By Kerra Bolton
The last place I wanted to be was in a police station.
I don’t like the police. Despite the proliferation of popular television shows portraying detectives as flawed but lovable crusaders, I don’t believe the hype.
Life taught me otherwise. I was coerced at the age of 17 into having sex with a police officer in the New Jersey neighborhood where I grew up. I kept it a secret for 25 years because I was afraid no one would believe me, and that my parents would be punished in retaliation.
Therefore, it was more than a little strange that I confessed something that caused me tremendous shame to Commander Eric Ewing of Detroit’s Fifth Police Precinct.
I met Commander Ewing in June while researching a series of articles I wrote to promote the world conference in Detroit next week of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, an accredited graduate school in Bethlehem, PA devoted to the advancement, teaching, and sharing of restorative practices.
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Commander Ewing said when I finished my story. “No one should have to endure what you went through, especially from an officer. If it hasn’t happened already, I believe the man who did this to you got what he deserved. And if he didn’t, there’s a special place in hell waiting for him.”
Lurching Toward Restorative Understanding
With those words, the avalanche of shame I carried for more than two decades began to melt.
It was an earned epiphany that punctuated years of therapy. The realization also came during a three-day restorative practices intensive with Commander Ewing and other Detroit community leaders that included participating in a Community-Police Summit and a ride-along with two, young, white police officers.
Restorative practices is an emerging social science that seeks to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision-making. Their use helps to reduce crime, violence, and bullying, improve human behavior, strengthen civil society, provide effective leadership, restore relationships, and repair harm.
At the summit, Commander Ewing and community leaders used restorative practices protocols to create a safe space in which residents could talk about the harm they experienced at the hands of local police and officers could describe the daily dangers they face that often inform their decision-making.
Residents learned, for example, that driving over the speed limit often has deadly consequences that they don’t see. Officers are often the first responders at an accident in which the driver was “just going a few miles over the speed limit.” Police officers learned their words and actions can contribute to creating a climate of fear and mistrust.
Behind the Thin, Blue Line
Two days after the summit, I went on a ride-along with two young, white police officers.
The experience taught me to consider the person behind the badge. One of the officers, for example, joined the police inspired by the officer who rescued him and his sister from a crack house where they lived with their mother. The second joined the police because, among other things, it was one of the few employment options he said were available to veterans besides being a janitor or grocery store clerk.
It was an uneventful evening until we were the first to arrive at the scene of a three-car accident in which several people were injured, including a toddler. From the sidelines, I watched for hours as the officers engaged in a painstaking investigation while mitigating threats of mob justice from onlookers against the man who caused the accident.
The culmination of these experiences opened me to the possibility that, as trite as it sounds, police are people, too, and forgiveness is possible. More importantly, however, I learned that justice or the absence of it never happens in a vacuum.
Light Comes in the Broken Places
It is said light shines through the cracks of our broken places.
Revealing the depth of my broken places to Commander Ewing enabled me to recognize those places in others and illuminate them with the light of compassion.
Most of us, even my abuser, are doing the best we can under the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I cannot say I forgive my abuser. But I can say with absolute certainty that I forgive myself.
Such a conclusion can seem sanguine, especially for families who lost innocent loved ones at the hands of the police. However, we cannot fight evil with hate and yet we must work together to end the systemic and institutional racism that results in the militarized policing of black and brown neighborhoods.
Restorative practices provide a path forward that leads with an open heart. We are not our brother and sister’s keeper as much as we are a fellow traveler in the greatest human adventure called life.