Erie Police Sergeant Tom Lenox. | Photo via Greg Wohlford, Erie Times-News
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!
I’ll never forget the way my mind raced when the knocks came onto the front door. It was 5:30am and I’d been in a deep sleep, so even though I shot up out of bed it still took me a moment to decide what I’d heard.
Had I been dreaming? Did the knocks start quietly and get progressively louder, or was that just my perception from waking up during the noise? Why’d they stop? The thoughts came into me all at once. My hunch was that this had been a dream, but I wanted to make sure.
“Did you hear that?” I asked my wife.
“Hear what?” was her reply, with a lot of sleep in her voice.
That felt better. She would’ve heard it for sure. “Uh, sorry, nothing. I thought I heard a -“
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!
There it was again! Cue the instant terror coming from the other side of the bed. When the second round of knocks came, my wife went from zero to “Oh my God they’re coming for our baby!” in about three seconds.
You can’t really train your mind how to react for the moment you think someone is breaking into your home. My mind races but my body goes numb; my wife is pretty much the opposite. I remember feeling myself transition into some kind of survival mode. I need to think.
There is more to this story, but let me fast forward to the end for the sake of time: there was no criminal. It turns out that sometimes when it’s especially rainy the old, barely-maintained Verizon landlines get some moisture inside them and cause random tones to ring out inside the lines. My home still has a landline. My phone had phantom-dialed 9-1-1 while our entire house was asleep, and the state police had come to check the situation.
Does this sound the least bit likely to you? It still sounds crazy to me. In any event, the police had no way of knowing what to expect when I eventually opened my door for them. When I did, they saw my wife crying and holding our one year-old child, and me annoyedly insisting no one had called them. It didn’t occur to me until later how much this could’ve seemed like spousal abuse.
The officers could not have been nicer. They were courteous and offered up the phantom-dial theory, saying it happens more than we might think. I apologized reflexively for using resources that could’ve been more effectively deployed elsewhere, though in truth I was sorry for my own blood pressure right then more than anything else.
Then, they left. I’ve replayed this situation over and over in my mind, thinking of all the ways this could’ve played out differently and all the little things along the way in my life that led to my reaction when I realized the police were at my door.
My whole life I’ve been raised to associate the police with safety. My whole life experience has reinforced that teaching. I’ve never had a single negative reaction with a policeman, never once felt misunderstood. After bracing initially for a crook and finding the cops, I thought, “Oh, thank God, it’s just you guys.” I am sure my body language conveyed that feeling and discouraged anything from escalating.
I wonder if the policemen’s reaction that morning was similarly influenced by the sum total of the life experiences they brought into my kitchen. It had to be, right? It probably told them I wasn’t likely a threat. My house is in a quiet area, the grass was mowed, some country decorations hung on the walls inside. We’re basic. Probably just water in the lines again.
I got the benefit of the doubt that morning, but I didn’t earn it. I inherited it. I was taught to trust the cops, grew up in a neighborhood where everyone else was taught the same, and I simply lived what I was taught.
Not everyone is so lucky. There are kids growing up today, right here in our city, whose parents have had misunderstandings with police or who didn’t get the benefit of the doubt. As a result these parents teach their children to be guarded around the police, to be something less than fully trusting.
What I am describing is not racism; it’s something different. It’s a sort of chicken-or-egg situation where a community’s mistrust leads to not getting the benefit of the doubt, and not getting the benefit of the doubt reinforces mistrust. It’s a vicious cycle broken only by conscious thought and steady effort.
Now – finally – your Idiotville feel-good story of the week:
The Erie Police Department isn’t content to play defense at the one yard-line. They aren’t waiting around for the foundation of mistrust to build so that when the call does eventually come in someone’s hour of need, the police response is met with the kind of tense mistrust that could end up in disaster.
They’re being proactive. They’re taking kids under their wing. Creating positive interactions of the kind that build a trust. They’re building programs that encourage kids to attend school, stay out of trouble, and be a force for good in their communities. I love this story.
Everyone can have the kind of interactions with police I’ve been fortunate to have in my life. The Erie Police Department is working to bring that within reach, and I can’t think of a more worthy story for this week’s Something Good.