Officer Stephen Benson, who patrols the 4th District for D.C. police, walks through his Shaw neighborhood in Northwest Washington. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Humiliated. That’s how Stephen Benson felt as a teenager standing in Union Station, wondering how he ended up in handcuffs.

An officer had run up to him and a friend and yelled, “Up against the wall!”

Benson thought he might be talking about a since-closed store by that name and said, “I don’t think there’s one in here.”

Out came the cuffs, followed by a walk to the police station. Strangers stared. Benson thought he noticed a few people smiling. He and his friend kept asking what they had done. The only response: “You know what you did.”

They didn’t. Only after the teenagers were locked up, then released, did Benson learn he had been mistaken for someone who had committed a robbery.

Benson is now a D.C. police officer. But as a civilian, the Union Station incident was not his first, or his last, negative encounter with law enforcement. When he was younger and huddled with friends, pooling money for an ice cream run, an officer asked if they were selling drugs. When he was older, driving a nice car, an officer stopped him to check if it was stolen.


Rochelle Rice, a singer and songwriter, worried when her husband, Stephen Benson, told her he wanted to join the police force. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

“I’ve been a black man in America longer than I’ve been a police officer,” said Benson, who is now 35 and patrols the 4th District, the area where his grandmother lived.

Often we speak about the fraught relationship between the police and communities of color in divisive terms. We pit one against the other as if they are separate teams. Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter.

That’s the easy narrative. It is also the one that will keep us running in place, seeing black teenagers locked up (or worse) for no reason and watching the public increasingly lose faith in the people who are paid to protect them.

The more complex conversation — and one that will hopefully produce solutions — comes in acknowledging that it is not only in the public’s interest for police departments to fix the cultures within them. It is also in the interest of police officers, and there are many who want to see change.


Officer Stephen Benson grew up in the District, where he recalls negative encounters with police in his younger days. “I’ve been a black man in America longer than I’ve been a police officer,” he said. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

“There’s room in law enforcement to bring who you are and to influence it,” Benson said. “I am still the same person I was when I was in this community.”

Benson is one of 25 officers participating in an innovative program created through a partnership between the Metropolitan Police Department and Georgetown University Law Center. The fellowship program, called Police for Tomorrow, is only in its second year but has already gained interest from other cities.

It exposes officers to history lessons, sociological studies and expert speakers. It also forces them to participate in tough conversations that sometimes challenge the status quo.

The police department, to its credit, allowed me to sit in on one of the sessions to listen to what officers say when their bosses aren’t around. I worried they might censor themselves. They didn’t. The officers spoke about what they would tell D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) if she were in front of them (and couldn’t see their name tags). One suggested she do ride-alongs in every district to see what they experience. They talked about their frustrations in the face of limited training and resources to address mental illness.

They discussed the question: Is it sometimes better for officers to do nothing than something?

“We’re all people of action if we’re here,” one officer said. “Sometimes we need to rein that in.”

“It’s kind of hard not to do anything,” another officer countered. “We’re the police. We’re supposed to do something, not nothing.”

One officer shared an actual dilemma he had faced. A woman was spitting at people and showing obvious signs of a mental health problem. The group considered: Do you involuntarily commit her to a hospital? Do you help her move past that moment and then let her go? Do you even have a choice?

“There are people that won’t care if you were right,” one officer said. “They care that there was a complaint.”

“There will always be situations where it’s hard to know what to do,” Georgetown Law professor Christy E. Lopez told the group. “Learn to be comfortable with that discomfort.”

Lopez, the daughter of a homicide detective, is a civil rights attorney who has investigated police departments across the country for the U.S. Justice Department, including the one in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown’s fatal shooting set off protests. She helped put the fellowship program together with professor Rosa Brooks, a national security law expert who joined the D.C. police department as a reserve officer nearly three years ago.

Lopez said the hope is to create “a cadre of officers who think about policing differently because they understand it more deeply.”

“If we could keep them talking like that, thinking like that, in five years, policing could be completely different,” she said.

She and Brooks commended top D.C. police officials for supporting the program and taking time to meet with the fellows.

“In a lot of departments, this program wouldn’t even be possible,” Lopez said. “They’re afraid to have officers question why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Police Chief Peter Newsham, in a statement about the program, described what he has seen with the participants as “inspirational.”

“I had the opportunity to meet with our fellows and I was truly impressed with their level of understanding, thought and discussion on these contemporary issues in policing,” he said. “They are becoming the MPD leaders of tomorrow and I can’t thank them enough for strengthening the relationships between MPD and the community.”

When Benson was considering joining the force at the end of 2015, tensions between the police and the public were spilling into the streets in the form of protests and shootings. He recalled asking himself, “If not you, then who else?”

He then had to tell his family. He is the son of two civil rights activists who marched to make the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday and the husband of a jazz singer and composer who has protested against police brutality.

His wife, Rochelle Rice, said she feared for his safety, but her concerns also went beyond that.

“I was worried he would change,” she said. “Thankfully, he’s the same.”

The two always talked about social justice issues in their home. Now, she said, their conversations go deeper.

They discuss how in this gentrifying city, white residents too often call the police when they see people of color just living their life. They discuss how it feels when black teenagers see a black man in a blue uniform and call him a “sellout,” knowing nothing about him.

They discuss how nothing might come of all the ideas and hopes Benson now has for change — but how, just maybe, something will.