Andy Griffith, the television sheriff of the fictional town of Mayberry, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in the real town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. Last week, just after I visited Mayberry/Mount Airy, I listened to a PRI program about Baltimore’s new curfew, described as “one of the toughest in the country.” As I drove across the country, the radio also brought stories about the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the protests, and then the police killing of Kajieme Powell.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about the differences between Mayberry’s sheriff and today’s far less community-oriented law enforcement.
Talking about Baltimore’s curfew, Angela Johnese, from the mayor’s office. When kids are picked up by police, she said, it gives them an opportunity to improve relationships with police and to get connected to services that can help them. Baltimore’s police will take the children to an overnight “Connection Center,” where their parents presumably can pick them up the next day.
Jason Tashea, juvenile justice director at Advocates for Children and Youth, said that one problem with the new curfew law is that, “Instead of police taking a child home, they take them farther away from their home to one of two centers in the city,” He noted that many of the affected youth already “tend to have a tenser relationship with police.”
I thought about how the 1960s sheriff in rural Mayberry might have acted toward children on the street after dark. He lived in Mayberry, and he knew the people in and around the town. If he saw kids on the street at midnight, he might have known them and almost certainly would have known their parents. He probably would have talked to the kids about why they were out so late and taken them home to their parents. They would have been neighbors, fellow residents of the community, possibly classmates of his son.
That’s not true for most big-city police today. According to a recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight, most police don’t live in the cities they serve. More Black and Hispanic officers live in the cities they serve, and fewer white officers do. (In Minneapolis, the report says, ten percent of all police officers live inside the city, and only five percent of white officers.)
And then there’s Ferguson, Missouri, where article after article demonstrates the disconnect between mostly-white police and majority-Black residents, before and after the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Just one example: USA Today reports that 86 percent of vehicle stops were stops of Black residents and 93 percent of the people arrested in those stops were black. Reuters reports that, “Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.”
Mayberry and its sheriff are television fiction from the 1960s, but we can still learn from them about the nature of community and the value of police being a part of the community they serve and protect — not outsiders whose role is to conquer and subdue.