As we were heading out of the St. James football stadium during the first game of the season, my 13-year-old son Kyle spotted an Horry County police officer. He gave the officer a quick smile, they shook hands and we left.
They had met each other over the summer during “Camp Pride,” a three-week-long day camp for students between 11 and 15 years old. It’s sponsored by the Horry County Police Department and run by school resource officers.
During a pre-orientation, Kyle (his 11-year-old sister, Lyric, also attended) decided he didn’t want to go once the officers starting talking about the requirements for each camper: a pair of shorts and T-shirt - tucked in before they exited the car each morning - extra push-ups, running and other physical training for late and unruly campers, a healthy dose of structured discipline.
“Campers will learn the principles of Privilege, Respect, Independence, Diligence, and Excellence through individual effort and role modeling,” the camp’s mission statement reads.
By the end of the camp, Kyle and Lyric were wishing it could be extended another month, in part because of the activities, which included a kind of locals’ tour of the Grand Strand’s tourism offerings, and because of how the officers treated them, with a respectful sternness.
My kids have never had a negative experience with a police officer. Camp Pride made sure they had a ton of positive ones.
In the middle of one of the most visible and protracted debates about policing and minority communities in recent memory, I wanted my young black son to know that police officers are just as human as the rest of us, neither to be feared nor worshiped.
Those kinds of outreach programs by police officers are invaluable in ways that can’t be fully quantified. I plan to donate to the camp to make sure its around for other kids next summer. You should, too.
Here’s something else I would suggest police departments do: partner with protest groups like #BlackLivesMatter.
That may seem counter-intuitive, given the rancor of the ongoing debate, with one side saying, in not so many words, that the other is to blame every time a police officer is killed or a black man is shot during an encounter with a cop.
But if the two sides paid attention more closely, they’d realize need each other. Their combined passion, strength and influence could lead to legal and societal reforms that could save countless lives.
The two groups want the same thing, fewer killings, safer streets, more stability.
They have to be willing to confront entrenched powers that don’t plan to change any time soon. Stricter, more sensible gun laws would improve the lives of communities plagued by violence and make the job of an officer on the street safer.
Better funded mental health and educational systems, and a revamped criminal justice one - which would included retooled drug laws that currently provide fuel for violent gangs and misguided individuals - would benefit each groups.
That would become clear to anyone willing to look beyond immediate self interests and bruised egos.
Handshakes and warm smiles between a black boy and a white cop is a good start. But an even stronger, broader show of unity is needed.