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Commentary: does Officer Friendly still exist?

K. Gerard Thomas on how some police officers generate anger and fear from the public they were sworn to serve

The recent video that went viral of a South Carolina school police officer’s inappropriate use of force has added more distrust between the public and law enforcement

Many are asking how do law enforcement organizations weed out rogue officers who tarnish the badge and the department they represent.

Deputy Ben Fields of Spring Valley High in Richland, S.C., was videotaped manhandling a 16-year-old African-American girl while she sat at her desk, violently flipping and thrusting her to the floor, allegedly because she would not give up her cell phone or leave the class when ordered by the teacher and assistant principal.

If the incident occurred the way it is alleged, as one who has worked on both sides of the issue as a former teacher and law enforcement representative who has encountered this type of situation, the student was wrong to disobey the directive given by her teacher/instructor – that is a given. But I was trained to never make it personal; to always look for better solutions.

I believe the student was seeking attention as was the officer, who more than likely did not want to lose face in front of the students. So, he resorted to turning a teachable moment into a chaotic moment.

This video outraged parents, community leaders, politicians, educators and law enforcement, alike, as the punitive action did not fit the offense, and no lives were in danger. So, attacking the student on that level was not called for and most agree that a different approach should have been taken.

According to reports from students at the predominantly African-American high school officer, Fields was known as “Officer Slam” due to his tendency to get physical with students from time to time. Fields faces an upcoming civil trial in January 2016; he is being sued by a former student.

Conservative talk show hosts from radio and television nationwide have posed the question: did the student deserve to be violently accosted? As usual in our polarized society, White respondents supported Fields’ actions. Black respondents by and large said the officer overreacted.

Many asked if Fields would have acted similarly had the student been a White female student.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott blamed the student for inciting the incident, and she and another female student are charged with disturbing a classroom. Fields was relieved of duty by Lott for not following protocol and training.

Working in law enforcement requires those who wear a badge to always consider that every day they go to work could be the day in which they encounter a serious challenge requiring a quick decision that can forever alter their lives and the lives of those with whom they come in contact.

Unfortunately, there are law enforcement officers who generate anger and fear from the public they were sworn to serve, seeking special treatment because they wear a badge. Some believe because they put their lives on the line in the performance of their duty, their actions should never be questioned.

Police review boards have worked with the top brass to assure this type of thinking is eradicated and are working to create a greater sense of respect between law enforcement and the public.

Most law enforcement personnel throughout the nation – whether they be police officers, sheriff deputies, school police, or safety officers – perform their day-to-day duties without being smeared by allegations of racism or questionable acts of violence and abuse. They are just like the rest of us trying to earn a living, and the majority, it can be said, honor the badge or shield they wear with dignity.

These are the officers who don’t feel a sense of entitlement. To them, I thank for their brave service and pray for a safe End of Watch, and for the others whom they encounter are safe as well.

Kevin G. Thomas is a veteran Los Angeles-area freelance journalist whose editorial runs weekly in the St. Louis Evening Whirl, a 76-year-old publication. Locally, he has written for the Los Angeles Wave and the L.A. Watts Times. He is a former educator with B.A. degrees in theology and marketing.


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