A pair of speckled wood thrushes chirp and chase each other through a Charleston thicket one waning summer afternoon while, below, under clouds of cigarette smoke, about 15 cops flock at the back of a redbrick neighborhood police station. Their occasional guffaws punctuate the air, heavy with humidity.
The year is 1996, and the mood resembles a middle school locker-room of unruly adolescents, their skin gleaming in the sunlight, clammy to the touch. But these aren't children. They're grown men, armed and in uniform.
This is the daily shift-change, when police officers exiting for the day meet and mingle with the officers going into work for the night.
Exhaling a billow of smoke, a 30-something cop and native Charlestonian with a square head—haircut high and tight, military-style—looks mischievously at Randy Shrewsberry, a gabby but likable transfer from Ohio.
Shrewsberry, then in his mid-20s, had been a cop since he was 18, right before he got married and had kids. This is the exchange that began a yearslong breaking point and set him on a completely different path—one that calls for an end of policing as we know it.
"Hey, Shrewsberry, you know why Southerners hate Yankees?" the square-headed cop says, drawing out a dramatic pause as the surrounding cops quiet their chatter and, one by one, turn to hear the joke. Ever the class clown of the precinct, the square-headed cop raises his pitch to deliver an anti-Black punchline in a droning Southern brogue.
The square-headed cop cackles so hard at his own joke, he goes into a wheezing fit.
Shrewsberry, a white man just like most of the others in the crowd of his colleagues in blue, laughs along with the crowd, wanting to keep to the herd. But inside, he's cringing. Most of the racism he had encountered growing up in Ohio had been subtle, implied. This was different.
In Charleston, the n-word wasn't whispered like it had been back home, but was shouted by cavalier cops who wielded unchallenged authority and galloped off into the night with one of their favorite anti-Black invocations: "Let's go fuck with some—!"
The shame of not speaking out that afternoon, and innumerable others, haunted him. He felt lost. Some nights, in the bathroom getting ready for bed, a chill would pass through him when he glanced down into the sink or tub filled with water and saw only his own wavering reflection.
He knew there was an "imbalance"—between his personal aspiration to serve as a fair and impartial civil servant and the reality of his day-to-day work grind that regularly forced him to sacrifice his personal ethics—but he didn't know what to do about it.
So, he kept doing his job, participating in what he calls the "passive racism" of being a cop—patrolling Black neighborhoods much more often and with more vigor than white ones, filling the jails and prisons with Black and brown bodies, and justifying his own actions with the prevailing thought that it must be their fault for committing the crimes.
This is the story Shrewsberry told me, a journalist collecting stories for a book I'm writing about cops who rebelled against policing in various ways, on and off the job.
Shrewsberry couldn't see past his whiteness. Even though it shook him to hear his Southern colleagues so brazenly racist, he didn't yet see how his own participation in over-policing and imprisoning Black and brown people was far from passive either. This "passive" but indeed active racism was the common undercurrent of his profession—and much more damaging to real lives than any racist comments that made him cringe. He knew police killed Black and brown people disproportionately, but he didn't yet understand how he was part of the environment in which that happened.
He thought he was different.
He thought he could be a good cop.
Not long after that awakening in the back of the Charleston station, Shrewsberry found himself newly divorced and out on a date with his hairstylist at a restaurant in downtown Charleston.
Picking at his salad, Shrewsberry asked how long she'd worked in her job.
Misunderstanding the question, she told him it had taken her a year-and-a-half to earn a license to style and cut hair as a cosmetologist.
His fork clanged on his dish. "Holy shit," he said. "I did my training to be a cop in half that time!"
They chuckled at the joke, mordantly.
It's harder to get certified to practice cosmetology than to earn a license to arrest, jail, or kill in service of the state, Shrewsberry realized.
Ever since he started police work as a teenager, he knew he had felt unfulfilled, finding much of the job anxiously boring. He was jaded and cynical, sure, but this realization of how unprepared he'd actually been for duty caused a pang of embarrassment and resentment.
By 2004, he quit the police force for good.
His next gig as a forensic investigator-for-hire on contract with insurance companies and law firms, as well as founding his own practice, wasn't much more fulfilling.
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The years dragged on; police killings continued apace. But at least now he was off the force. He tried to convince himself that those deaths would no longer trouble him since they could no longer be tied to his own actions.
Meanwhile, a new social movement, Black Lives Matter, was calling for unprecedented police accountability. As that movement grew, public consciousness around racism within policing did too, and Shrewsberry found a new critical perspective on his past career. This wasn't some act of cowardice between him and his peers that he was ashamed of. It was something deeper than that; a transgression greater than himself.
He realized that there was something fundamentally wrong with policing itself, which was as much a part of him as it was a part of American society.
That's when the same arresting sense of guilt, which he thought he had buried long ago, began its round-the-clock ride-along in his life. He was obsessed by one question: How many souls languished somewhere, in and out of jail, because of him?
The ongoing consequences of his past police work, "still lays on me [and] keeps me up at night," he said. "There is a debt in my heart that I feel that I owe still."
But a moral synthesis between the sins of his past and a possible future of atonement and change lay just out of reach.
Then, one day in 2016, Shrewsberry opened Twitter to see an intriguing research question put forth by controversial activist and journalist Shaun King, who then had a column for the New York Daily News: How much training do U.S. police officers actually get?
