A video out of Columbus, Ohio began circulating the internet, this time showing a white police officer randomly punching a black male resident in the face. As twitter joined forces to identify the officer, disappointment set in once it was discovered that the officer was somewhat of a local celebrity. Officer Anthony L. Johnson, the same officer seen striking the unarmed Columbus resident in the viral video, gained notoriety as the “dancing cop”, a self proclaimed peace officer who used urban dance moves and music to connect with inner city residents. As his dancing videos circulated news stations, Officer Johnson received public praise for his exemplary community policing and was invited to Harvard University where he participated in a Q&A with public policy students. Officer Johnson went on to share his story with the world, using his bad boy gone good cop image to gain trust within communities he’d otherwise have no access to. And all Officer Johnson had to do was do a little dance.
But dancing cops are still cops, are they not? Since when has a little rhythm negated centuries of wrongdoing at the organizational level? We could be talking about Black churchgoers in Mississippi or West African dignitaries in Ghana, there’s just something about a little Caucasian jig that causes black people to lower their guard, no matter how many times it bites us in return. But it’s cops in particular that Black people desperately want to take a more invested role, why is that? One theory is that we’re hardwired to seek out allies, individuals exhibiting some form of cultural competence because the assumption is that someone who understands us will be less likely to hurt us. And that idea in and of itself is not flawed, but highly problematic when it requires a denial of the truth. There is is a difference between cultural familiarity and cultural competence. Someone who is familiar with a culture can mimic its expressions, they can re-enact dance moves and regurgitate lyrics to popular songs, but understanding how and why those expressions came to be symbolic of said culture is a level of connectedness that music and dance alone cannot forge.
Is community policing even what we need? Where did this idea originate that the more familiar an officer is with his residents, the less likely he is to do his job, or have we forgotten what an officers job is? The origin of the police in this country is one that requires the stereotyping of men and women of color, the overpolicing of minority neighborhoods, and the casual disregard for minority life, that is forever sewn into the fabric of the fraternal order of police in this country, denial doesn’t change that, neither does the Nae Nae. The myth of the police as public servants is a re-encryption of history. No where in the history of police officers do we see public civil servants bettering communities and doing so in collaboration with its residents. We don’t see that in the history of police on the east coast who got their start as private business security and we certainly don’t see that in the slave patrolling south. This is why the good cop vs bad cop narrative hurts us far more than it helps us. It dismisses the fact that whether good or bad individually, collectively the institution is all the same. The expectation that the same old tree will eventually bear different fruit traps us in a cycle of phantasm that puts the burden of our humanity on us. It makes Black people responsible for, once again, reaching across the aisle, and exchanging parts of their culture for pieces of their humanity. And haven’t black people been on the chopping block, living in perpetual surrender long enough?
Before I pursued writing as a career, I worked in Human Resources where job eliminations were a part of the gig. A job elimination occurs when a company terminates a position, unit or department for reasons including, but not limited to, performance, budget, closing, relocation, or any other organizational adjustment or change. Prior to terminating an entire position, a company will exhaust all hiring, training and restructuring options to ensure a job elimination is necessary. But ultimately, the goal of Human Resources is to protect the best interests of the company and if any extension of the company impedes their ability to do so, that entity becomes expendable. So if we look at cities as companies, the police being a department under their governance, how many employees have to demonstrate that a position is fundamentally flawed before it’s done away with? What amount of adjustment on the part of the citizens counteracts a lack of adjustment on the part of the organization? How much dancing will that take to correct?
Far too much. And it wouldn’t matter anyway because artistic expression and cultural competence aren’t one in the same. When we don’t know the difference we cheapen them both, allowing anyone capable of mimicking our artistic expressions into our communal spaces where cultural competence cannot be faked. It takes more than a convincing rendition of the hora to gain access to the Jewish community and its residents. It’s not even enough for a person of Jewish descent to have mastered the dance, if not accompanied by thorough knowledge of Jewish history and tradition. We’ve got to stop selling ourselves short, stanning for every white guy who can wiggle. That is not what constitutes ally-ship and it’s us who need to make that clear. Dance moves don’t equate a commitment to a community or a respect of a culture, have we forgotten that mimicking black people was once a respected art form? So again I ask, how does a cop who can conga repair community-police relationships? He doesn’t, because dancing cops are still cops.