A few years ago, I got a call from former Myrtle Beach Police Officer Kim Poirier, whose career illustrates the complexity of race and police-community relations better than anyone else I know.
She had moved to Charleston County, where she is a sheriff’s deputy and school resource officer.
She wanted my help. I said of course, eventually driving a couple of hours to meet her.
I’d have the same response today. That’s how much I respect her.
With all the talk of the need to honor police officers for the good they do, particularly in light of Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes much-discussed Facebook post on the subject, I don’t know that Poirier considers herself a hero, but I know that while here she helped the least fortunate in ways most of us haven’t.
That’s not why I’m writing about her today, though.
It’s because of the time she told me she had been dealing with some of the worst stereotypes about black people imaginable.
It was among the most refreshing things I’d ever heard a white cop, or cop of any color, say.
It only enhanced my admiration for her.
It was honest and raw and vulnerable.
She had a calling to right wrongs, to help elderly African-American residents navigate some tough areas, which is why she volunteered to patrol one of the city’s crime-tinged, mostly African-American neighborhoods.
After awhile, the negative things she had been witnessing on a daily basis began to weigh on her.
She became afraid that had she stayed in that environment much longer, a prejudice might take hold.
Instead of denying her humanness, her vulnerability to succumbing to the worst she had seen, she acknowledged it.
It’s one of the reasons she had to get away.
“We saw so much grief and agony,” she told me Wednesday evening. “But you have to know that’s not all black people.”
I know that feeling, too. One of the first opinion pieces I wrote for this newspaper revealed my latent fear of black men.
Yes, despite being a black man, despite all the good I had seen countless black men do.
For a variety of complex reasons, some historical, some neurological, some sociological, we judge black men (and women), not by the best of what African-Americans produce, but by the worst.
It isn’t a function of intentional racism, which is why the problem is so hard to dissect or even acknowledge.
What’s worse is that the more intentionally a person tries to live a life of honoring others, no matter skin color, the harder it will be for him to admit that he, too, harbors such stereotypes and fears, that they can affect his behavior in ways he doesn’t realize.
That’s why in one respect leaders of the Civil Rights Movement had it easier. Blatant racists were easy to spot and agitate and forced people of conscience, not of a particular color, to root them out.
Good people today are OK with admitting personal imperfections, just not those involving race.
Admitting such a thing has to be harder for police officers, given that such an imperfection could be used to ruin their careers and lives.
And as Chief Rhodes wrote, officers put their lives on the line, help poor people instead of arresting them when they can, volunteer and do an assortment of positive things that get overshadowed when headlines scream that an unarmed black man was killed by a white cop.
It’s why the unthinking part of the debate that has erupted since a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, has saddened Poirier.
About a year and a half ago, she was the white cop in a white cop shoots black man headline.
She went on a car, then short foot chase, where she used her Taser on him three times before having to shoot him, leaving him paralyzed.
He just wouldn’t stop attacking her and had her on the ground. Her back-up was miles away.
“You’re thinking, ‘this person is trying to kill me,” she said. “It hurts so much that I was put in a situation like that. I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
But here is the cold, hard truth. The longer police officers — the good ones, the most dedicated ones — refuse to admit that they are as human as the rest of us and subject to the same biases, the recent unrest is unlikely to lead to the kinds of reforms we need in policing and the criminal justice system.
The racial disparities at every level of the justice system are well documented.
It matters little if that reality is intentional or accidental; the harm it causes is real.
That’s why I didn’t hesitate to go when Poirier called and would go again.
She wanted me to help convince a group of underprivileged, primarily black students that it was possible to rise above tough circumstances.
She was still trying to improve the world any way she could.
She has been successful because she understood she had to first improve herself.
That takes more courage than staring down bad guys.
I hope more officers follow her example, to not deny their vulnerability to biases - because of the nature of the work they do - but to confront them.
If they do, they can lead us to the change we all so desperately want to see.