Editor’s note: The past few weeks have been incredibly challenging for law enforcement as calls mount for reform, defunding and even dismantling of police agencies, leading both new and veteran officers to question whether to stay in the profession. In this article, Ryan Tillman, founder of Breaking Barriers United and a Chino (CA) officer, argues why it’s not time to turn away, but rather to become law enforcement change agents. In a companion piece, Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham acknowledges law enforcement does have problems that need to be addressed, but we need officers to be part of the fixing process.
As Gordon Graham would say, “Ryan Tillman here,” with a few personal thoughts on the current state of our country during these perilous times involving law enforcement and the community.
Before I give my opinion, I first must let you know who I am. I am a 33-year-old African American man who was raised in a lower- to middle-class neighborhood. I am married and have three young children. Growing up, I had no aspirations of becoming a police officer; in fact, I despised them in many ways due to the bad interactions I had with a few officers during my adolescent years.
One specific story comes to mind that still gets me boiling. I was newly licensed, driving my ’94 Ford Mustang, and probably the coolest kid in town—at least that was my perception. As I was driving I was talking on the cellphone. Two plainclothes police officers approached me in their unmarked vehicle and explicitly told me to get off the phone, followed by them telling me to “Wipe the [insert cuss word here] smile off” my face. I was astonished at what had just occurred, but they simply laughed and drove away.
I felt humiliated and demeaned but even more importantly, angry. That experience coupled with a few others festered through the years and contributed to my growing angst toward police officers.
As I finished my high school career, I graduated and attended the University of Nevada Las Vegas to play football. I left my small city only to experience what the fast life was about. During my time in Vegas I had my first personal experience with racial prejudices when a friend and I were searching for a new apartment. While we walked the property, a middle-aged white woman who worked in the front office followed us as if we were America’s most-wanted, only to tell us that we couldn’t afford to live at the location.
Gordon and I have shared many thoughts and ideas but what’s most important is we are crazy enough to believe that the current days we are living in are the best time to be a police officer.
By now some of you who are reading this article are probably wondering what these two experiences have to do with policing in the 21st century. You see, these are just two of a handful of experiences I had with either unprofessional police officers, racial prejudices or racial profiling. Not to mention my family members who had their fair share of their own experiences.
I would like to say these were isolated incidents and that such behavior is not tolerated anywhere in our country. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that racism and unprofessionalism by police officers still plague our society and communities.
Despite my anguish against police officers, I felt a spiritual calling on my life and joined the profession that I heavily despised. I was now “The Man, The Pig, The Po-Po” and however else we have been described through the years. With my new career, I decided I could make one of two choices: be the change I wanted to see or become jaded and corrupted and use the blanket excuse, “the job changes you.”
I’ve always looked at life through a positive lens, so I chose the first option. During my first year on the job I attended a DUI school and listened to a man not only call out the problems within the profession but also offer solutions to the problems. His boldness to call out the bad and acknowledge the good was my type of style—I needed to speak to him. As the class ended, I approached him and introduced myself. “Gordon Graham here,” he said. “Nice to meet you, Ryan.”
That was the start of a lasting friendship that wasn’t centered around a badge and a gun but a desire to be change agents in a profession that was becoming more despised by the day. Since that time, Gordon and I have shared many thoughts and ideas but what’s most important is we are crazy enough to believe that the current days we are living in are the best time to be a police officer. Before you write me off, let me explain.
My cousin once told me that when most people see a burning building, they run away from it, but that when I see a burning building, I run toward it—waiting for the flames to be put out so I can figure out how to rebuild it better than what it was.
That analogy is our profession right now. People are angry, people are hurt, people are divided, and cops are being called out (which they don’t like), but it’s a process that must occur. In my short seven years as an officer not only have I had many successes within my agency, but I have built a business predicated on bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community. Many people would look at that as a big accomplishment, but I argue that my best accomplishment is recruiting five of my best friends—all of whom are also black—into the profession and that they are excelling as officers.
With my new career, I decided I could make one of two choices: be the change I wanted to see or become jaded and corrupted and use the blanket excuse, “the job changes you.”
As our profession struggles to recruit new officers and retain them, I have found success in this area only because I have been able to change perception, promote an honorable lifestyle and infuse the idea of being a change agent in a struggling profession.
My goal as you read this is that for one second, you step away from your own feelings, realize we are called to be public servants (yes, that includes serving those who don’t appreciate us), and understand there is no other profession that allows us to be the light at the end of someone’s dark tunnel every day we go to work.
We as officers have it hard enough with the external voices that criticize our work; however, it is imperative that we stop being our worst enemies. We must support one another and embrace the community as we do it. The idea of brother and sisterhood is OK, but it must also include those we serve.
I’ll end my rant with this: If someone were to ask me if I support my son going into this profession, my answer is ABSOLUTELY. But if and when he does, I better make sure I can say I did everything in my power to make the profession better than what it was when I got in.