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Police speak on rebuilding the public trust

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"Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel sits down with police officers from across the country for a street-level view of the issues they face, from anti-police sentiment to the price paid by all officers for the actions of bad cops, and learns how one group of officers in Charleston, S.C., is working to strengthen community ties.

Video Transcript

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- They keep the peace, apprehend the criminal, investigate wrongdoing and respond to emergencies large and small. Our police wear many hats, but perhaps more than ever, their actions are being called into question. Our senior contributor Ted Koppel looks at one of the most difficult jobs in America.

TED KOPPEL: Norman Rockwell had this way of capturing what was best about America. "The Runaway" locked in the image of a little boy's trust in and hero worship of a cop. That was 1958. Even today, you'll still find people picking up an officer's tab for lunch, just because.

KAMI MAERTZ: It happens quite often, quite often.

TED KOPPEL: Lieutenant Kami Maertz is a watch commander for the Clay County Sheriff's Office in a Northeastern corner of Florida. What do they say?

KAMI MAERTZ: They normally will come up, introduce themselves and just let us know that they live within our County and let us know that they appreciate what we are doing. And then they'll usually pay it without even telling us.

TED KOPPEL: Officer Adam Deming, he's a 13 year veteran with the police in Charleston, South Carolina. In his case, it was a haircut.

ADAM DEMING: One of the barber shops that I go to in the area that I am assigned, actually, the last two months I've had some stranger pay for my haircut.

TED KOPPEL: Because?

ADAM DEMING: Just because. I'm not 100% sure. I didn't know who they were.

I guess just out of respect. One of them I didn't even get to shake his hand. He had disappeared before I finished my haircut.

- Well, keep up the good work.

KAMI MAERTZ: I appreciate it.

TED KOPPEL: So these small gestures of appreciation still occur and they happen in all parts of the country.

PETR SPEIGHT: I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

TED KOPPEL: Petr Speight is a patrol officer in Montgomery County, Maryland.

PETR SPEIGHT: A couple of weeks ago someone had bought me breakfast, to say thank you.

TED KOPPEL: Really?

PETR SPEIGHT: Yeah. You will get that. You definitely will get that.

TED KOPPEL: Good.

PETR SPEIGHT: Yeah.

TED KOPPEL: That must make you feel.

PETR SPEIGHT: It gives you a glimmer of hope that, you know, whether they say it or not, people still want you there, and they're aware you're there, and they want to thank you in some way.

TED KOPPEL: It seems counter-intuitive, just a year after George Floyd killing, but public trust in law enforcement has actually gone up over that year. A "USA Today" Ipsos survey last March showed 69% of Americans trust police to promote justice and equal treatment of all races. That's up 13%. Even so, you said a lot of your colleagues now are talking about considering quitting.

PETR SPEIGHT: Yes.

TED KOPPEL: Why?

PETR SPEIGHT: Just because of the, so much of the anti-police sentiment, not being treated well. Those kind of things are just discouraging people from wanting to stick around. Things have just changed, the way people view us and the way they view our role in society and our jobs.

TED KOPPEL: When you talk about the way people treat you, what do you mean?

PETR SPEIGHT: It was always there before. It was a little bit, not as much, but nowadays, people tend to come at us more with an antagonistic tone. It's no more respect for authority or respect that they're there to help you or to resolve a situation. People just come at us with total anger from both sides.

TED KOPPEL: Now, you're facing the double whammy. You're a Black cop, and so you're getting it from both sides.

PETR SPEIGHT: Yes. It's hard because viewing me as another Black African-American, they see me just as the uniform, just as a police officer.

TED KOPPEL: Do you get a feeling of resentment from other African-Americans, where they're saying, "come on."

PETR SPEIGHT: Yes.

TED KOPPEL: How could you?

PETR SPEIGHT: Yes. Called names, everything, instead of kind of appreciating that they're seeing another face in law enforcement that looks like theirs. I'm still a traitor, an Uncle Tom, you name it, I'm it.

DEON JOSEPH: Before I was a cop, I was a young, African-American male.

TED KOPPEL: Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph has been with the Los Angeles Police Department for 25 years.

DEON JOSEPH: God bless you too. Still am relatively young, but back then, it was the same thing. I was only exposed to the negative. I grew up in the Rodney King era. I joined an activist group that espoused the same things that we're hearing today.

The music I listened to, the movies I watched, everything was geared toward telling you that police officers were evil. But the difference between myself and the rest of the community is, I was one of the few that stepped across the line and saw the other side. And what I saw on the other side was the vast majority of officers are decent human beings. But yes, there is a negative exception that we all need to work hard to try to root out. And I think we're trying to do that.

TED KOPPEL: Over the years, the LA police force has had a bad rap as far as racism is concerned. That's not going to strike you as a news bulletin.

DEON JOSEPH: Well, I take the position that we've evolved. We're not the department that we were in the 1960's, '70s, or even the '90s. If you went to a roll call today, you wouldn't see just blond haired, blue eyed white guys anymore. You would see Hispanics, Blacks, people from the LGBTQ community, people from all different faiths and walks of life.

TED KOPPEL: What are you seeing on the street? Do you get the sense that people recognize and appreciate the changes you're talking about?

DEON JOSEPH: Well, I would say, prior to the pandemic, we were seeing that. And then what happened in Minneapolis, that horrible tragedy with George Floyd. So a lot of people just ended up making up their own minds that all police are bad, that all police are inherently evil and that's something that we're trying to combat as we speak.

