He had grown up in Baltimore, been arrested, been slammed to the ground by a police officer. And now, all he wanted was to be one.
So Kyle Johnson flipped through his mail. It was a Wednesday in July, and he had just come home from his 5 a.m. shift at the airport, where he spent eight hours moving baggage around planes. A safe job. The kind no one has an opinion about.
He found the envelope he was hoping wouldn’t be there. It was from Morgan State University’s police department, the first agency Kyle applied to after graduating from a community college police academy. If they had wanted to hire him, they would have called.
“Okay,” he told himself. “On to the next.”
The next, if he were being practical, would be his hometown Baltimore Police Department. They were hiring, and seeking minority candidates — actively recruiting locals, who would be familiar with the city and its problems.
But that day, BPD had been on the 12 o’clock news again. Kyle saw it on the little TV in the airport break room. The charges against the officers accused in the case of Freddie Gray had just been dropped, meaning no one would be found responsible for the death of the Baltimore man who was 25 — Kyle’s age — when he fell into a coma in the back of a police van. Two weeks later, the Justice Department would determine that the Baltimore police had been disproportionately targeting and using excessive force against black people.
Already, Kyle’s Facebook feed was full of opinions on this development in what seemed to be a never-ending story of never-ending conflict. More black men dead in Minnesota, in Baton Rouge; police officers slain in Baton Rouge, in Dallas. Each time, his friends and relatives fumed about injustice and fear. Kyle kept his opinions to himself. Rarely did anyone seem to have a solution. Except, he thought, the Dallas police chief, who gave a news conference to say: “We’re hiring.”
“We’ll help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about,” the chief, David Brown, had said.
That’s what Kyle wants: If the battle is between cops and black people, maybe the solution is to be both.
This year, everything else in his life has been lining up. He moved out of his mom’s house to an apartment, with space for his 3-year-old son, Kacen, to have a race car bed. He proposed to his girlfriend, Tanniqua Nichols. He marched in uniform to accept his graduation certificate from the Anne Arundel Community College Police Academy, while Kacen stood on Tanniqua’s lap yelling “Go, Daddy! Go, Daddy!” Kyle didn’t see it, but it had made Tanniqua cry.
He promised her that he will be the Good Cop. The academy taught him how. He just needs to follow his training and document everything. He learned that when there are bad apples in law enforcement, “all the other apples can smell it.” He has decided that he’ll be the one who reports them. Maybe he’ll be one of those officers who goes viral for having a dance-off with kids or buying a car seat for someone who can’t afford it. If he does his job right, he told Tanniqua over and over, he’ll come home safe.
He wants to believe it is that simple. But she knows better.
Once, they broke the door frame as they busted in the house.
Once, an officer wrenched Tanniqua right out of the bathtub, without giving her a chance to put on clothes.
So many times, even when she was 11, when she was 7, when she was 4, they threatened to send her to jail if she didn’t tell them where her mother was.
“I never grew up to say, ‘I hate cops,’ but I could have, from how I was treated,” she said one fall afternoon in their new apartment. She had taken the day off from her job doing laundry at a retirement home so she could train for a second job as a legal secretary.
“I tell Kyle these stories. He listens. He understands,” she said.
They met in community college. On their dates to T.G.I. Friday’s and Denny’s, they learned each other’s histories.
He grew up in Northeast Baltimore, an only child with a schoolteacher mom and a warehouse-working dad. He learned about life through baseball, where his worth depended not on his race or family’s income but on his skill and dedication and heart. He had lost a cousin to gun violence, had been evicted on the day of his high school graduation, had seen enough of the city’s problems to know that he wanted to be a part of the solution.
But to her, he still seemed sheltered, naive. Tanniqua could rattle off all the run-down houses her mother had moved their family of five in and out of. Federal Street, Biddle Street, Eagle Street, Luzerne Avenue. At each one, her mother’s tumultuous life would bring the cops to their door.
She knows Kyle won’t treat people the way they treated her. She knows he will try to form the kind of trust between police and community that people always say is missing.
“I always tell him, ‘Put yourself in people’s shoes,’ ” she said. The person stealing or dealing drugs might be doing it to help his little sisters, sitting at home, hungry.
