On a hot July summer day in New York City, I was working with a film crew hopping in and out of the subway in my costume as Captain America. We stepped out on one of the stops and after shooting for a few hours in Washington Square Park hopped back on the subway. That is when a couple spotted me and appeared amazed at having seen me a second time on the subway that day. The wife initiated the encounter and I sat down next to them for a few brief moments. The couple was from Arizona, and they were in town primarily to tick an item off the husband’s bucket list. To attend an Arsenal soccer match. They asked me what I doing, and I summarized the motivation of my social experiment. I stepped out on my next stop.
We finished the film shooting the next day. Two days later I received an email titled “Our chance encounter” from a sergeant in an Arizona police department. It was one of the most touching mails I have ever received.
It is odd and a little uncomfortable for me to be writing this email as I am not typically an outgoing or social personality. However, our chance encounter and your mission have stuck with me over the past days. I have spent several hours reading your articles and researching Sikhs and Sikhism. My only previous exposure to the Sikh faith was the tragic death of Balbir Singh Sodhi who was killed in Arizona after 9/11… When we spoke to you we were just returning from a very surreal experience at the 9/11 Memorial. I was sharing with my wife some of the locations and memories I had, and although sad my predominate memories were of the good and caring of so many people in the aftermath. I thought of this again tonight when I read your article in Salon. ‘Circumstances and people can bring out the best in all of us. Tragedies and conflicts are the most potent opportunities for change.’
You are an awesome dude and an awesome character. Your powers of good are your brass balls for getting out and doing what you do, your unwavering belief in humanity which is contagious, and the impact you are having on others which will exponentially multiply the good one man (even a superhero) can do. This also skinny, short-haired, white, conservative Christian from the southwest loves you as Captain America.
Subsequent correspondence divulged Sergeant Mercy as a 9/11 responder in the weeks after the tragedy.
In the partisan banter of our news cycles some will find it hard to imagine a short haired, white, Christian police officer having much in common with a long-haired, turbaned, bearded Sikh cartoonist. The multi-layered contours of Sergeant Mercy’s story resonated with me. I got on the phone and posed a few probing questions.
Our chance encounter, twice in a day on an NYC subway followed by a brief chat during which you mentioned being in town for attending a Arsenal soccer match. What about our encounter compelled you to go back and consume my work eventually penning a warm uplifting message?
There are things in my personality and background that fascinated me about what you are doing. Part of it is personal interest, work, education, and faith. I work with officers facing traumatic incidents and life stresses as part of their job. I minored in history and am fascinated with the topic of hate. I am interested in holocaust history, in how it is that we as humans come to have blind hatred, prejudices against others. When we saw you, we initially thought you were NYU students since you got off at the university station. I told my wife it is probably a film project. Then we saw you again. I would never randomly talk to strangers anywhere. But my wife initiated the conversation and asked for taking your picture. You sat down and gave us a brief of what you were doing and bringing education to the idea of bias, stereotyping and prejudice. That struck a cord with a lot of things that interest me.
We all have many layers to our personality. There is way more than meets the eye and your email touched upon many of these layers. So let me start by asking how did you find yourself as a responder in the aftermath of 9/11?
One of the hats that I wear is of a peer counselor involved in critical incidents and stress management. We have a group in Arizona with multiple agencies across the state involved in supporting each other in big events. After 9/11 occurred there were groups from across the nation that came into NYC to provide support in varying capacities.
A non-profit group, POPPA (Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance) was coordinating our visit. Historically police departments have a lot of stigma associated with any kind of depression or stress. For a long time if you had any issues with the horrible things you had to deal with as part of your job you were immediately pulled off the road, gun and badge taken away and put on desk duty. For many officers in law enforcement that is a huge deal. That is their identity in many cases unfortunately to the detriment of being a father or a husband. POPPA was a group of veteran police officers meant to be an outlet outside of NYPD. They are the ones who requested assistance. It was twelve of us from Arizona who went in beginning of October. We stayed for a week and there were teams from all over the country who were rotating in for one week sessions. We did counseling sessions, one-on-one meetings with officers, along with group sessions. During times not in counseling sessions we would head to ground zero, walk the area stopping to make connections and engaging officers working in the area. Sometimes officers were very stoic, not interested in connecting but in a lot of cases they were very appreciative owing to the fact that we had come all the way from Arizona to listen and provide support. Sometimes we had private sessions on the side of the road. We even had a officer in a group session who was suicidal. We were able to get him support right away. We repeated this effort on a return visit in January.