Recalling his restaurant date in Charleston years earlier, and drawing from his own training, Shrewsberry began searching for a comprehensive answer.
Since there wasn't (and still isn't) any official national database for law enforcement training in this country, he analyzed statewide minimum standard hours of police training and determined that on average, a U.S. police officer is required to go through about 600 total hours of training before joining the force. (Today the average is around 650 hours, according to his own findings and original data shared with Scalawag).
He sent his findings to King, who cited Shrewsberry in a New York Daily News series. A few weeks later, football icon and social justice activist Colin Kaepernick sparked a social movement by taking a knee during pregame ceremonies to protest police brutality. Kaepernick quipped what he learned from the article: "Someone that's holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us."
The exchange went viral. And the "curling iron" line appeared in countless news stories about police training.
Within a few months, Shrewsberry founded a nonprofit, the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform (ICJTR), which advocates for what police abolitionists call "non-reform reform," something they define as change "not in terms of what is possible within the framework of a given system and administration, but in view of what should be made possible in terms of human needs and demands."
"We have to undo a lot that has been done," Shrewsberry said.
Today, Shrewsberry has the same glib personality, but he's taken on the charisma of a religious orator whose insights, he hopes, will change a country in which trigger-happy police forces shoot 6 people per day, killing half of them, overwhelmingly low-income people of color.
One solution he offers is an overhaul of the whole emergency system as we know it, taken out of police hands. Since less than 8 percent of 911 calls are prompted by violent crimes, according to an LA Times report of the LAPD, he said, more than 90 percent of police contact with the public should be abolished.
In other words, nearly all police activity as we understand it is unnecessary and obsolete.
See also: Where do the police come from?
Indeed, when the emergency 911 system was founded in 1968, one of its architects in the Federal Communications Commission warned then-President Lyndon Johnson of this exact likely outcome.
Most of those emergency calls and dispatches—accident reports, petty offenses, traffic violations (the latter by far is the most common, pursued by the discretion of individual officers, according to the same LA Times report)—could be taken over the phone and filled out online by non-police social service agencies, Shrewsberry said.
Part of this possible future is in the public's hands, he said, if even in small, personal ways. Shrewsberry, for example, is trying to build the world he advocates for by making it a general rule for himself never to call the cops—even after two car accidents in recent years. "Why do we need an armed officer to come take an accident report?"
As it stands now, because the police control the 911 system, sometimes there is nobody else to call to get emergency medical and mental health services. This is a major part of what needs changing, Shrewsberry said.
Public discussions of these ideas are ongoing as part of the national "reckoning," as Shrewsberry calls it, brought on thanks to social movements like Black Lives Matter, with proposals to Defund the Police, and calls for police abolition. But most lawmakers haven't caught up to the public.
The passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the House of Representatives earlier this month, would, if approved by the senate and executive branches, strip officers of qualified immunity, which protects police from criminal liability for their actions while wearing the badge. But as police abolitionists have pointed out, the bill still falls short of their demands by still increasing funding to police. The bill also fails to redistribute public funding from policing and into community-based approaches to public safety, something the Breathe Act proposed by the Movement for Black Lives aims to do. Announced by Congress members Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib last summer, the Breathe Act has been largely ignored by Congress and the Democratic Party.
Shrewsberry said now is the time to put forth more concrete proposals like these to create social change wherever possible. U.S. society, he said, must build anew from the notion of community safety, first by yanking the profession out of the hands of police departments themselves and state-run academies that train cadets like he used to be—where, too often, states only have one academy and are responsible for training all the cadets in an entire state.
He isn't surprised by so many police killings when a disproportionate number of training hours (more than one third, according to the Bureau of Justice) are spent on weapons, use of force, defensive training, and other physical activity in a job where most of an officer's duties are administrative. It doesn't help that the culture is founded on pumping cadets full of fear of being killed on the job either, even though officers are more likely to commit suicide than be killed in the line of duty.
In 37 states, cops—before they even attend basic training—start working, fully armed, in local parks, schools and colleges, hospitals, housing authorities, government buildings, and transportation venues such as airports and subways.
Still, when it comes to the extent of police violence, Shrewsberry said he doubts that training reform alone will cut it.
"I don't know if we can train our way out of this," he said.
Instead, he offers a whole new curriculum for public safety—practically and symbolically.
In the short term, he said police must be managed and controlled, which does include training. For a re-imagined future, however, he thinks the public is the best-informed constituency to set the road map.
To meet this challenge, ICJTR has formed a Community Impact Team of non-police representatives from more than two dozen separate communities across the country that are often left out of policing conversations—from racial/ethnic groups, to civil liberty interest groups focused on immigration and the elderly, to public policy areas like restorative justice. This team, as a critical part of the nonprofit's vision, is designed to inform the kind of policies and procedures that would construct a comprehensive system of public safety. Unlike police consultant groups studded by current and former cops, the ICJTR's board are mainly community experts in law, medicine, social work.
Today, as part of his advocacy, Shrewsberry tells anyone who will listen that he was a racist cop. He said he hopes that he's setting an example of denouncing a racist system and his participation within it.
"I hope doing so will give still-active officers the courage to do what I did not―to speak out when they see injustice."