Reflecting on a Death in the Family and the Police

On May 15, 2020, at 6:30 a.m, our doorbell rang.  Then there was pounding.  Another ring followed and more pounding.  We got out of bed and made our way to the front door.  I could see two people in dark uniforms through the sidelights. My husband opened the door. 

They are police. Their guns are holstered. One holds a piece of paper. The first officer asks for my husband by name.  Dave confirms.  Then the officer names Dave’s younger son, asks if we know him.

“He’s my son,” Dave replies.

We both know what’s coming.  Over the past several years, it’s been impossible not to anticipate this moment.  Sawyer is 20; he’s been using drugs since 8th grade.  He’s completed more than a dozen therapeutic programs since his junior year in high school.  

“We got a call from the sheriff in Orange County, California.  Sawyer was found dead last night.”

We are both silent.

The officer who spoke hands Dave a handful of pamphlets, the first with a phone number written on it. “You can call that number for more details.  We don’t have more information,” he adds.  Then he points to the pamphlets, “Information on this if you want help.”  Later we noticed that the brochures, all four, were printed in Spanish.  “Maryland Víctimas y Testigos.  De Delitos: Sus derechos y servicios” read the heading of the first.

In the weeks since, the country has boiled over in protest over George Floyd’s murder—a murder that has come to stand for thousands—igniting activism, spreading awareness, awakening many people to realities of racism they had not faced before. 

One critically important outcome of the protest is the attention society is paying now to policing, to the roles and responsibilities of police in communities, to their duties and derelictions of duties, to the exorbitant cost of the growing grasp and militarization of policing, to the racism and racial disparities of the criminal justice system.

The last thing Dave and I needed at 6:30 a.m. on May 15, 2020 was a pounding on the door and a clumsy conveyance of terrible news from a couple of cops who didn’t introduce themselves.  Dave lost a son; I lost a stepson. To be sure, they were just doing their job. But by what possible justification should they have been standing on our front porch soon after dawn? Why had they been asked to cold deliver information and drop off a pamphlet that we might or might not be able to read?  Why are police doing these things?

Writing for The Upshot in The New York Times on June 19, 2020, Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz report that in Montgomery County, Maryland—where we happen to live—the share of police time devoted to violent crime is a mere 4%. Police here spend 37% of their time responding to noncriminal calls. Otherwise, their percentages by category: traffic (13%), other crime (19%), property crime (12%), proactive (7%), medical or other (8%).  The authors note that the categories are locally defined and may not be comparable across localities (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/upshot/unrest-police-time-violent-crime.html).

Am I in favor of redefining the roles and responsibilities of police?  Am I in favor of reallocating funding so that police aren’t doing harm when they fail as social workers?  Indeed I am. Policing in this country is broken.  We need more than reform.  We need a new design, a new social compact, a new way of operating, a new philosophy and form of governance.  We need to think of policing as a practice of public health—beyond addressing crime.  This is the concept that we need to discuss and act on right now. A death in the family is not a crime. It should not prompt people with guns to appear at your house and pound on the door as if you’ve committed one.  

We have an opportunity now to seize this moment of societal awareness.  Certainly, we can address crime even as we imagine and build beyond the criminal model.  If not now, when? 

Along with many other people, I have been reflecting these weeks on my own experience of race and racism, on my privilege as a white person.  A Black family would have vastly more cause for alarm when police pay them such a call.  I see that disparity. I can feel it. I deplore it.

Awareness and reflection are necessary at moments like these.  For us, reflection encompasses both the family experience we had on May 15 and its situation in the broader social context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the largest protest movement of our time.  But reflection and awareness are not sufficient.  Communities can approach sufficiency if they—if we—muster the will and courage—to see the criminal model of policing for what it is and change our collective practice toward community health and wellbeing.