This I Believe

Prentice - Folsom, California
Entered on October 14, 2006
Age Group: 65+

I believe in the power of empowerment. And I have seen how people empowered are people at peace, free of crime, strife, and the radicalism that leads to revolution.

For nearly forty years I served as a police officer in San Francisco, rising to the rank of Chief of the SFPD, the first African-American to do so. Throughout that time I observed a phenomenon proven time and again: the more a community is empowered, the more it invests in the police that are sworn to protect it, and the more it polices itself.

I have seen how if you give people a piece of the pie, they’ll protect that pie, because they know part of it is theirs. Yet, I have also seen how the opposite is true. That’s generally talked about in regard to gangs, drugs, and the urban afflictions that affect inner cities. But over 30 years ago I saw this truth played out in an arena where the stakes weren’t about dealing and stealing, they were about politics, revolution, and the same “homegrown terrorism” people are worried about today.

In the winter of 1973-74 I was part of a task force that investigated terrorist assaults in San Francisco known by the code-name “Zebra,” involving 23 attacks and 15 dead, assaults on whites by black radicals who wanted to alienate the races as a means of revolution. But although the crimes took place in African-American neighborhoods, the SFPD included only a handful of black officers, giving us scant presence in our own community. Mayor Joseph Alioto appealed to blacks at the time, asking for help, saying they would serve as the city’s “best detectives.” But if you don’t fully invest in a community before crimes begin, turning to it afterwards can seem like empty rhetoric. Our task force solved the crimes. But how many lives would have been saved if things had been different, and the city had had a police force more representative of the community it was trying to police?

The past, as Shakespeare said, is prologue.

In 2005, after bombings in the London subways, the Chief of Scotland Yard appealed to the Muslim community there, bemoaning the fact that in a city with over a million Muslims only 300 Muslim officers served on the force. A year later, five years after 9/11, news reports state that our own FBI still has few Arab speakers, and none working on international terrorism.

Anyone who’s worked in community policing knows that the answers to a community’s ills lie inside it, and that the key is including communities in their own policing – a fact that applies as much to homegrown terrorism as it does to inner city crime.

I have seen how people empowered are people at peace, free of crime, strife, radicalism, and revolution. And I believe that the power to empower is always within reach.