Between our two chance encounters on the subway you were visiting the 9/11 site for the first time since your first visit as a responder. What impact did this experience have on you personally?
There is a term used in psychology called compassion fatigue. It can be traumatic not only to go through tragic incidents but spending seven days in a row listening to people tell you the horribleness of what they went through. Listening to stories, seeing things myself certainly had an impact. Coming back home I held a lot of this inside me. A burden of sadness, feeling bad, depressed, anger at radical Islam and perpetrators of this tragedy. My wife saw a change in me, which I cannot describe. Coming back after almost thirteen years dug up some of the memories. Where there was the missing person wall. I remember standing looking at that. Hundreds of pictures of missing people, notes and letters from family and friends. There was a temporary mortuary. I remember seeing a stretcher being brought out. You could tell it was not a complete body. It was covered in the flag but it was not a full person’s size. Rescuers stopped as a sign of respect while the remains were carried out. There was a church nearby that we went to in the first trip with responders taking naps, sitting and lying down. I went back to the church on this trip and being a Christian it had a spiritual connection to me.
One of the responses you mentioned was anger. I have a deep connection to this emotion since I have been the target of a lot of anger in the years following the 9/11 attacks. How did the officers you helped, knew or worked with process anger? How did you process anger?
Some people processed it through the response of our military in the coming months. Take that and we will show it to you attitude. We as police officers are in the business of justice. Otherwise we are helpless. We are very action oriented, type A people. We want to be in control. Here is a situation that punches you in the gut and you have no control, no impact that you can make in the immediate sense. There were officers who started joining the military, at-least the National Guard afterwards. There was a lot of push towards not letting this happen again and a lot of officers grabbed on to this as something they could do. In the tactical community there were slogans, t-shirts, picture of a cop and a military guy You take care of over there and we will take care of your families over here.
I think I am a little unique in that because of my faith, background in counseling, little bit of my personality, I had a different response. After studying the holocaust for years, atrocities all over the world from Cambodia, Rwanda to Bosnia, although it was upsetting to me it was not as much of a gut punch to me. You and I think about biases, about the bad side of human nature a lot whether it is a conversation we are having or just sitting alone and thinking about things like this. My wife cannot understand how I would choose to pick up a book on Auschwitz and read it in my spare time.
You are involved in the training of police officers besides being an active officer yourself. What prompted you to include dangers of bias, particularly subconscious bias in your training efforts?
The decision-making process is very critical to our work as police officers. I am fascinated with how I can better equip my officers to protect themselves and others in potential life threatening moments. I can train them to become robots and draw their weapon tenth of a second faster and I do that. That is part of my job as firearms instructor to teach them how to draw a weapon as efficiently as possible. But how to get them to decide accurately in these critical moments is even more important. I don’t want them shooting someone they are not justified to shoot. There are a lot of controversial cases — and I am not going to get into Ferguson because full facts are not out there — but there are cases like Amadou Diallo who was shot 41 times by plain clothed officers in 1999. It was a tragedy, but the worst thing we can do is not study these cases to learn from them on how to better train and educate our officers not only in how to use force but making life-altering decisions. I have used the Harvard University created Project Implicit, which assesses our conscious and unconscious preferences for over 90 different topics ranging from pets to political issues, ethnic groups to sports teams, and entertainers to styles of music, in an effort to bring awareness to our officers and citizens.
