Following the July 7 shooting of five police offers in Dallas, Pastor Matt Ristuccia of Stone Hill Church in Princeton held a program seeking to increase understanding in the community. Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center in Princeton was there and became determined to make the program available to the wider community.
“I felt I wanted to do something, and I can only deal with Princeton,” Feldman told NJJN in advance of the program. “I don’t know what it means to be an African-American male or a police officer today. I want to listen to them talk about it: the challenges — and I hope they share the good things, too — and the stereotypes and what people assume about them.”
So on July 27 at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, close to 200 people listened as African-American Tone Bellamy, elder and facilities associate at Stone Hill Church, and Bill Kieffer, a six-year veteran of the Princeton police force and the third generation of his family in law enforcement, shared their feelings about the current tension resulting from the too-frequent incidents of violence involving African-Americans and police officers. Ristuccia introduced them to the gathering.
Experiencing some apprehension about the meeting, the two had decided to talk beforehand, they said. In that conversation, they learned, first of all, that they had both grown up in Trenton, within a 10-minute drive of each other. Kieffer told the July 27 gathering that “we shared thoughts, had a lot of laughs, and it really opened my eyes to his position.” Bellamy, on his part, said it was Kieffer’s willingness to talk personally about his wife that helped him appreciate the humanity of the person behind the badge.
Bellamy said, however, that their positive interaction was unusual. “It is not normal for a black man and a white cop to feel comfortable together in our country,” he said.
Noting that one of the earliest police forces in America was established to “patrol and control African-American slaves,” Bellamy maintained that knowing the history of the relationship between police and African-Americans is a prerequisite for restoration and healing. “At many points, law enforcement enforced the status quo, which was often unfair to many groups,” he said.
Bellamy has his own reality with the police. His wife calls him to make sure he is okay if he is more than 20 minutes late, he said, because he has been pulled over four times in a two-week period, twice by the same officer, who told him that the pullover was the result of a “random inquiry.”
Bellamy’s wife isn’t the only one worried about her husband; Kieffer said his wife often texts him if he is a little late to make sure he is all right.
And yet empathy for the other can be difficult, said Bellamy. He maintained that white people are not able to truly empathize — or even accept the omnipresence of profiling — because of white “privilege,” which Bellamy defined as follows: “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem when it is not a problem for you.” For example, a black baby considered cute at age two is viewed as a potential criminal at age 22, something that is not a problem for white people.
But Bellamy discovered recently what it really means to lack true empathy. After the police officers in Dallas were killed, Bellamy realized his own response was cold, which led him to a deeper understanding. “I realized that the empathy and understanding I longed for as a black man in America I was unwilling to extend to the families of white police officers,” he said.
Bellamy’s realization led to his taking what he called a potentially dangerous action: With his family at a fast-food restaurant, he noticed a NJ state trooper and felt compelled to approach him and thank him for putting his life on the line every day. The officer, in thanks, bought Bellamy’s family a meal.
After the Dallas shootings, Kieffer said, when he got the first news alert on his phone that an officer had been killed, he remembered thinking, “All right, another officer has been killed…. Then I got alerts that multiple officers had been killed…purposefully and premeditated — that’s what hit me hard.”
“They were killed while protecting the First Amendment rights of marchers,” Kieffer said. “In doing so, they were attacked in an ambush-style attack and continued to protect these protestors.”
Actually, though, the two most likely times that a police officer will be shot are on domestic violence calls or during motor vehicle stops, Kieffer said. “You will be on guard until you come to the car and give a smile and a hello,” he said. “When [the hello] comes back, you are good; but sometimes people are combative.”
Police training is critical in a multicultural community, Kieffer said, and the police force in Princeton — which includes Asian, Hispanic, and African-American officers — has in recent years been trained in racial sensitivity, profiling, cultural diversity, and how to de-escalate a potentially violent situation.
Hearing about this training surprised Bellamy, who called himself “a paradox: pro-cop and anti-police brutality.”
“When you think about the disproportionate number of brown bodies that fill our prisons, it is evident there is a problem,” Bellamy said. “I think we can both celebrate things that are great about our criminal justice institutions, but must be radically pushing for change when change is needed.”
Feldman, who organized the event and led one of three small-group conversations after it, told NJJN that everyone there got to “spend an hour in another person’s shoes,” perhaps beginning the journey toward mutual understanding.