Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Cameron Carnes
Ferguson. Dallas. Baton Rouge. We have all mourned the tragedy of life lost. But how do all these headlines affect our police? To get a glimpse into their work, we shadowed three different officers and talked with them about their experiences. Each polices a different precinct in the city, but all have been with Birmingham Police around five years. Here’s what they had to say…
About a week after Ferguson, a man was belligerent while Birmingham Police Officer Steve Brooks was trying to handcuff him for a domestic violence matter.
“It’s Michael Brown all over again!” the man screamed. “They’re fixing to kill me. It’s Ferguson! It’s Ferguson!”
Brooks is quick to admit the difference he has seen in policing since that first incident in August 2014. “It’s made our job a lot harder,” he says. “There’s been a lot more negativity. I get a lot more pushback from folks nowadays. It’s harder to talk to people.”
By contrast, Officer Truman Fitzgerald paints a rosier picture of the city after Ferguson and subsequent police shootings that have made national headlines. When he has been in gas stations or a store on his patrol in East Lake, people “come out of nowhere” and stop to thank him. People in restaurants have offered to pay for meals. These gestures mean a lot to the officers, he says.
“I have even had citizens come up to tell us a lot of the issues that are going on they wouldn’t expect for those to be in Birmingham with the relationships we have with our citizens and vice-versa,” he says.
Especially after Ferguson, police use of video cameras became part of a national public policy discussion, and beginning in June 2015, Birmingham officers started using body cameras attached to their chests. The video cameras pick up almost everything the cop sees, hears, and says with a wide angle lens. Their purpose is to decrease citizen complaints and increase accountability.
“It puts the citizen at ease because they know they are being recorded,” Fitzgerald says. “They know my actions and what I say is being recorded. With me, I know I am going to be on my best game. There’s going to come a time where this is going to be reviewed, and your actions are going to be shown to a bunch of higher ups.”
“It governs officers who maybe are needing an extra eye. It’s kept those officers in check.”
Accountability in the police department existed even before the cameras too, Officer Monica Law explains. If there is a physical altercation, officers notify their supervisors on the air, and they arrive on the scene as quickly as possible and call the paramedics. The supervisor types up a notification for the lieutenant, captain, deputy chiefs, and chief to review.
“There’s a lot of checks and balances here,” Law says. “(But) I know that on the news (in) other departments things may be going awry.”
Fitzgerald also says officers have had more pep talks in roll call and between fellow officers. “We take it upon ourselves to remind each other what’s going on in the media and in the news isn’t going to affect how we do our jobs,” he says, optimism sliding out of his mouth once again. “These citizens still need us, and they are still on our team. There’s people in my community that don’t have any family. If they come up on an issue, they call the police because that might be the only person they have in their life that can talk to.”
Still, Brooks says police officers’ level of caution has “gone through the roof.” While he used to just find a place to park between calls, now he makes sure he is more secure. He finds he’s always looking around. “I pull a gun out a lot more,” he says. “I have it with me not so much pointing it at anyone, but if I’m sitting some place that’s a bad area. I’m not going to say it’s made officers more jumpy because we have always been good at going with the flow and adapting to situations, but I feel like at the same time, it’s definitely made officers a little bit more edgy and fearful for our own lives.”
As a result, the public might notice that more cars and officers are present at even routine traffic stops. Brooks says it’s just them watching out for their fellow officers—not to scare or intimidate anyone.
“The public doesn’t like it, but the more of us (who are) out there, the more safe everyone’s going to be,” he explains. “It might be a simple call, but we’ve seen calls throughout the country go crazy out of hand and turn into where officers have been shot.”
For all three officers, the heart of the resolution in reaction to national events is respect.“What (people) are being fed on TV can create a stereotype in their mind of what the police are like,” Fitzgerald says. “We have an opportunity every day we go out as police to show them what police officers are truly like.”
“I have always felt like talking to people the correct way and speaking to people as if they truly matter to you is a very easy way to show that person that you respect them and that you are here for them. Even if the outcome on that call might not be in their favor, you can still make an impact on their life whether they realize it or not.”
Law has similar thoughts about her intentionality in how she approaches people. “I just try to go back to that I haven’t always worn this uniform,” she says. “I wasn’t born in this. I put it on every day. Two hours ago I wasn’t wearing it. How would I want someone to treat me? How would I want my brother or anyone else to be treated?
“That goes beyond what your training is. That really goes to the heart of who you are as a person and the heart of how we want to be treated.”
The Compassionate Caregiver
There’s a reason Monica Law earned the nickname “Mama Law” in the Police Academy.
“It’s like I’m everybody’s mom in my head,” she admits, crediting her minor in secondary education as part of why her nurturing nature comes into play in the right circumstances. Law was the only woman in her academy class of 22 and now is one of two female officers out of 30 on her shift.
On one call, children being released to a family member from protective custody looked familiar to her. As it turned out, Law had been there when they were taken into custody. She always wonders if the kids are okay in scenarios like this, but usually she never knows for sure. One of the kids, a girl, recognized her. “Oh my god, baby,” Law told her. “I’m so happy to see you.”