I am really into the ideal that police is the community and vice versa. If we divide the two then we are not successful in cooperation against crime and disorder. If we are going to be a partner with the community then we have to understand who our community members are. I was recently discussing with a young officer about police departments reflecting our racial makeup. He was adamant that I want the best person for the job backing me up and next to me. I don’t care what color, race, or religion they are. I don’t want to see testing processes that favor anybody. I just want the best person. It is not my fault as long as the testing is there, that the majority of cops are white in our community. I told him that although I agree testing process should not be altered we in law enforcement have to reach out to minority communities to get them to join the force. We should not have to change our standards but if we are not getting minority applicants we should look into why blacks, Asians, Sikhs, women are not applying.
In the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri and all its aftermath there are many who would contend that some of our police departments are not representative of the community. How do you respond to that?
Here is the big debate topic for that. Is it the police force’s responsibility to reach out to kids and try to get them interested in the field young, or is it the community’s responsibility to put the idea into their own children and community members that we need you to grow up and think about serving the community as a police officer? Honestly, the answer is both, but I think there are police chiefs who would say it is not our responsibility. I have enough trouble just doing the hiring process let alone saying I am going to mentor a kid for 15 years to become a police officer and then he might end up going to another police force that might pay better. The community has its perspective that police has to do an outreach. These are long-term strategies. We are talking about influencing kids in high school, maybe college and even elementary school. We do have some outreach for young kids, school resource officers, explorer programs which are like police specific boy scouts. But this is not a broad enough brush to attract enough people to come in to get them to pass all the required tests. We are at par here in Arizona with the national average of getting less than 10% of the applicants who end up passing all the tests and background checks.
How do we prepare police officers for interacting with new members of community — like Sikhs with turbans and beards — who they don’t know anything about?
We don’t. In the academy, I took a class in cultural diversity/awareness and nothing since in 19 years. Perhaps cities like New York do a little better job. That is part of the reason why I am interested in putting together a new class to focus exclusively on bias including subconscious ones, stereotypes, and cultures all within the context of policing. You have to be aware of your biases as a first step towards preventing unwanted situations that run counter to our goals of safeguarding the community. I plan to show your walkabout video with the Totally Biased comedy crew in New York City as an introduction.
As a student of history and psychology, along with over 19 years of service as a police officer, any overarching conclusions on human behavior?
I am intrigued and appalled by the selfishness and evil of my fellow man. I believe that man is by nature sinful and self-serving. My readings on the Holocaust, Middle East conflicts, and the War on Terrorism have bolstered these feelings. My experiences as a police officer for the past 19 years have also influenced my poor perception of mankind. However, I have also witnessed that shared experiences and common causes bring out of us that part of human beings that is created in the image of God.
These experiences and causes can be formalized as in emergency service workers, religious organizations, and yes, even soccer teams. But it is the informal, like post-9/11 Americans, thousands of unpaid volunteers across the country and the individual acts of patience, tolerance, and kindness shown to others that will change the world. These are the experiences that transcend a uniform, a jersey, or a cause. These acts, often exampled by lone individuals, create the cause for others to join.
Finally I have to ask. How did you become a die-hard soccer fan? Why of all the teams in MLS and English Premier League do you follow Arsenal religiously?
I love the game of soccer. I played soccer in high school. I coach at a local high school. My son is in college on a soccer scholarship. We lived club soccer traveling to other cities in Arizona and states across the US following his progression. I did not become an Arsenal fan until I was in my thirties. I just enjoyed soccer and when the English Premier League started being televised on FOX Soccer channel, I would spend hours watching every team and I just enjoyed what I saw out of the Arsenal games. I enjoyed the possession play that they had. I knew there was no way that I could be a Manchester United fan just because they were the default for any American who was going to pick up a soccer team to idealize. They are the Yankees of soccer. I started following Arsenal more closely. And now it is really an addiction and an obsession. If I am not searching Arsenal news on the internet twice a day its because I am sick.
Vishavjit Singh is a New York City-based cartoonist, writer, costume player, and creator of Sikhtoons.com. His work has been featured in museum exhibits, film festivals, youth retreats/camps and conferences. Connect with Vishavjit on twitter @sikhtoons.