A Steady Presence in Blue

Courtesy Photo

Officer Michael Jason Scott 

Los Angeles police Officer Michael Jason Scott was early into his shift, checking up on San Fernando Gardens in Pacoima as one of his community stops, when a young boy ran over to his patrol car — but not for help.

Instead, 9-year-old Davante warmly greeted Scott, one of 10 Community Safety Partnership Officers and a Sergeant assigned to the San Fernando Gardens. “He tells everyone that I’m his friend and I’m proud to call him mine,” the veteran policeman shares.   

Scott asks the 4th grader the names of his brothers and sisters and he rattles them off like a rhyme in rapid succession, and Scott chuckles -- it’s like a routine between the two of them. Scott asks the youngster to tell him what it says on the wristband he’s wearing. 

Davante quickly responds, “Say No” to crimes, gangs,  drugs and bullying; a symbol of the LAPD program Scott helped to create three years ago for elementary and middle school students, visiting scores of kids at their schools and recreation centers to help deter them from those negative forces.

When Scott asked if the band he wore helped him to remember that pledge, the boy smiled. “I didn’t even need to read it,” he said, before entertaining Scott with another run-through of his family’s names.

The back-and-forth banter was a reminder for Scott — a well-known presence in the northeast and northwest sections of the San Fernando Valley for his tireless involvement in the communities where he’s worked — of the positive impact that community policing can have.  It comes naturally for Scott who views himself as part of the community and demonstrates what a viable alternative community policing can be. 

Direct contact and regular conversations with residents and business owners is a sharp contrast to depersonalized, centrally located police stations where the law enforcement personnel rarely know the public they interact with unless they’ve arrested them numerous times. 

The exchange with his young friend was also a respite for Scott from the past couple of tumultuous weeks.

Like practically everyone else in the world who has seen it, Scott was “angered” by the video detailing the last 8-9 minutes of the life of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The story is very well known by now: Floyd, an unarmed African American male, is lying facedown on the ground and handcuffed, not resisting arrest by police. Yet Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck and kept it there the entire time despite Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. His death triggered national and global outrage and protests — the majority of those being peaceful, but others were pockmarked by violence and looting.

For Scott, the Floyd video “brought flashbacks” of the 1992 video showing the beating of Rodney King by police in Lake View Terrace. That was his reaction, he said, as an African American and as the father of two adult sons, one adult daughter, and one adult stepdaughter.

Floyd was buried in his hometown of Houston, Texas on Wednesday, June 10.

“(Floyd’s death) was wrong and it was upsetting. It should have been upsetting to any human being that watched that,” Scott said.

But there was also a reaction Scott felt from being a police officer.

“It’s mixed emotions on how to feel,” Scott said. “At times you’re upset and angry. Sometimes you are confident there will be change. Other times you just worry. I’m getting it from all angles, from being a Black man to being a police officer — I’m getting hit from every side.”

“You have to keep your emotions intact. You can’t get angry at the people. You have to come from a different approach. I choose the ‘respectful’ route and ‘forgiveness’ route, and believe that — in the long run — everything will be okay.”

Scott, who is assigned out of the department’s Foothill Division is one of 962 African American officers in the LAPD (according to figures published in 2019) and is approaching 22 years of service with the department. He didn’t join the force until he was 30, after deciding to make a midlife career switch from being a salesman. “I had some friends on the job, so I thought I would give it a shot. And I’ve never looked back,” Scott said. “It’s been pretty much the best decision I made in my life.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Scott and his “Say No” team had visited their 50th school to present their program. The George Floyd killing then further altered the current course of history. Massive crowds are still visible in the streets nationwide, demanding dramatic changes in police department policies and practices and reducing their budget funding. Some are even seeking to dismantle departments all together. Officers are under an unprecedented level of scrutiny.

Scott said he has been working almost “nonstop” since the May 25 tragedy in Minneapolis, sometimes 12-hour shifts, sometimes longer, either on street patrol, being at the scene of various protests throughout the San Fernando Valley or anywhere else he is sent. He sees and hears the crowds, appreciating the ones that are focused on their message for change and justice, and stoically accepting whatever vile chants and barbs are hurled at him and other officers from those maybe hoping to trigger a confrontation — or worse.

“We feel pretty much the same way anyone feels….Me and my fellow officers that are good officers, who would never tarnish the badge or disrespect the citizen,” Scott said. “We have to continue to move forward and do our job…. I don’t know what those officers in Minneapolis were going through; but that’s not me. And it’s hard for me to accept that anyone out there would put me or the other good officers out there in this [position] — that’s hard to swallow.”

As a younger man, Scott had his own run-in with the LAPD — a case of mistaken identity, he said, which led to an overnight stay in jail.

“I was about 22-23,” he recalled. “It happened in the West Valley. They pulled me over for a busted tail lamp; I don’t know if it was really busted at the time, I just went with it. There was also a warrant — not for me, but for my brother. But they took me to jail, where I spent the night. It may not seem like a big deal to some, but for me it was a horrible experience.”

Scott didn’t know then he would one day become a police officer. But, he said, the experience has stayed with him and would shape the way he tries to approach the public in the course of his duties, be it a traffic stop or something else.

“My whole concept as a police officer is, you always treat people the way you want to be treated,” he said. “All my traffic stops, my engagements, my incidents — I’ve tried to treat everyone like I wanted to be treated or as if you were a family member. Knowing that people are most likely nervous and scared of the police at first contact, I keep that in mind.”

Scott believes that expanding community-style policing could be an alternative to how police work is currently done, not only in the Valley, but in the country. Scott doesn’t speak for the LAPD in that capacity or help shape overall departmental policy. But he has always been a proponent of greater interaction between the community and the police.

When this is over, “We’re going back into the community cautiously, but we’re also going back with a purpose — letting them know we haven’t changed the things we’ve been doing for the community,” Scott said. “There is definitely love for the youth of the community, and [making a service] commitment to the community: we are committed to the process of what we’re doing, of the change we want to make in the community. And hoping for encouragement from the people, that everything is going to be okay.”

Other changes are beginning to take hold nationally. The authorized use of chokeholds by police have been banned in California, and cities including Denver, Dallas, Houston, and Minneapolis. The Washington, D.C. Council has passed emergency legislation limiting the use of force by police, releasing body camera footage more quickly and limiting the role of the police union in the police disciplinary process.

And the New York state lawmakers have repealed a section of New York’s civil rights law providing privacy protection for the disciplinary records and personal information of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers. Now members of the public and journalists can submit a Freedom of Information Law request for records and claims made against officers.

But the greatest change from Scott’s perspective  — a change of heart — can’t happen until the public’s present and justified outrage over what happened to Floyd and has happened to other unarmed African Americans who’ve been in fatal confrontations with police, both recent and past, begins to cool.

“I think the big word I’m looking at is ‘forgiveness,’” Scott said. “That’s something we have to do as a department and as a community — as human beings. That’s the word that has come to me out of all of this. On both sides. It’s a big word. It means a lot. There are a lot of angry people that forget that hatred leads to more hatred.”

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