Last weekend violent riots broke out in Milwaukee, WI, following the police shooting of 23-year old Sylville Smith, who was armed with a stolen semi-automatic handgun during a foot pursuit.
Civil protests turning violent is unfortunately becoming a new norm in the divide between the African American community and the police agencies serving them, with similar protests in Ferguson, MO and Dallas resulting in the unfortunate loss of life and property. However, when looking back on the adversarial relationship between criminals and law enforcement; this new norm has not traditionally been “part of the game.”
Outside Baltimore, MD, the name Melvin Williams may not ring a bell. Most of us remember Williams as the actor who played the neighborhood Church Deacon on the venerable HBO crime drama, "The Wire." However, Williams real fame is from his stint as “little Melvin” Williams, who served as the basis the character Avon Barksdale, a ruthless West Baltimore drug kingpin on the acclaimed television crime drama.
The little known truth behind how Williams ended up inspiring the character as the drug kingpin who was the focus of the first three seasons of The Wire as well as how he came to be a player on the show in seasons three and four was that he was friends with Ed Burns, the show’s co-creator who was himself the Baltimore City Police Detective that helped put Williams away in 1984. In 2003, Williams was released from prison and reconnected with Burns, who put him on the show.
Also of mention is Frank Lucas, the heroin kingpin arrested by New Jersey Narcotics Task Force Detective Richie Roberts in the 1970s, inspiring the 2007 film “American Gangster." What’s little known to the public is that while working with Roberts up to and through his 1975 conviction, Lucas and Roberts became close friends and stayed in touch through Lucas’ prison sentences from ’75-’81 and ’84-’91 and stayed friends since; to includes Roberts being godfather to Lucas’ son, Ray. Also from New Jersey, Joey “Coco” Diaz, an actor and comedian who in the late 1980s was imprisoned for an armed drug kidnapping, stated on his podcast “The Church of What’s Happening Now” that “even though he was a career criminal he never resented the police, they had a job to do and it was understood.”
The truth is, any criminal or urban law enforcement officer will tell you, the streets are a workplace. Law enforcement officers and members of the community make up a workplace in where no roles are 100 percent clear, considering the criminals are often victimizing members of the same community that they live, and good citizens in that community often know them, their relatives, and often times the law enforcement officers that come to arrest them.
So if we’re to believe the rhetoric in the media that pushes a “racially-driven, killer cop” narrative, despite all officially-collected data pointing to the opposite, then how can community policing examples dating back over forty-five years with famed examples like Williams/Burns and Lucas/Roberts exist? The truth is that even a career criminal will tell you that you can’t run from the police and not expect to be chased and tackled. If you point a firearm at a police officer, then a career criminal expects that they will be fired upon. If you’re known to the police and have multiple priors at a certain location, then you know that they can’t just walk away when you physically resist arrest. These are long standing rules and are common-place to anyone in “the game.” So what brings upon this change in our public narrative that has people protesting, rioting, and assassinating law enforcement officers in the name of armed, potentially deadly suspects like Smith?
If nothing else has been learned from the civil-rights era riots of Watts, Newark, Detroit, the 1992 LA riots, and last year’s riot in Baltimore; it takes generations, if ever, for a community to recover from the damage inflicted in this unrest. However, it seems that the narrative behind these riots is changing, and a belief that law enforcement should simply allow a myriad of dangerous criminal behavior to exist persists in those who are taking to the streets in the protests that are too often becoming riots. If more people took a note from the precarious “business” relationship between law enforcement and those in “the game” on the streets of urban America, maybe there wouldn’t be such outrage over the inevitable outcome of an incredibly bad choice to raise a weapon at a police officer.
A. Benjamin Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter @PublicSafetySME
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