Since George Floyd died after he was apprehended in a chokehold by a Minneapolis police officer, many throughout the United States have been examining the relationship between Black people and law enforcement, with some seeking to reform policing in their communities.
Waunakee area resident Joel Lewis, a Black former New York City police officer who is now a deferred prosecution counselor with the Dane County District Attorney, spoke to the Waunakee Rotary Club about how to bridge the gap between minorities and the police at the club’s Aug. 13 virtual meeting.
Joel spoke about his childhood in New York, saying the first time he realized his color meant something was at age of 13, when his family moved to a mostly Italian and
Albanian neighborhood in Westchester County. The realtor had told his mother they would not be accepted there, and within a week of moving there, a bomb threat was called in.
“I was devasted,” he said, adding that he felt they were not wanted.
As one of just two Black children in his school, he also faced challenges.
“I would hear the ‘N’ word all the time,” Joel said, adding his friends would say they weren’t talking about him. He was also asked if it was true that Black people could run faster because they had an extra bone.
“To me it felt like they were looking at me like I was some certain specimen,” Joel said.
In college, where other students of different ethnicities attended, Joel said it was nice to have other people who looked like him.
He met his wife, Amy, in New York when she was working as a nanny. She is from Wausau, and as he was about to go and meet her family, the Ku Klux Klan was planning a march at the Capitol. Joel’s mother was pretty concerned, he said.
Amy and Joel did get married and they now live on a farm just outside of Waunakee. He feels accepted by her family.
Joel talked about the mistrust between law enforcement and minorities and said the 1986 Rodney King incident in Los Angeles stands out. As a former New York City officer for six years in the early 2000s, Joel understands the difficulties police officers face, but he also understands the injustices minorities encounter, he said. Black people make up 14 percent of the population rate, but they are incarcerated at a much higher level. Often sentencing for minorities is different than for white people.
Joel then brought up the recent incident in Waunakee, when a group of boys rode around a car screaming the “N” word.
“That was a powerful thing for me,” he said. “It was the first time I have felt racism in Waunakee and realized, yup, this is real… and it just really got me back to how I felt when I was 13 and someone called in a bomb threat.”
As a Black man, Joel said he also understands how it feels to be profiled by police, adding Black people need to take precautions so they don’t lose their lives. Officers may look at Black people negatively, and even their subconscious thoughts can end up escalating situations that could be deescalated.
He pointed out several gaps, noting that not enough training is provided to officers in dealing with situations.
Also, leadership does not hold individuals accountable and deal with problems beforehand. Officers may need correction or retraining, he said, adding some may not have exposure to minorities. And transparency is important, Joel said.
African Americans have been conditioned over time to fear police, Joel said, noting times of slavery and afterwards. The message to officers is Black people are dangerous or criminals, and the message to Black people is all police are racist and will shoot you. Neither is true, Joel said.
“Don’t reinforce the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. If we do, there will always be conflict,” he said.
Other News:
-Club members will tear out the rickety old pier at the Village Center pond starting at 9 a.m. this Saturday, Aug. 15. Show up if you want to help.
Birthdays: Aug. 23, David Rupp.
 Anniversaries: Aug. 26, Lori and Peter Derauf; Aug. 26, John and Debbie Cullen.
Programs: Aug. 13 - Stay tuned!