In conversation about the extent of racist practices among law enforcement, someone wondered generally about harmful policing practices affecting minorities in our own community. No one in our conversation could think of particular incidents or situations from right here. But I recalled instantly my professional experience with a patient, a physically compromised African American man who reported in his contact with me how he and a relative of his had been treated abrasively and intimidated by two policemen in Red Wing, a confrontation initiated by those police officers, just a few years ago.
I inquired whether he had reported the incident to authorities, and immediately felt foolish and insensitive for missing the context of his experience entirely. “Doc, I couldn’t do that — that’s about the last thing I’d think about doing,” he told me. And of course he couldn’t “tell someone in authority.” He didn’t feel safe with the authorities here, and in his experience digging the hole deeper was the last thing he wanted to happen.
This man has, within the comparative safety of a psychotherapeutic situation, also described two other fairly recent experiences of gross violations of his personal safety by law enforcement officers in nearby communities. In neither case has he felt safe enough to approach local authorities to share his experience of insult or injury.
For me, a white male, local law enforcement officers have only been considerate and helpful. Yes, I would find a way to have my voice heard if I were mistreated or abused by police. But I now more clearly understand the impact of carrying a history of fear based on exposure to abusive authority. Feeling unsafe, and treated in a manner reinforcing fear and distrust, I would also find the protection I needed through silence.
Bruce McBeath is a clinical psychologist.