They shot a fleeing man in the back. They choked a handcuffed man to death. They beat a little girl who was hogtied at the East Towne Mall. They shot one, no four, no ten unarmed teenagers. Was it just because they’re Black? Isn’t this assault? Isn’t it Murder?
Is this what police officers are?
Those are the questions and statements on the news, in print journalism, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Youtube when we think about police officers in our community in 2017. Those are the cries and the comments and the questions.
Rare are the times one hears anything else in this climate. But there are other parts of being a police officer that go unnoticed.
One of those things is the challenge of being a person of color in the uniform of a force associated so closely in the public’s mind with being oppressive to people of color.
As a black man, Officer Corey Saffold feels there are times he just wants to throw up his hands in frustration with how he is perceived for being a cop. Other times, he gets to experience deeply the wealth of mentorship and life lessons he’s able to impart to others because of his background.
All of these issues and many more will be things Saffold covers when he speaks on “The Paradox of Being a Black Police Officer” at the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society on Monday, October 23rd. At 6:30 pm Saffold will give a speech as well as a Q&A about his life as a youth on the brink of lawlessness and his evolution to becoming a well-respected police officer.
As part of the Historical Society’s Taboo Topics series, Saffold will talk about the national issues facing community policing as well as sharing his own stories.
“When I was a kid being a police officer was one of the things I always looked up to and a career I always wanted,” Saffold said. “In Milwaukee, my High School always focused on law enforcement and things like that. But as I got older I kind of got in trouble in school and outside of school. So I lost interest. I didn’t even think they would take me because of my criminal acting out.”
Saffold participated in a church band and, to make a long story short, saw an epic-looking bass guitar he just had to have.
So he took it.
Not long afterwards, a Milwaukee-area detective caught up with him. It was a fork-in-the-road moment for Saffold. He could be charged with a felony and spend the rest of his life being on the edge of the Corrections Department vacuum. Or, the Detective could try to make a difference in his life.
The Detective chose the latter after speaking with young Saffold and determining that he was a good kid who had made a mistake. A mistake he had no idea the gravity of.
“The Detective said ‘look, you may not realize this but the thing you stole makes it a felony. You may not know what a felony is but it’s something that follows you forever,’” Saffold recalls. “He really looked out for me. That officer didn’t have to do that, he didn’t have to offer me that life experience. So when I look back at that, he understood that doing the job is not all about making arrests and charging felonies. It’s about fully serving the best interests of those involved.”
Saffold became a police officer himself and was determined to impact those he came into contact with the same way. His approach is one of imparting wisdom, help and compassion not just law and order.
“It’s really about how you treat people,” he said. “People want to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of what reason you’re having contact with them.”
But that dignity and respect is under full assault by the tone of politics today and the red-hot scorch of the media, which Saffold believes, goes a full mile in making policing difficult.
“I tell people that what you see in the media and social media is less than three percent of how officers have contact every day with people,” Saffold says. “It goes well normally. No one is treated with disrespect. The officer does his job and nothing comes of it. Officers all the time do things to go out of their way for people but we don’t hear that. The media definitely hinders us because they tell every negative story.”
In addition to the media needing the salacious story, members of his own community sometimes look sidelong at Saffold wondering what kind of sellout he has to be to wear that police uniform. Nothing is more frustrating on his job because oftentimes, the community from which he receives the most backlash is also the same community that most utilizes and needs the police.
“It’s difficult being a black police officer. The black community has dealt with a long history of police brutality,” he says. “Today we have officers shooting unarmed people and we have just how officers treat blacks in general. People say that because of what police do to the black community that I shouldn’t be a police officer. Uncle Tom, coon, sellout is what I’ve been called by some people. Someone once told me I shouldn’t arrest my own people.”
Saffold pushes back at that backlash by executing his job with dignity and using the life lessons he’s learned to help others, especially black youth.
“My life experience is really going to dictate how I interact with people,” he says. “Most people I come in contact with really appreciate my approach in policing with them. So, a lot of my talk has to do with standing up for black men and teenagers.”
Saffold will gear his talk around what questions he gets from the audience. He will begin by showing a graphic and controversial video depicting the shooting of a black man who was running away from officers in Salt Lake City. After the video, Saffold will give his opinion on what happened both as a police officer and as a black man.
“The guy got pulled over for a minor traffic infraction and had a warrant, he explains. “So he fled the officers. The officer shot him several times in the back. How does the officer come to the decision of shooting this man? I don’t understand it. The officer must have a low opinion of this man because he’s black. Because that’s just murder.”
Following opinions and questions about the video, Saffold plans to go into detail about his life story and history and what made him become a police officer.
“The audience will determine the direction we go,” Saffold says. “People usually ask good questions like why police don’t shoot people in the arms or legs and things like that. They ask about our training. I go into why I wanted to be a police officer and how I get treated in my own community. It’ll be a really good talk.”
Saffold’s speech will run from 6:30-8:30 pm at the Mount Horeb Historical Society Museum, 100 South Second street in Mount Horeb.