Months after graduating from the Spokane Police Academy's first ever all-minority class, Officer Gordon Grant knocked on the back door of an elderly woman's home. She'd reported a disturbance in her backyard.
"Spokane police," he announced, stepping back into the porch light. He heard the woman approach the door and look through the peephole. This is how he remembers that particular winter night in 1987:
"Yes? Who is it?"
"Officer Grant, ma'am. Spokane police. I'm responding to your call."
"You're who?" she said.
Grant repeated himself louder, figuring she had a hearing problem.
"You're not a policeman. Spokane doesn't have any black officers," the woman said, despite Grant's uniform. He then heard the woman retreat into her home, and soon a voice came over his radio: "Now the subject is reporting an unknown strange black man at her door."
"That was a crossroads for me," Grant says now. "She didn't believe I am who I am, simply because I'm black."
Much of the recent conversation about policing nationwide has focused on friction between African-American communities — specifically young black males — and law enforcement (and maybe for good reason: according to data from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2003 to 2009, black people are about four times as likely to to die in custody as whites). Agencies are grappling with how to police effectively, and Spokane is no exception. A recent data-collection initiative by the Spokane Police Department is seeking to determine whether SPD, which is 91 percent white, is targeting minorities. The first five months of data indicate that officers do initiate contact with African Americans and Native Americans at a disproportionately higher rate than their representations in Spokane's population (2.5 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively).
For Grant, 52, the situation is a little different. During his almost 30-year career as an African-American cop in a mostly white city, there have been good days and bad. He's been called a "sellout" and accused of "showing out for the white man" by African Americans he's arrested. But he gets it from the other side, too. Occasionally, when he's en route to a call, a shaky voice will come through his radio, embarrassed about what will be said next.
The caller has requested a white officer, the dispatcher tells him.
To that, Grant says: "Nope, they get my service or they get no service at all. It's not a choice of color. This isn't Burger King, where you can have it your way."
Further straining the nation's trust of police are images from around the country of officers dressed as warriors and appearing as emotionless machines. Those often trump stories of police as guardians and peacekeepers. And it's impossible to ignore the the racial lines across which deaths in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, North Charleston, Cleveland and Pasco occurred — in each situation, a white officer or officers killed a man (or youth) of color. The events in Ferguson, Grant says, have set back race relations and policing 15 years.
Even before Ferguson, and before Grant became a cop, he knew part of his goal in law enforcement would be to eliminate racist attitudes within the department and throughout the community.
Throughout his career, Grant has worked to become a bridge between law enforcement and minority communities. Trained as an instructor for the Spokane Police Academy, he taught cultural awareness classes for several years, where a room of aspiring (mostly white) officers learned how to interact with cultures different from their own — a daunting task, Grant says.
"A lot of the young people coming through the academy came from small communities in Washington," Grant says. "They'd had no contact with African Americans or people different from them."
During those classes, young officers learn why some African Americans have such a deep-rooted mistrust of law enforcement. It dates back to when police targeted African Americans and used enforcement tools that were largely anti-black, which persisted up to and even beyond the 1960s.
The remedy, Grant teaches, is respect. "All cultures understand respect, to address people as 'Ma'am' and 'Sir,' and that really resonates with African Americans," Grant says.
Grant has also taught D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes in schools throughout the city and organized the Cops n' Kids Car Show every year for the past 22. The event, Grant says, is an example of his efforts to meet young people on their level.
"Change is slow," he says, but over the years he's noticed the ignorance and xenophobic attitudes typical of 1980s Spokane, when he was a rookie, subside. There are examples of the effectiveness of youth education programs and cultural awareness classes; however, for some people who hold an us-versus-them mentality toward law enforcement, attempting to mend that relationship might be hopeless.
It's approaching 8 am on June 18, and Grant gets a report of a suspicious person near Sprague and Freya.
White male, blonde, dirty white shirt, dark pants and black shoes with yellow trim, his computer screen tells him. Behind the Subway.
"Let's go check this out," he says. "That area has a high prevalence of prostitution and drugs."
We head to the southeast corner of Spokane and creep along Sprague Avenue. Someone is sleeping on the sidewalk outside Subway, but wearing red pants. That's not the guy. Grants turns left on Haven and loops back to Freya through an alley. Another line is added to the suspect's description on the computer screen: stumbling, appears to be talking to himself, might be intoxicated, took a leaf blower out of a garage.
"Sometimes this job is like finding a needle in a haystack," he says. Even before 9 am, stumbling isn't much to go on.
An incident in the front yard of his childhood home on the South Hill ignited the mission that Grant carries with him into his police work today.
When his family first moved to Spokane in the 1970s, they were welcomed at arm's length. Neighbors would smile but still peer out their kitchen windows at the black family across the street. Eventually they got to know Grant and his family, but one summer night, that familiarity didn't matter.
He and a friend were sprawled on the front lawn looking at the stars and talking about girls. Grant noticed a police cruiser creep along the side of his house. It appeared as if the cop was looking for someone. Then a second cruiser approached.
