When things go south in your neighborhood, do you call the cops?
"Police would be the last ones I'd call,'' one man said to me.
We were standing on a street corner when he said it. Around us was a sad landscape of poverty, drugs, gangs, so many broken things. The last time I'd heard similar words was in a place like this. And the time before, and the time before that.
It is this statement -- the last ones I'd call -- that is ground zero of the Chattanooga crisis. Poverty, gangs, all of it boils down to this sticky question: Do you trust the police?
Because if you say no, then nothing else really matters. You don't trust cops, then you don't trust teachers or principals, the mayor or minister. The whole system is a closed door.
But if you say yes, then a system of upward mobility is still in place. The city can work for you, not against. By valuing police, we value law and order. Trouble comes? We call the good guys, and the good guys come to help.
Nothing gets solved in this city without every neighborhood believing that.
That's why I'm so afraid of what's happening this morning.
Sean Emmer and Adam Cooley go before an administrative law judge, asking for their jobs back.
Last June, the two Chattanooga police officers responded to a call from the Salvation Army halfway house. They and other officers found Adam Tatum, an inmate there. Took a knife from him. Beat him, severely, when he resisted arrest. Punched him in the face. A choke hold. Mace. A stun gun. Broke his legs.
Emmer and Cooley, responsible for the worst abuse that night, are white. Tatum is black.
Chief Bobby Dodd fired the two, but a U.S. attorney declined to prosecute the officers and a Hamilton County grand jury did not indict them. That precedent of sorts may allow this week's judge to return Emmer and Cooley to the force.
If so, they'll probably never return to patrol. Desk jobs, pushing papers, anything but the streets.
Doesn't matter. If Emmer and Cooley get their jobs back, it will only represent another chapter in this long story being told in parts of Chattanooga. White violence, police brutality, one more example of power shifted away from people of color. Not the thin blue line, but a big fat white one.
Is this fact or fiction? Yes. No. It is both perception and reality, part of what boils over between police and residents in high-crime areas.
Police would be the last ones I'd call.
We have to change this narrative.
We need to be able to trust the police, most of whom are noble, honest men and women, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, walking into parts of Chattanooga that most of us will never know, see or even believe if we did.
Like Gotham City at night, one officer once told me.
But if you live in that Gotham City, police don't always represent the good guys. Those neighborhoods are swamped in handcuffs, with whole generations lost to prison, unemployment and on and on.
There, in that Chattanooga, police don't represent something that saves, but something that imprisons.
"There is no conspiracy. But if we were trying to play to the idea that there is, we could hardly do a better job," writes David Kennedy in his excellent "Don't Shoot," which discusses this tension in great depth.
We have to untangle this. We must find a way to convince folks that police aren't intentionally trying to destroy their sons, don't want to see crime happen any more than they do and when abuse does happen, an overarching system of law won't stand for it.
When that understanding is laid into place, trust develops alongside hope. Resentment drops, and residents and police work together for a better community.
Putting Emmer and Cooley back on the force does the opposite. They get their jobs back? It's like beating an entire community.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...