“I was crying my eyeballs out,” Law recalls. “When I saw them, it was almost like I wasn’t at work. It was like a family reunion. That was very heartwarming because on most calls you don’t really get follow-up.”
Another time a man at McDonald’s approached her and asked if she remembered him. As it turns out, she had talked to him and encouraged him, asking about what he wanted to do after high school, while she transported him to a county jail as a minor. Now, he said, he had enlisted in the Army.
“I was so excited,” she says, lifting her voice as she recounts the story. “I was probably embarrassing him kind of like an embarrassing mom moment.”
Still another time, Law answered a call for an older woman who had fallen and needed help. Once she arrived, the woman looked up and said, “Well baby, I just have been laying here.” Because the woman’s apartment building is right across from the North Precinct office, Law still goes to visit her. This summer, she got to wish her a happy 102nd birthday. “She’s sassy and shares my love of sweets,” Law says.
Law’s personable approach carries over into her everyday interactions too. She tries to explain things to people so they understand what’s going on—not just “bark” at them. She also stresses that she wants people to know that she is human, as simple as it sounds to say. “I’m a regular person,” she says. “I watch a lot of TV and eat junk food, run half marathons, which is why I have to run because I like junk food. It’s like ‘Hey, I’m not Robocop. I’m a girl just like you.’”
The Friendly Foe
Policing public housing projects is not like policing the streets of Southside where Officer Steve Brooks lives. When he first started patrolling Loveman Village, he found the kids were flat out terrified
“It’s hereditary,” he says. “Parents teach their kids to be scared of the police, that the police are bad and don’t talk to the police: ‘They are going to stick your daddy in jail, they’ll take mama to jail.’ If you talk to them, especially some of the kids who have never talked to a police officer, most of them are scared. It’s hard to talk to them.”
So conversation became his and his partner’s mission. They started with candy as an entrance to get to know kids and preteens. But from there they talked to them about Xbox and basketball. Above all, they wanted the kids to know they weren’t scary. Two years later, they saw a difference.
“By the time that we had left there, we had seen some of the kids get older, and some of them had gone off to high school with them,” Brooks says. “And we had a rapport with them…It definitely turned some minds around.”
Both with kids and adults, respect is key in conversation, he says. “I think I have changed more opinions about police officers by just talking to people like a normal human being,” he says.
Even a drug dealer he has arrested several times is among the population who appreciates the safety with police presence when it comes to his newborn baby.
“He doesn’t like us messing with his business, but he likes us around,” Brooks says. Still, the daily crime he saw seemed systemic.
“It’s just a cycle,” he explains. “Dad’s a criminal, mom’s a criminal, and it goes on and on. And it’s all they know. In some of these households, it’s two or three generations that have lived off the government their entire life. They have no bearing of what it is to hold down a job, so they turn to crime like they saw their parents do. Some of these drug dealers make good money, and when these kids see that, that’s their role model. Their role models aren’t what people say on TV. They are not rappers.”
Now, as he starts a new position as a school resource officer, Brooks hopes to teach those kids what he did at Loveman.
“I want to be their friend and show them we are there for them,” he says.
The Optimistic One
It’s hard to get Truman Fitzgerald to say anything negative. When he started policing, senior officers told him he wouldn’t be so happy after he had worked shifts for five years.
“My main thing was I told myself I was going to remain positive regardless,” he says. “It’s been five years, and I’m just as happy as I was when I started. You just have to take it upon yourself to say, ‘I’m not going to let what I see on a daily basis affect my mind, my view of this city.’”
He credits a lot of his positivity to the people he interacts with. “They have made me feel special since day one,” he says. “Do I have negative interactions with the citizens? I do, but I have so many more positive memories from the citizens that are going to last me the rest of my life.”
Being in the same community for several years has actually opened Fitzgerald’s eyes to the good there, a good that isn’t always clear to the public eye: “When you hear East Lake in the news, you think ‘crime, crime, crime, crime, crime,’ but it takes somebody having been out in the streets of East Lake. That’s not the side of East Lake I see.”
The pinnacle of this for him is seeing families who have the resources to move out, but who have so much pride in East Lake that they don’t want to leave.
Despite how he sees it, senior officers tend to dwell on the negativity, but he thinks that comes down to attitude.
“You see everybody’s worst moments, in their worst 15 or 20 or 5 minutes,” he says. “If you decide that’s going to be your only thought of what this job is about, you are going to become jaded. You are going to get this mindset that this is horrible world out here. But you have to remind yourself that’s this is a job where you are going to be exposed to those types of situations. If you are only going to harp on the negatives, you are going to get that attitude.”
Another place he draws motivation is by thinking about his mom, who lives in another part of the city.
“I’m that officer that is working someone else’s mom’s neighborhood,” he says. “I want to police my community in the same way I want an officer to police the community that my mom lives in.”