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The Courier Journal

Louisville must use the DOJ report to act but also to help our community heal: Opinion

By Terrance Sullivan,

2023-03-15
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Many of us didn’t need a report to confirm what we have known for years. Most people I know didn’t, I definitely didn’t. On a few occasions in my life, I was a firsthand witness. The part about traffic stops - well that hit me.

I have experienced terrifying traffic stops

While driving one night, I needed to make a turn. Unfamiliar with where I was, I did a three-point turn (which is on the driver’s test and not illegal) to go back to where I came from. Within seconds cars descended on me with lights flashing. I sat paralyzed with one hand on the cross on my rearview mirror as six officers surrounded my car, guns drawn.

I was scared. I thought this was it.

Apparently, and as has happened two other times in my life, I “fit a description” for someone they were looking for. In that scenario the person they were allegedly looking for had been apprehended and after barking commands at me and calling me a liar, all but one of the officers retreated with no apology offered. The last remaining officer gave me a stern warning about doing an illegal (but on the driver’s test) turn and putting myself in danger.

It was a good and quick reminder that for a lot of us there is a very thin margin for error that others will never understand. Save for the grape jolly rancher I accidentally carries out of the BP in third grade, I have never done anything illegal. Yet, I fear each day that I will be either wrongfully arrested or killed for simply existing.

I know so many doing the difficult job of being an officer.

I don’t talk about it, I don’t use that to paint all police officers in a bad light. I know so many doing the difficult job of being an officer. Two of my uncles were police officers. I had another uncle who was a police lieutenant and captain and another uncle who was head detective before being promoted to police chief.

I don’t talk about it for the same reason plenty of us don’t talk about it. It seems futile because for decades we have told you the problems were there and those words went through one ear and out the other. It felt hopeless. For some who do hear us, it gets twisted to paint us, the victims, as criminals who were “probably doing something wrong” because the broken system in which they have placed so much faith is surely infallible.

But there it is. A report that basically echoed the cries of those protesting in 2020. Highlighting the same ills that forced many who were protesting into police custody for stating these facts to those in power. You don’t have to hear it from my personal accounts with police, or the many others like me, you can read it from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Where do we go from here?

I not only sent this message to people I trust, but strangely enough also received this same message from others. Yes, this text was a response to the report but also a question of how do we use this report to heal and move the community forward?

This community needs to be provided space to reconcile. We can’t just take this report and do nothing. The report should serve as a catalyst for needed change but even more so, needed space to reconcile with the realities of our city. In post-apartheid South Africa they established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to allow the space to address past wrongs but also create a process for dealing with them. We need to do something like that, and then we need to do more. We have to be bold.

It was impressed upon me from an outsider new to Louisville that one thing they gathered about this city is that we are a city of ideas, but people are often then reluctant on the acting part. People in power are reluctant to say or do something unless they know others are going to do and say those same things.

Following her killing, Louisville passed Breonna’s Law, and the state followed with a no-knock ban of its own. These are good things. But we need to do more. Other cities dared to be bold and made drastic changes to initiate change, we must be like them. In a city that, I agree, has people who seem to ask for permission, let this report be your signed permission slip− let's go to work. Don’t ask who all is coming and who is doing what, just do.

Moving forward as we seek to heal, why can’t we make our city the example of how to be different? Let’s be the best in class at making the right moves following such dark times. When I moved to Louisville the new tagline I saw everywhere was “Possibility City.” Where did that mindset go? If we are the possibility city, I say we show that change is in fact possible. Because it is. We just need the commitment and buy in to make it.

When it was announced the report would be released, I was driving to Frankfort. Shifting to response mode, I turned around and headed back to the office in a rush on I-64. As I crossed Hurstbourne, a police car appeared in my rearview, and as it often does in this scenario, my heart sank. I thought in that moment of the irony of me being killed on my way to the office to field calls about a DOJ investigation into policing. I later checked my Apple Watch and Oura Ring to gauge my heart rate in that moment, 135. My normal heart rate is 46. For some of us the mere thought of this current culture is unhealthy and a literal stressor on our hearts.

We need change and we need it now. If you were looking for permission to act− there it is. Permission granted. Now, let’s heal.

Terrance Sullivan is the former Executive Director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights (KCHR). KCHR is the state agency charged with enforcing the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. He is employed by the US House of Representatives. Terrance is also a member of The Courier Journal's Advisory Board.

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