116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last weekend I attended a rally against school resource officers hosted by We Are CR and the Advocates for Social Justice (ASJ) at McKinley Middle School.
For over a year now I have been attending We Are CR and ASJ rallies and I have been impressed with their grassroots nature. I have bought into their message and feel they do an excellent job representing the voices of the unheard across the spectrum, not just on issues of race, poverty or homelessness. Listening to the folks in my community take the mic and talk about their negative experiences with SROs, I couldn’t help but be deeply moved.
This is an issue that seemed far away to me. I don’t have kids, and I grew up in the Lisbon and Mount Vernon area where, at that time, the schools didn’t have SROs. At the protest I had not been asked to speak and I felt that my own experience was not similar enough to warrant adding my voice to the issue, but upon further reflection, that is not true. Listening to the people who spoke resonated with me deeply, and I realized that I did have experiences with law enforcement in high school, and it did impact the course of my life.
As a freshman I watched a classmate mark on some cars with a marker that we believed to be washable. It turns out that even washable markers can still be interpreted as graffiti. Because I had watched, the local police department considered me an accessory. So at 14 I was hauled into the police station and booked for criminal mischief, a fifth-degree misdemeanor because the damage (the cost of washing the cars) was less than $500.
Don’t get me wrong, I was a punk. I was constantly annoyed at my parents, unhappy with school and generally feeling the bevy of other emotions that can be boiled down to "angst." After my arrest and my time with the courts and the probation office, I felt wronged. I hadn’t understood that my presence that day could be considered criminal. If I had then I wouldn’t have done it. At a critical and impressionable time developmentally, I felt like my life was ruined, tarnished in some critical way. I had hoped to attend the Air Force Academy after high school and I believed this arrest had closed that door.
This incident was a turning point for me. I went from being a sad kid to a mad kid. I dropped out of high school at the beginning of my sophomore year and was arrested at least a dozen more times. I had a chip on my shoulder and felt like the world owed me a debt. My offenses got larger and larger until I got my first of three felonies at age 17 and by 20 I was sent to prison for four years. I had a hard time in prison and ended up spending 13 months in segregation. (I would give this experience a 0 out of 10 score on Yelp, “would not recommend”).
I could wax poetic about all the ways my time in prison informed my worldview, for better and for worse, but the thing that stuck out to me as I was working through my thoughts on SROs was another inmate 20 years my senior. This man took the time to mentor me and talk me through how my actions today were connected with my actions from yesterday and how that all influenced my future. Were it not for that intervention there is a good chance I would have remained a "menace to society."
There were certainly no folks in positions of power at the prison taking the time to see me for what I was (a kid) and talk me through all the existential bits that are worth reflecting on. Prison reform and the criminal justice system at large are complex, and while I have a unique perspective and a lot to say about this, I'm not an expert. I understand both sides, and I think it's going to take our society a long time to wade through and emerge into something better.
So, this isn't necessarily a commentary on the failing of our criminal justice system, but rather an anecdote about how, in the end, it wasn't a system that reformed me, but a person. A mentor, a friend, a peer. My experiences with this person changed me. I left prison. I started a business. I engaged with my community. I swapped marking cars for painting old houses in vibrant, gotta-shake-your-head-and-chuckle, hues.
I no longer feel the same negativity toward law enforcement that I did in my youth. It's a complicated issue, one I think many of us are still parsing through the finer points of, but my juvenile "down with the man" attitude has waned.
I now have a great relationship with Cedar Rapids Police Chief Jerman and Lt. Tony Robinson. I think that they absolutely care about keeping the community safe and making it better for all (funny fact, Robinson was one of the officers who arrested me as a kid and still we get along very well). Personally, I would trust their judgment and give them the benefit of the doubt in any situation involving SROs, but I can say from my personal experience, my contact with law enforcement (while just) was not what was best for me or for society.
I think I became desensitized to authority and was emboldened by our interactions. The thing that ended up making the most positive impact in my life was an adult taking time with me and explaining life lessons.
At the recent protest, Sophia Joseph and others echoed similar stories and I wonder if that can be taken into consideration while the public discusses the future of SROs.
Eric Gutschmidt is the owner of Gutschmidt Properties in Cedar Rapids.