TED KOPPEL: On the other side of the country, at a high school on Johns Island, part of which falls within the city limits of Charleston, South Carolina, local cops show up for a monthly community circle.

- Right now, if he, like, put his hand on my shoulder and I'd be like, yo, what's up? What you need?

TED KOPPEL: School Resource Officer Adam Deming with the Charleston Police initiated the program after the death of George Floyd.

- So then when you start seeing police coming around, you be like, oh, what's going on?

TED KOPPEL: Tell me, what's the biggest issue as far as that community appears to be a concerned?

ADAM DEMING: So inside of the school they trust me, they trust the officers that I bring in. But outside of the school walls, they don't know if they can trust someone who isn't me or who isn't one of the group that they've been able to have these open dialogues with. And that's the question, how do we bridge that gap?

- To stereotype them as automatically bad people when they put their dues online is just wrong.

TED KOPPEL: These meetings are a helpful and well-intentioned, but they're no match for examples of police misconduct, captured on a cell phone video then distributed worldwide on social media.

ADAM DEMING: From my standpoint in the school, I feel like sometimes I'm taking two or three steps forward in the right direction and gaining the trust of more of my students and more the community, and then an incident happens, whether it be local or whether it be nationwide, and it knocks me back.

TED KOPPEL: Six years ago, North Charleston Police were at the center of a national firestorm when this video went viral. Of 50-year-old African-American Walter Scott was shot in the back while running away from police. He'd been stopped for having a non-functioning taillight. You had a situation in your community that got national attention. What was the reaction?

ADAM DEMING: I've been told not to comment, I guess, on the Walter Scott incident. That's what I'm just being told. Sorry.

TED KOPPEL: The city of North Charleston reached a $6.5 million settlement with Walter Scott's family. The White police officer who killed him is serving a 20 year prison sentence.

PATRICK SINNER: This isn't because of one incident, this is a bunch of incidents that have happened that are now easier to understand or see because they're literally recorded.

TED KOPPEL: Patrick Skinner is a detective in Savannah, Georgia.

PATRICK SINNER: I don't speak for any department, but I know that there are many, many, many, many police officers that get it right. And I'm certain that there are departments that get it right. But as we've seen, every single department in every city is one video away from disaster.

TED KOPPEL: At an age when many cops are considering retirement, Skinner, who's 50, has only been on the Savannah police force a little more than four years.

PATRICK SINNER: Before that I worked a security consultancy out of New York, but before that, I was a CIA case officer for about 7 and 1/2 years. Only left to take care of my dad who was dying of Alzheimer's. And I came back home.

TED KOPPEL: Skinner was born in Savannah.

PATRICK SINNER: I remember living here as a child, and I probably never thought about race, because I was a white Southern kid. So I had the luxury of never thinking about race. And then, but right now, I'm a white Southern cop.

I am literally the least persecuted person on the planet. I am aware of this. When people dismiss race, that means they've never been the victim of racism.

- I'm honestly afraid to get out.

TED KOPPEL: Take the recent case of Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario in Virginia, who was held at gunpoint and pepper sprayed during a traffic stop. You had a young African-American man in uniform, a soldier, polite, calm, and yet he was pulled out of his car. How do you explain that to your nephews? I suspect there has to be a part of the conversation that says--

- Why? Come on. Get it--

TED KOPPEL: --you don't get away with the same thing that a white kid your age does.

PETR SPEIGHT: Mm-hmm. And that's, you have to come at that right off the bat. And there's no mincing words with that. It's going to be different and I try and encourage them to do the same thing.

Be polite. Be respectful. That military gentleman, he was being respectful and polite.

The officer still did not treat him in a way that I would treat people. There are people that should be doing other things. They should not be in the line of work that they're in.

TED KOPPEL: You ever think of quitting?

PETR SPEIGHT: I have not thought of quitting. For me, it's one of the things where, if I didn't stick around to do this job, who is going to take my place?

TED KOPPEL: We're living in a world in which cops are taking early retirement.

DEON JOSEPH: Yeah.

TED KOPPEL: Can you relate to that?

DEON JOSEPH: Absolutely. And it's disheartening to hear police officers across the nation leaving, quitting and retiring so early, when right now, more than any other time in history, their communities need them. But I'm not angry at them for it, because I understand exactly how they feel.

Many times police officers are made to be the tip of the spear for systemic failures, like homelessness, like mental illness, like the school systems. When the system fails, guess what they call to deal with it? The police. And they have to.

TED KOPPEL: Ours is where Patrick Skinner refers to as this "911 nation."

PATRICK SINNER: When you call 911, unless your house is on fire, the police are coming. So it doesn't matter if your dogs loose, your car, the mechanics didn't fix it properly, you're in a minor car accident, your mailbox was hit, your husband's beating you, you're shooting. All these things, at every stage, the police officers are coming. There is nothing else but the police.

And so for a long time, well, up to right now, we the police use that kind of as a realistic excuse. Because it is true. We are not social workers. We are not dog catchers. We are not mechanics, but we have to be during that 911 call.

DEON JOSEPH: We are actually responding to systemic failures and we get blamed because we are the tangible form of government that people can say, bad government. Look at what you're doing. So I think these systemic failures give society the perception that we failed. No, we are responding for the most part to failure. They're not just failing the community, they're also failing us as well.

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