In the Charleston Gazette, Charleston, WV
Elliot G. Hicks: Where police mistrust begins
The grand jury report on Michael Brown’s death at the hand of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was released at the same time as a television interview with a Charleston Police Department lieutenant accused of making racially offensive videos with his 8-year-old daughter. Perhaps it is hard to see a connection, but, then again, perhaps it is not.
Lieutenant Sean Williams, of the Charleston Police Department, was engaged in a domestic dispute with his wife. While that domestic dispute was going on, someone released snippets of video that the Gazette described like this: “Two sources who have seen the recordings say the videos depict Williams’ young daughter dressed in what appear to be articles of a police uniform and dancing to an anthem of the Ku Klux Klan. The refrain of the song repeats the words, ‘Stand up and be counted, show the world that you’re a man. Stand up and be counted, go with the Ku Klux Klan.’ On the videos, a man alleged to be Williams can be heard asking the girl questions. Derogatory racial language can be heard, sources said. Sources said there were several similar videos on the computer.”
You probably don’t have to be reminded that the Ku Klux Klan, for all of its existence, has been a sworn enemy of Jews, Catholics, black people and everyone else who is not traditionally white.
Lt. Williams gave an interview to WCHS-TV that aired on Nov. 26. He said that the videos were never made for public consumption, and that the views expressed on the video are not those that he or his family holds. He acknowledged, though, that the videos were disturbing, and that they would reasonably lead someone who does not know him to conclude that he had racially hostile beliefs. He said that he is not a racist.
There are seven separate sections of tape that contain the admittedly offensive racial vignettes. Williams said that these were among hours of other events that he taped that had nothing to do with race.
On the one hand, Lt. Williams repeatedly owns up to his behavior, saying that he is not running from his acts, or the consequences of them. On the other hand, he continually and strongly hints that others’ acts will be exposed if he is fired or disciplined for these videos. He said that, if his behavior were placed on some theoretical racism scale at the Charleston Police Department as a 10, others would rate a 20 or 30. That’s comforting.
He does not believe that his creation and maintenance of these tapes is a fireable offense.
I do not know Lt. Williams. I have never met him, and I have no opinion about his history of service on the Charleston police force. That is important for the purposes of this article, as I have no dislike, distaste, or other preconceived notions about who he is as a person or as an officer. In his interview he quotes and claims friendship with people I respect. He might be a great guy who filmed seven very bad jokes. Really, really bad jokes … involving an 8-year-old child.
But he should never be a police officer again.
How can a member of a minority race ever completely trust that Lt. Williams is not acting out of bias in any future encounter they may have with him?
I know the videos were never intended for public view, but what kind of person videotapes a child dancing and acting out to Ku Klux Klan music? (Who knew the Ku Klux Klan even had music?) How does it come up in daily life that you own or download music supporting the Klan, let alone having your 8-year-old daughter clown around to the music, responding to questions that use derogatory racial language as if it were no more than a spelling bee?
If Lt. Williams were to stop me on an isolated street, is there any way I could trust that his motives were pure? Can he be trusted to testify truthfully in a court case involving a black person? Can he be trusted to evaluate the officers who serve below him for promotion in a fair and equitable manner, regardless of their race? We just don’t know. Is this the man I encourage my daughters to seek out if they are lost or in harm’s way?
I am no Pollyanna. I know that there are many who reside from the peaks to the valleys of Lt. Williams’ theoretical racism scale who find a way to hide their true feelings in order to get along in society. I might encounter them every day. I have no dream of living long enough to find a society where everyone is “sensitive” in their speech or thoughts about race, whatever that means, nor do I want to live in a society where everyone feels constrained to be sensitive. Jumping over the barrier of sensitivity is the essence of comedy and satire that makes our lives so rich.
But there are some positions in our society that require at least the illusion of complete impartiality. Judges and police officers who enforce our laws are among those. If we trust you with the authority to take away a person’s freedom, or even their lives, we want to have all the assurances possible that you will not do that based upon your negative feelings about a person’s race or ethnicity.
I hear people talk about Lt. Williams’ right to privacy, saying these videos should be disregarded because they were never created for public consumption, and they were taken from his personal computer. I would never advocate allowing the public to examine the personal records maintained in a person’s home, absent a warrant for possible criminal activity. It is unfortunate that this controversy occurs in the context of a contentious domestic dispute.
We can’t un-ring this bell, though. The illusion of Lt. Williams’ impartiality can never be restored in the face of such a bizarre and inexplicable act as recording a young child as she is encouraged to enjoy and dance to cues of racial hatred.
Acts of racism are terrorism. We know that every air traveler does not have a bomb in his underpants or shoe. We know that every traveler is not making an explosive out of his sports drink. But we have seen a couple of people make bombs out of those materials, and when they do, it causes so much pain and distress that we search the behaviors and the bodies of all travelers just because we know that a few have acted this way.
We witness thousands of times more acts of racial hatred and discrimination than the number of acts of political terrorism we face in our country. As a result, some people ignore it like an occasional unpleasant smell in the air, while others, often mistakenly, see racism around every corner.
We don’t need an interpreter and a panel of judges for this one, though. I realize we have eliminated almost any restrictions on people carrying guns on our streets, in our nightclubs and on our playgrounds, but I cannot feel safe giving this man the authority to force me, or my wife, or my daughters into his car on a dark night. I cannot stand by while the state gives this man the office to pull a gun on me, or restrain my hands behind my back.
People are protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, over an unarmed teenager being shot. Call Michael Brown’s story an imperfect example of the ultimate police brutality against an unarmed black man, if you wish. It is much more difficult to explain the police killing Eric Garner, surrounded by six officers and choked to death for selling loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island. It is absolutely impossible to explain why Levar Jones was shot four times by a state trooper in Columbia, South Carolina, while he was fully obeying the trooper’s orders to retrieve his license and registration from his car. You have the names. Watch the videos yourself.
Were these incidents of racist police officers deliberately overusing force against black men? Our country’s long and persistent history of racial terrorism leads a lot of people to think so. All I can say for certain is that there is no reason to invite such a question in Charleston by keeping an officer on the force who has engaged in reckless racist play with his young child.
Elliot G. Hicks, a Charleston lawyer and mediator, owns and manages a civil engineering company.