Who Wants to be the Police?
A son with historic links seeks an answer
The question keeps coming up – who wants to be a police officer? Why would anyone want to, given the dangers, the demands and the scrutiny that go with the job? Old questions, really. You may be surprised by one of history’s answers.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s son, Dexter Scott King, tried both police work and corrections in the early 1980s before becoming a family steward of his father’s civil rights legacy. The younger King’s brief stint in law enforcement comprises less than a chapter of his memoir, Growing Up King (Time-Warner, 2003), which he promoted in New Orleans almost 15 years ago. I have a hazy, pre-Katrina memory of meeting the author at an event hosted by then-Mayor Ray Nagin.
King’s unique perspective on policing may be more interesting to read today in a post-Ferguson climate of police and minority tension than when his book first appeared. His self-effacing account of a drifting young man who found discipline and structure in law enforcement is a familiar theme.
An underperforming student at Morehouse College in Atlanta in the early 80s, King got an apartment with a friend, Ralph Abernathy III, the son of his father’s top adviser. King’s mother, Coretta Scott King, had laid down the law: “If you don’t want to stay on campus, I’ve got a house here that’s paid for, you can stay here. But if you want your own place, you pay for it…. If you want your own apartment and car, I’m not going to fund them. Particularly when you are not a great student.” His interest was in music production not school, but he needed a job. Martin Luther King’s son joined the Atlanta Police Department in 1982.
He started out as a full-time “community service officer, poised to become a police recruit.” He performed a support role, handling police photographs and fingerprints. He worked assignments in vice, narcotics and intelligence. The city’s pay for police was “decent” and there were “bennies.” It was a steady job and he didn’t need a college degree.
J.D. Hudson, one of the first black policemen in Atlanta, was Chief of the Police and a strict disciplinarian. King recalls standing “on the carpet” before him:
“Are you going to shape up, Dexter King?”
King’s interest in law enforcement was different from that of his pacifist-father, who wouldn’t allow his four children to play with toy guns. Dr. King’s denunciations of police brutality in the racist South of the 1960s are well-known. The younger King’s view of law enforcement was shaped, in part, by the police protective details that came with his father’s increasing fame.
“I was intrigued with law enforcement as a child because I’d often been exposed it,” he wrote. “Growing up, there was always a police presence, always somebody providing security, looking all tight, precise, competent, calm, responsible. When I was younger and we’d go places with my dad, there were these police escorts. I’d played with plenty of sirens in my day.”
In the last week of March 1968, just days before the assassination, Dr. King took Dexter and his older brother Martin Luther King III for “that last little tour” in Georgia with a police escort. Dexter recalls the officer showing him “all the gadgets” in the police car.
Dexter King never actually became a cop because he switched to corrections. “The training we went through for corrections was not nearly as intense as for police,” he said. He started out working nights, the graveyard shift. He soon got a more auspicious assignment, working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Co-workers called him the Chief’s “famous boy.” They called him “King’s son.” In corrections, he learned “chain of command, discipline, process. It was the closest I could get to military training without being military,” which would have contradicted his father’s pacifism.
He once went to the the King Center for Non-violence and Social Change wearing his jailer’s uniform and sidearm, drawing rebuke from board members. He says he never used his gun.
On one occasion, King says he struggled with a drug-addled prisoner, who almost bit his thumb off. A policeman he knew was booked into the jail on a rape charge. Another time, one of his high school football teammates was jailed for murdering his girlfriend, who King also knew.
“I had to handcuff him, take him in, process him,” he wrote. “It was bizarre, the way he looked at me, the way there was nothing to say but the formal language of incarceration.”
King recalls talking one inmate out of hanging himself. “Most people, if you give them an ear, that solves half the problem.”
Corrections was “rewarding” and “challenging,” but the next step on the career ladder was Supervisor. King opted to muster out.
He went to Chief Hudson. “I talked to him how I felt traumatized by losing my father, and how maybe that was one reason I wanted to spend some time on the force. But now it was time to move on.”
Hudson replied: “You know how many other people lost their fathers on April 4, 1968? Do you want me to go through a census records check just so you can see how many died that day, and how?”
King said, no.
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you? You can’t use your father being killed, or not being here for you, every time you have a crisis, as some kind of excuse….You be thankful for what you got and what you had.”
So ended King’s career in law enforcement.
The NOPD has been struggling to replace hundreds of officers since the city lifted a hiring freeze last year. The lack of personnel is affecting crime control and delaying police reforms.
“The NOPD Academy simply lacks sufficient personnel and resources to move forward in a timely fashion,” according to a report last September to a federal judge overseeing police reforms. “Our observations of officers on the streets emphasize the need for additional and/or more effective training.”
Back to our question – who wants to be a police officer?