Black in Law Enforcement – A Southern Souls Story; Black Lives Matter Edition

Sgt. Linda Howard, 42 – Bibb County Sheriff’s Office

Southern Souls is a story-telling series that offers a personal look into the lives of people around us, showing that all souls can relate to one another through our laughter and tears, successes and failures. In keeping theme with the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re temporarily shifting the focus of the series to highlight what some have perceived as racially motivated incidents that have had lasting impacts on Black people living in Georgia. The goal is to discuss, educate and grow as a community, so that we can all come together and create a more inclusive environment for generations to come. *Editor’s Note – the Associated Press recently updated its Style guide to capitalize Black when concerning a race of people. The same treatment of white is under review.

I met Sergeant Linda Howard through working in local news. Whether it was working a crime scene, at a community function or requesting information from the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, I crossed paths with her many times. She always stood out to me because she is incredibly friendly and she doesn’t carry herself with that authoritative vibe you can sometimes feel being around law enforcement. That’s not to say she’s someone to get out of line with, trust me, you wouldn’t want to do that, but she is someone who is very comfortable to be around.

Sgt. Howard and I met for our interview downtown at one of the BSO locations off of third street. Given the amount of officers, investigators and citizens running in and out of the door, coupled with the fact that there was young man out front recording officers and license plate numbers under the guise of a “social media audit” of the Sheriff’s Office, things felt a little unnerving at first. Once we were able to shut that out and find a quiet space, Howard gave me a lot of insight concerning the Black Lives Matter movement and how it feels behind the badge.

“Coming from the *Black community (we) always (thought) that police show up in our neighborhood and ride through our neighborhood (for no reason.) I grew up in King’s Park and Fort Hill. Those are some hard areas,” she told me. “I’ve had friends that decided to drop out of school to sell drugs, Black and white. They did what they felt like they needed to do to take care of their family. I decided to take a different route because my parents weren’t gonna have that, but I know other people who don’t have a family that will back them and they got stuck.”

Howard’s route isn’t necessarily one that you would consider popular with the community, Black or white.

“We’re getting called all kinds of names. It’s hard when you put that uniform on and you got to keep that professionalism when you go in your own community and they call you out your name. And when they call you n*****, that’s like they take a knife and stab you in the heart and twist it, but you still have to serve them,” she explained. “When I came on to the department in 2006, I was (taught) to get out of the car and (talk to people) in the community. When you try to do that today, you’re met with ‘I don’t talk to the police. I don’t like police.’ We get that a lot.”

Being behind the badge, though, has given her a different perspective of where that anger comes from. “(People) grow up looking at officers in (the) neighborhood thinking (we’re) waiting on them to do something wrong so (we) can snatch them up,” Howard said. “It wasn’t until I became law enforcement that I realized the reason law enforcement is riding though that neighborhood is because that’s one of the areas where (law enforcement) gets the most calls. If there’s no crime, they’re not going to really (focus) patrol in the area until they get a call.”

But what about racial profiling? What about the unarmed Black people being killed at the hands of law enforcement? The answer to that it not simple. Howard told me she didn’t want to necessarily call that profiling, recognizing that there may be many people in the community who disagree with her.

“There is no profiling (with BSO). We’re getting called to a call because of something that person did or because of what someone is reporting that person did. People may feel like it’s profiling but it’s not,” Howard said. The person may match a description called into the department or be driving a car that matches a description. But the bottom line is, she said, “The deputy is going to have a reason for stopping (someone).”

Just as some people in the community have become apprehensive of law enforcement, officers, in return, have their own reason to be cautious.

“The public doesn’t have to deal with what law enforcement deals with,” Howard told me. “We see the bad, we see the ugly; we know what’s out there. We see things that you wouldn’t even think people would do.”

That fear, or apprehension of approaching someone, oftentimes comes from the images put out there on social media that law enforcement sees on a daily basis, just like the rest of us. “We see what our kids are doing today – posting fights, holding guns and doing things like that. So you’ve got to think, white or Black officers, we don’t know what that person is going to do *(when we approach them),” she said. “We put that uniform on and we become a target just because a person decides they don’t like the police. ‘I don’t want you here, why are you here?’ (they’ll say). So we have that fear.”

Howard explained further: “But we took an oath to protect and to serve. We took an oath that we are going to give our lives for the community. We’re going to do whatever it takes to protect your life. We go to work and know that (we) might not make it home that afternoon.”

I felt it was fair at this point to play devil’s advocate. Howard, herself, has a son, so I asked her if she had the same type of talk with her boy as so many of our parents had with us concerning law enforcement and being Black.

“Social media has shown us that if you don’t comply, there’s a possibility you can be hurt. So for me, being a Black mother, watching those videos and in law enforcement, you have to be afraid for your child,” she said. “What if he makes the wrong move or is with the wrong company? I want my son to know that whatever it is that they’re asking, just listen. It’s not about showing your hands or putting your hands on the dash; whatever they’re asking for just give it to them. And if you don’t agree with the ticket, there’s always someone higher that you can report it to and you keep going until you get the result you want.”

Still, some people feel resentful of the police and some police are fearful of community reaction. I asked Sgt. Howard how can we change this?

“People are responding the way they’re responding to police now because they’re afraid. They see on social media people being shot by officers and they’re afraid. I ask them not to be afraid,” said told me. “The thing is, we’re here to help. Yes, there are bad officers, but there are more good officers than there are bad. I ask the community to help solve this problem because most of the time, they know who that bad officer is. If you notice, Sheriff Davis is not shy about letting somebody go. Even with our shortage of officers  if you do something against policy, you’re out of there. If a deputy (acted) out of the way with you, report it. If you report that to somebody and you don’t feel like they do what they supposed to do, there’s always somebody higher up. Keep going up until you get the result that you want, because we took an oath to serve and to protect, to give our lives for this community.”

Southern Souls is comprised of actual, in-person interviews conducted by Amyre Makupson. Some statements may not be in chronological order. Names and locations may be changed to respect the privacy of participants. The views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Amyre Makupson or The Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.

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