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Amid Heightened Tension Between Law Enforcement And Public, What Draws New Recruits?


Becoming a police officer is not easy. It's a stressful job, heightened by recent tension between law enforcement and the public. So who would do it? This past month, three new officers were sworn in at Annapolis Police Department in Maryland. We're going to meet one of them.

WILLIAM NOEL: My name is William Noel, originally from Washington, D.C., and I'm a police officer with the City of Annapolis Police Department.

MARTIN: When I first got to know Will, he was a personal trainer here in Washington, D.C., helping all sorts of people get and stay fit. One of his clients worked with the Secret Service, and he convinced Will to start a second career in law enforcement. Will and I have talked before about what's going on with race relations and policing in this country, so we decided to invite him in and have that conversation on the radio.

You happen to be African-American man who...

NOEL: ...Every day.

MARTIN: Every day, walking through life. Did you feel a different kind of weight or responsibility in talking about how police are interacting with communities of color?

NOEL: No. When I'm asked that, all I can do is to draw on my experiences. The early part of my childhood, I grew up in southeast Washington, D.C., and it was at a time right before, you know, crack took off and things like that. So the neighborhood was a little dicey, but being a child that young, I never knew any better. So I would think about when I saw the police come around. I never saw violence. I never saw people being mistreated.

I saw people interact with the police, and I saw the police say what they had to say and I saw the residents say what they had to say, but everybody left in one piece. Moving on to high school, yeah, I had friends that may have been in some things they shouldn't have been into, but I never saw police mistreat them. So to see where things are right now, it's unfortunate.

MARTIN: As part of your training, did you do any simulations where you were forced to confront a really perhaps emotionally complicated moment where things could get really tense really fast and how to de-escalate that situation?

NOEL: There are times where someone can be on a street and you're trying to talk to someone, but maybe they're impaired some kind of way and you can't bring them down there, and they react violently. There's no talking in a calm tone of voice at that point because they're not talking to you that way. But I would imagine everyone's first response is to, hey, let's try to figure this out, not to go in there and, you know, be G.I. Joe about it.

MARTIN: In that context, do you think you bring something different to it because you are 38 years old and not 22?

NOEL: Yeah, it's helped because I've dealt with a myriad of people, and I could even trace that back to when I was a trainer. You trained people from multiple economic backgrounds, levels of education, and you've got to be able to communicate effectively to all of them in a manner that conveys expert, I'm in control of the situation, and you can trust me.

MARTIN: There was this report out from the Justice Department about the Baltimore Police Department, an investigation - pretty damning - found that that department discovered police that were disproportionately targeting African-Americans, using excessive force against some juveniles. How do those revelations inform how you look at your own job? I mean, you're a new cop in Annapolis, which is not that far away from Baltimore.

NOEL: It informs me only in that you have to conduct yourself as if you're always being watched. I can only handle the things that I do. And I remind myself, even if I'm calling someone to ask them a follow-up question, conduct yourself like a professional. Ask your questions, answer their questions with respect. Baltimore just reminds you that someone's always watching you. And you want to finish each shift with no regrets on how you did your job. And one thing that I will say that I've learned throughout this process in training and since I've been working at the department is if there's something that you've done wrong or something that, you know, there might've been a mistake, own it. That's how I conduct myself.

MARTIN: Do you think that's part of why there is this so-called trust gap that even, you know, Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, has talked about? The fact that police departments and the communities they serve, that they're not getting each other, they don't trust each other?

NOEL: I mean, there's accountability to be had on both sides, whether it be citizens towards us or us toward citizens. The sooner everyone has accountability for their own actions and it's visible to one another, then you'll start seeing that. I think that's why you see a big push with community policing. That model's a big deal. You don't want to only be seen when shots got fired. You want to be seen just being in the community, being a part of what people do every day, showing up just to be a ray of sunshine. Not to sound cheesy, but if you only show up when shots get fired but not on the other days just to, hey, I'm around, everything good here - I think if the public sees more of that and can understand that we really are there to help, that builds trust as well.

MARTIN: What do your friends and family think about this new move?

NOEL: Oh, they think I'm crazy.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

NOEL: The thing that seems to stick out in a lot of people's minds is my age.

MARTIN: Really?

NOEL: Yeah. I don't feel like I'm 38. You know, if I've had a good shave that day, you know, I don't - you know, I get carded sometimes, and it's fine. But overall, it's a tremendous amount of support. My department has had my back from day one. You know, I'm recovering from an injury, and they've never wavered in their support of me in getting healthy and, you know, getting out there. And, you know, I'm thankful for it.

MARTIN: Newly minted Annapolis, Md. Police Officer Will Noel. Will, thanks so much for talking with us.

NOEL: It is my pleasure. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.