Since the horrific death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations and protests which have erupted across the country, I have been reflecting on my unique experiences with the police. I am the sculptor who was commissioned to do Officer Down (unveiled in 2004) for the Roanoke Police Department, and That I May Serve (unveiled in 2009), the memorial to all Police Dogs killed in the line of duty in Virginia, which is sited at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine on the Virginia Tech campus.
These two projects took me about three years to complete. During that time, I met and observed a considerable number of officers from the City of Roanoke, Virginia Tech, and, through the Virginia Police Work Dog Association (VPWDA), K-9 officers from several counties in Southwest Virginia. I went on three “Citizen Ride-Alongs,” and observed training sessions for K-9 officers and their dogs at various locations.
Officer Down is based upon an actual incident, so on two occasions I closely questioned the supervising officer on duty that night about details. In December 2018, during the period I was working on That I May Serve, K-9 Carsen was accidentally shot and killed while he and his handler were investigating a possible break-in at a small church in Giles County. I was at the service, attended by at least fifty K-9 officers, which ended when the body of K-9 Carsen was ceremoniously carried from the church in a flag-draped casket. From these and other experiences, I began to appreciate the difficulty and complexity of police work. I saw the importance for officers of camaraderie. I realized that police work—or the police work I observed--usually does not involve guns or handcuffs or even a citation.
Yet I now realize that there were things I missed, too. I had not noticed that all the officers I observed, rode with, or talked to—were white. I was blind to this. There was one exception: because the Roanoke Police Department wished to emphasize its commitment to diversity, an African American officer became my model for the wounded officer, even though the actual officer killed was white. There was an irony in this which I also did not recognize: despite this official commitment, and the fact that the Chief of Police was African American, I had not observed much actual diversity in the Roanoke police force. I did not work with or recall seeing any Latino officers. Were there women? I can’t remember, which is itself an indicator. Things may have changed since then. I think they have. I hope so.
I can imagine, now, that if I had been African American, I might have felt differently about being around all those white cops. I might have had uncomfortable encounters with the police; family members or friends might have, too. When K9 officers, during “pursuit training” in a wooded area, told me that usually just the shouted warning, “we’re sending in the dog!” would be enough to prompt a suspect to surrender, I might have been chilled to the bone. For I would remember that dogs had been used against African American marchers during the Civil Rights era, and perhaps to hunt down my own ancestors in “slavery time.” None of this occurred to me then, however. I am sorry for my blindness, which took recent catastrophic events to reveal to me.
In closing, I wish to make three observations: first, the egregious actions of just a single officer greatly complicate the work of the many officers still conscientiously performing their duties. Trust, once broken, is hard to restore. Yet trust between officers and citizens, and between police departments and their communities, is essential. Second, I worry that police departments will have trouble attracting, hiring, and retaining good people, especially African Americans, when a diverse police force is critical. And third, it seems to me that police are too often charged with treating the symptoms, as it were, of conditions which our society has failed to effectively address. We are to blame, at least as much as the police.
It was a privilege to meet and observe police officers from Roanoke, Virginia Tech, and surrounding counties. I trust we will afford them the respect we expect them to show us. I hope police departments will be open to change and active in helping to facilitate that change. Crisis can be opportunity, if we are able to be patient with each other, act constructively, and look to the future.