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Lessons From the Deep South : A police captain finds the silver lining of his segregated upbringing, crediting it with giving him a useful talent for diplomacy and cultural tolerance.

January 16, 1994|WILLIE L. PANNELL | Los Angeles Police Capt. Willie L. Pannell, 46, commander of the Southeast Division, grew up in the segregated South. He credits his background with teaching him tolerance and enabling him to achieve a role of responsibility. He was interviewed by Laurie K. Schenden

We were sharecroppers. I started working with my grandfather as a child, and worked cotton and corn till I was about 17. We owned our own mule and got one-third of the gross for working the entire property. One year we made $300.

We lived in Phoenix City, Ala., about 35 miles south of Columbus, Ga. In school we had chores--we filled the potbellied stove with coal to keep warm; we got our water from the well.

I never thought about anything different from this life until we got electricity. It was the early '50s when we first heard radio. When I was 8 or 9 years old, some people in the neighborhood got a TV. On certain nights, everybody in the neighborhood would come to that house to watch TV. Communities were very strong then.

We would drive our wagon and tie the mule to a tree--no one would think of stealing it--and we would board the bus. The blacks got on the back part of the bus, and whites came in the front door. There was a line that divided the two areas. I realized at that point already where I stood. I never ate in a restaurant. We got our food out of a little hole in the back of the building. It didn't make me angry; it made me tolerant.

You grew up knowing where your place was, and if you didn't understand that, you were in trouble. It gave me tolerance to understand you ain't going to gain anything by standing up and publicly challenging people. You start to look at how can you work things out diplomatically. My granddad always told me, "Son, you've got to educate yourself, you've got to be the best you can be, work as hard as you can. You can't be considered shiftless and lazy. Don't compromise your principles, but be a diplomat."

So what I've worked on is not compromising my principles but not being confrontational. When working with people, particularly dealing with the power structure, you have to give people room to compromise.

I don't think, if my grandfather saw where I am today, he'd know how to handle it. My granddaddy never lived past segregation; he couldn't fathom me sitting in a restaurant in a fashionable area of Los Angeles, ordering anything I want without having to go to the back door to get it.

Are all these things still with me? Sure they are. When I first came on the job in 1969, I'd been here about a month and a training officer said: "You know, I'm going to have to fire you, because you black folks are all lazy. What is it with y'all that you only work if a white man is sitting beside you with his foot in your behind?"

I said to myself, if I say what I want to say to this guy, I'll be fired within the next 15 minutes and I'll never have a chance to be in a position to help anybody else--to make sure that this doesn't happen to anyone else. The only way you can make sure is to promote yourself in the position where you have the power to control those kinds of things.

That became a goal: to put myself in the position to have some kind of positive influence on society and the people around me. A lot of people fear that if there's a black captain, he'll just be looking out for black folks. What I am is a captain of police for the city of Los Angeles. About 50% of my employees are male whites, and I have to be able to get them to work for me. I have to treat them fairly. The idea is to make sure no one gets stepped on because of ethnicity or gender or lifestyle, those kinds of things.

The Southeast Division is a very high crime area. In the last couple of years there's been mistrust by the citizens of police officers. There are officers in this area who do not have the best interest of the community in mind, while others will risk their lives for the community. The few bad ones will make things bad for everybody.

I ask my officers, do you understand why, when you talk to a black male, he appears to be hostile? He may even threaten to fight you. If you saw the difference between that and if you stopped a male white in West L.A., I'd say that the difference is that the guy in West L.A. has access to an attorney. He knows how to get in contact with a councilperson.

But the young black doesn't have any other way of venting his frustration other than verbally. And so you find yourself on a confrontational level. The officers don't understand some of those things.

What we do here is talk about things that are unique to our area. There are some 150 languages spoken in Los Angeles. Cultural things that happen in the homeland just don't leave these people when they move here. Officers need to understand the cultures.

In Watts, there are subcultures. Not everyone listens to rap and drinks 40 ounces. Not all black males have their pants hanging off them, not all are involved in drive-by shootings. You have to understand the problems to deal with them.

You ask why do some people stand on the corner drinking beer. There are no theaters, there are no activities, so you make your own recreation here.

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