Suddenly the teens were blinded by spotlights, and two officers demanded to know what they were doing. They'd gotten a report about suspicious people lurking in a front yard.
"I was a little honked off at that," Grant says now. "I lived in that neighborhood for 10 years and all of a sudden I'm suspicious in my own front yard? Right there, I said, 'If I ever get into this job, I'm going to make sure I don't allow that racist mindset to exist.'
"It's a duality at times," he says. "You have people in the community who don't trust you because you're a cop, and then you have cops in the police community that don't trust you, period. It's a lack of knowledge. I don't see prejudice, I see ignorance."
Grant scans the area of east Spokane looking for the man in the dirty white T-shirt. It's not long before he emerges from a nearby alley. His head wobbles back and forth, and his arms flail erratically. He looks as if he might tip over with each step.
Grant follows the man to a gravel alley between two small houses and a dirty yellow shed.
"Howdy," he says, getting out of his car. "How ya doin' this morning?"
The man mumbles a response through a slack jaw.
"Can you have a seat on the ground for me, please?" For a hulking 6-foot-2, Grant's voice is surprisingly high-pitched — disarmingly so. He even smiles a bit.
The man obeys, and Grant proceeds to get basic information: name, birth date, address.
"You seen any lawn equipment laying around this morning?" Grant asks casually.
The man shakes his head.
"We've had reports of someone stealing stuff out of garages. You know anything about that?"
"No, I don't know nothin'," he says.
By this time another patrolman, Officer Dave Kennedy, joins Grant on the scene. His eyes are hidden by sunglasses, and his face is expressionless. After Grant is done with his questions, Kennedy jumps in for a textbook good-cop, bad-cop demonstration.
"Listen, my bullshit meter is tanked out," he says, his tone gruffer than Grant's. "We've been lied to by a lot better than you. Where are the tools?"
Still nothing, and after 20 minutes with no evidence the officers are forced to release him.
"Sometimes we don't catch the bad guys," Grant says.
Grant's computer dings again, indicating another call: A teacher, who's taken her class to Comstock Park for the last day of school, reports a man lurking by the bathrooms. She says he's watching the kids as they play. After a discussion with Grant, the man leaves without any fuss. Grant takes the opportunity to talk to the kids, who eagerly tell him of their summer vacation plans. Grant tells them to be safe and wear helmets when they ride their bikes. Efforts like this to familiarize children with the police early on have worked. Grant has proof:
He once got a call of a domestic violence dispute on West Indiana Avenue. The young man with greasy black hair was holding a 40-ounce beer and stumbling down the street when Grant arrived. The man swayed and slammed his beer on the pavement, shattering it. As he reached for his waistband, Grant instinctively grabbed for his sidearm but didn't fire. Instead of a gun, the young man pulled a 4-foot sword out of his pants.
"Come on cop, f--kin' kill me!" he yelled, according to Grant. There was something familiar about his voice.
"I don't want to kill you," Grant said. "Put the sword down and let's talk about this."
A voice from the sidewalk pleaded with the man to cooperate, calling him by name. That jogged Grant's memory.
"Joey!" Grant said.
"How the f--- do you know my name?" he slurred.
"This is Officer Grant, your D.A.R.E. officer, Joey. How did we get here, son?"
Grant eventually took the man into custody without incident. He says the relationship they formed during a year of D.A.R.E. was the reason no one got hurt that day.
Spokane is not Ferguson. Nor is it North Charleston, Baltimore, Cleveland or Pasco. But that doesn't mean the police department and the community it serves are without issues. The community's call for racial policing data and the formation of a police ombudsman's office are proof of that, but they're also indicators that things might be heading in the right direction. Neither does it mean that incidents across the country haven't had an effect on the Spokane community's perception of its officers.
Grant recalls a post-Ferguson example: He and a group of other officers had chased an African-American man to the man's aunt's house. They took him into custody without issue, but afterward the woman burst out of the house in a panic, yelling at the officers to let him go. She was so worked up, Grant says, it took her several minutes to recognize that they'd gone to school together.
The woman told Grant she was worried that the scenes of police brutality she had seen replayed in Ferguson's wake were coming to Spokane.
The damage from incidents like the one in Ferguson, or the mistrust that came from Otto Zehm's death in 2006, will take generations to overcome, Grant says. And it starts with respect.
"Respect is given as respect is shown. We cannot heal the country until we address the issues that are rampant on both sides," he says. "There is a misunderstanding of law enforcement and misinformation from the public. We have to educate ourselves about the people we service and educate the people we serve."
To that end, Grant invites you to ride along. He'll show you what his day is like.
"Recognize, I'm not here to wreck your life," he says. "I have a job to do." ♦
Racial makeup of SPD as of January 2015, SPD has 300 commissioned officers
Asian: 3 (1%)
Black: 3 (1%)
Hispanic: 10 (3%)
Native: 5 (2%)
Biracial: 5 (2%)
White: 274 (91%)