This, she added quietly, is what her brother did for her.
“When these officers come around here from different backgrounds, they judge,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, that person is a criminal,’ without thinking about why.”
But there’s another side of the story, she knows. There are the people who do hate the cops. She imagines her Good Cop out there, being polite and responsible and open-minded — “and somebody can take him for granted, and he can lose his life.”
Tanniqua started talking faster. This was her big fear — the Ferguson Effect, they called it on the news. Officers fear being seen as the next Bad Cop, so they hesitate to use force, and then they become the victims.
“Because some people just don’t give a f--- at all,” she said. “He might be out there, meet that person and ask them what the problem is, and they pull out a gun because on that day, they’ve had it.”
And what about the day that he’s had it?, she wondered. The day he messes up and somebody pulls out a camera to record it.
“I think cops are scared. I think that black people are scared,” she said. “It’s a battle.”
So she tries to prepare him. She acts out scenarios he might encounter: She’ll pretend she’s the driver who won’t roll down her window when she’s been pulled over. Or, at the grocery store, she tells him to imagine a customer throwing a fit and refusing to leave. When they watch the news together, she repeats the facts of the case as presented on TV. “How would you handle it?” she asks him.
“I pray for Kyle,” she said. “I know that’s what he wants to do, but, it’s so dangerous, in this society. . . . When he gets out there, I’m going to toss and turn the whole night.”
She imagines herself pacing in their kitchen, waiting for him to walk in the door. They decorated this room with apples: Apple napkin container, apple drying mat, apple sponge holder. They remind her of the country. One day, she said, that’s where they’ll all move together as a family.
Kyle knew why the first police department he applied to rejected him. At most departments, you can’t have a criminal record. Three years ago, he got in a fight with a co-worker at the airport. He got probation for a second-degree assault, a misdemeanor.
It won’t disqualify him forever, but he had to get his record expunged. Last year, he went through the process — hiring a lawyer, getting a letter of recommendation from his professor, all the paperwork. It was granted in May. He thought his record would be cleared by the time he submitted his first application in June.
“It just takes awhile, I guess,” he sighed.
He worked double shifts, waiting for the expungement to be processed and trying to save up for his wedding next year. He found discounts on a hall and the catering, but Tanniqua still needed to find her dress. Something with long sleeves, something they can afford after paying the lawyer, the rent, utilities, cellphone bills, car payments and Kacen’s day care.
Kyle would have had more saved up, but he spent $9,000 on the 10-month police academy. Sometimes, when he was hunched over his books studying late into the night, Tanniqua would ask him, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something else? Like firefighting?”
They wondered whether friends or relatives would call him a sellout, or maybe an Uncle Tom. Kyle would repeat what his professors had told him:
“This is the best time to be an officer, because there are changes being made.”
“If everything police are doing is wrong, how about you try to fix it?”
“There’s risk in every job.”
He could stick with his airport job — waking up at 3:30 a.m., putting on his blue Southwest Airlines sweatshirt, getting paid $17 an hour with a raise every year. He could hang out in the break room and watch the news on the little TV:
Men who look like him getting shot by police. Men who look like him smashing windows.
Both of the presidential candidates declaring that relationships between the communities and police need to be fixed.
Kyle could deem it all too big and too complicated for him to make any real difference. And he might still.
But every time he sees the cops on TV, he’ll think of how it feels to have an officer slam you to the ground.
His first run-in with the police happened when he was 18. He came out of a nightclub to find his cousin’s Ford Taurus had been broken into, and other cars on the block with their windows smashed. When the cops arrived, Kyle tried to provide one officer with his license and registration. The cop started cursing at him.
“I can see you’re having a bad day,” Kyle said, “I’ll just wait for another officer.”
When he turned around, the officer tackled him, forced his head into the grass and put him in handcuffs.
As Kyle sat on the curb, another officer approached. He apologized for the first cop’s behavior. He explained that the officer had been having some anger issues, and he promised that he would make sure everything got worked out.
He followed through on that promise. Kyle had to go down to central booking that night, but eventually he left without being charged. And soon after, he started thinking about what it might be like to become a Good Cop.