Having a dialogue about police reform in the Granite State

  • Rogers Johnson AP file

  • Captain Mark Newport Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/5/2020 1:21:18 PM

Rogers Johnson won’t allow himself to be pigeonholed.

He’s not convinced that racism within the nation’s police departments is systemic. He condemns those, including Black people, who condemn white cops. He favors discussions about training, training and more training, and numbers that don’t necessarily add up to bigotry.

Simply put, Johnson, president of the Seacoast Chapter of the NAACP, is a Black leader who disrupts the commonly held narrative, the one about too many white cops in this country who target African Americans based on the color of their skin.

“If all the police were bad,” Johnson said by phone, “you would see that (police brutality toward Black men and women) is happening everywhere.”

Johnson, remember, broke color barriers in the Legislature, won the prestigious Freedom Fighter Award and was honored by the Black American Political Action Committee. He’s a member of the state’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency and is chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion.

His name is synonymous with social justice.

Yet, video evidence of police shooting and choking unarmed Black people in recent years didn’t sway him.

“The biggest problem is we always rush to judgment,” Johnson said. “We never fully understand what took place before to cause this, and the result is not knowing if it was unwarranted behavior by police or justifiable.”

Johnson’s tone shifted slightly when he spoke of the George Floyd video, but even that video didn’t spark him to declare inequality under the law.

“What you see (in the Floyd video) shows what the police did was probably unwarranted given the circumstances,” Johnson said. “There was a better way to diffuse the situation. And a junior officer there had a duty to intervene and he didn’t do it because he was unsure of himself, meaning the training he got at the police academy wasn’t good enough to stick with him.”

Training was big in Johnson’s mind. Training in tactics and mindset. He also said it was ridiculous to portray an inordinate number of the 800,000 white cops in the United States as evil.

“You have to look at it individually and apply it individually,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s computer-like pragmatism runs counter to what millions of Black and white people think. They’ve seen those videos over the past 10 years. The Floyd video pushed people over the line, making thoughts like Johnson’s a tough sell these days.

Those past videos must mean something, right? No coincidence, right? And surely, Floyd’s death sealed the deal, showing once and for all that there are two systems of justice in the United States, one for white people and one for everyone else. Right?

When society starts pointing fingers, Johnson sees subjectivity. He says no one could know what any of the cops were thinking in any of those videos. He sticks to his numbers and dislikes sweeping generalizations.

“Racism is taught in certain areas of the country,” Johnson said. “In Alabama, you cannot make a blanket statement that says all white people there are racist.”

Meanwhile, Captain Mark Newport of the Portsmouth Police Department also has a unique view of American history. He’s one of the very few African Americans in New Hampshire’s law enforcement community and exact numbers are hard to come by in that department.

Newport tended to agree with Johnson, that racism in law enforcement is isolated and not a national problem. He feels he belongs to a brotherhood here despite being in a minority, and he used data to echo Johnson’s thoughts.

He looks at the total number of white cops in America and sees a small sliver of trouble, a tiny percentage that he says reveals a simple fact: Videos of white cops using guns, choke holds or knees to kill or injure unarmed Black people doesn’t accurately portray police in a wider sense.

“Police are viewed like the enemy, like a cop is a turncoat,” Johnson said. “It’s not fair what’s happening to white cops. Do we view one person as being representative of an entire race? So why here?”

He cited the media, saying, “You guys can make people believe what you want, because you only know what you hear. There are millions of cops in this country. Take the daily number of contacts that white police have with (Black) people, you might get a handful of those millions in one day that are not good (cops), and with cameras, those are the ones that are getting the high profile.”

Newport’s profile in the Granite State’s police community is impressive. He was recruited by the Portsmouth Police Department to apply specifically because he was Black, then he had to earn his way from there.

He was part of the Seacoast Emergency Response Team, a hostage negotiator, a task force member fighting drugs and addiction, an investigator tracking burglaries and sexual assaults.

And two years ago, Newport was named captain. Commissioner Jim Splaine said at the time that he admired Newport’s “conversational tone and his specially-demonstrated talent of patience in working with people.”

Those are the elements that many white cops are missing, huge sections of the country believe, but Newport doesn’t see it that way. He works with good men and woman, just like those wearing badges around the country.

This isn’t to say he agreed with the police actions utilized during the Floyd arrest.

“Not one person in law enforcement would defend that event,” Newport said. “None of us are in his head. Everyone has implicit bias, and it’s how you react to it that counts.”

Protests since the Floyd video have been seen through two prisms. One shows the protesters, unruly and violent, looting downtown stores. The other shows the United States at its best, unified, peaceful, hopeful for change.

This story has two sides as well. Some see videos of violent arrests of Black people, especially Black men by white cops and see isolated instances that are in no way a reflection of a greater problem within law enforcement. Others see the unvarnished, brutal truth of a system of police brutality toward Black people that leads to a cycle of incarceration, of poverty, of oppression.

Many gray areas. So what’s the solution?

“The issue comes down to training and money,” Newport said. “The department has to train properly, and in the Northeast we get the training and we have the budget to do it.

“Others just get out of the academy with a gun and a badge, and that’s it.”

Something’s wrong, and, as usual, it depends on whom you ask.


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