean to hurt you. Let the officer do his job.” He looked at Snowden with tears in his eyes, and said, “OK, Snow. I know he didn’t mean it. It just hurt.” I was finally able to cuff the man. Talk about a workout.
When we got to the station, Snowden said “I know the officer meant well. But that would have pissed that guy off and we would have had to shoot the man. We are here to try our best to preserve life, not create the circumstance where we have to take it.”
As we continued to work together, I saw people thanking him for trying help clean up their community. For his work, he received the “officer of the year” award many times. When I got off probation, I was driven to be just like him. He worked hard, he was honest, he knew his community and respected them no matter what they did.
Ladies and gentlemen, being a good cop or bad cop has zero to do with one’s skin color. It has everything to do with your heart, your maturity and how seriously you take your oath to protect and serve. You don’t have to be from the area to care. Your race does not have to match the community you patrol.
There are wonderful officers on my department and beyond from all walks of life who, if they got the same attention as those few who create a negative impression of our profession, you would be honored to know them and maybe be inspired by them.
As I walk the streets of skid row today and hear my name being yelled out, when I receive hugs and handshakes and respect from the community I serve, even those I had to arrest, I remember who trained me: a damned good cop, who just happened to be white, named Bill Snowden.
Like with all people, we must stop judging cops or their actions by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. One’s complexion does not make them inherently good or evil. Their heart does.
Deon Joseph is a 23 year veteran of law enforcement in Southern California - 21 of those years working in the homeless community to create an environment conducive to change for those in recovery, as a Lead Officer. He’s been recognized for his work locally and nationally, and news stories and documentaries surrounding his work in crime fighting and community relations, featured him. www.deonjoseph.org