Corrections Officer Discusses Race, Law Enforcement
July 27, 2016
Community Corrections Officer Cynthia Softli
Cynthia Softli has emerged as a reluctant voice on the sensitive topic of law enforcement and race in the aftermath of a sniper attack that killed five police officers in Dallas, and the fatal shootings of two black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Softli, a longtime community corrections officer for the Washington Department of Corrections, was recently quoted in a Seattle newspaper story after a reporter attended a Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington (BLEAW) meeting. Softli is president of the association.
At the meeting she talked about racism she encountered from police as a child, but also about how her perspective changed when she chose a career in law enforcement.
Since appearing in the newspaper article, Softli says she's had a flurry of requests from local and national outlets wanting her to say more. She sat down recently for a talk with the Washington Department of Corrections' Communications. The interview took place before the most recent shootings of officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Q: Were you surprised by the media interest in your views?
A: Yes, but I got positives from a lot of officers, black and white, that I respect. Family, friends and DOC.
Q: How have the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas affected you?
A: The shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota hurt me. It hurt because it's loss of life. But when the Dallas attack (happened), it was heavy. My heart was heavy. Because, how dare you. How dare you. That's what I was saying to myself. How dare you go and kill five officers. When I know that I come here every day and we're all put in that situation, as firearm carrying CCOs (Community Corrections Officers). We're trying to protect the community. Somebody is going to come along and take out five because they're mad? That's not how we solve problems, so it hurt.
Q: Is there a message you want to get out?
A: The message is to just walk around in the shoes of a police person, or a community person who's been oppressed, and understand where that's coming from. You don't have to agree, but just try to get a basic understanding. I think the community has a responsibility and the police have a responsibility to come to the table together. To have an open dialogue …
The perspective I want to provide is that not everything is about race … everybody needs to recognize there's a history of bad incidents and poor communication and mistrust in the African American community and police.
Q: Can you talk about the bias incidents you experienced as a child? You told the Seattle Times about your family being pulled over by an officer.
A: When we were pulled over (in 1969 in Ballard), my dad and mom and I, the officer said first, 'what are you doing in this neighborhood?' and my dad said 'I'm taking my family on a picnic.' He basically told my dad 'you don't belong in this neighborhood. You need to get out of this neighborhood.'
I remember that, and it hurt. I was crying. Thus started a lifelong dialogue about racism.
Q: Were there any other incidents?
A: There was a Bellevue Square incident. I was tired because I'd been shopping for hours and the police came up and said 'let me see your ID' and I was like 'why?' People were looking at me and I just felt so dirty. Because the clerk said I had a stolen credit card, but it was my own credit card. But to me it was so weird because, why can't I charge a couple hundred dollars for something without it being questioned? But that wasn't even the issue. It was how they treated me. I was just sitting on the bench because my feet were tired. I was just like 'why do you have to be so mean?'
Q: Have you ever encountered criticism for choosing a career in law enforcement?
A:Yes. I have heard that over the years. Not recently. I said I came inside to do the work. I can stand outside and protest and talk, but I really wanted to understand the police department. I wanted to demystify what it was all about. I wanted to find out.
Q: Do you feel there are misconceptions?
A:The misconceptions are that all white police officers are racist and they want to kill black people. That's that. And then the misconceptions on the police side are that the African American community hates them. That's not true. There's a lot of people in the African American community that support police because police have been there to protect them on domestic violence, they've saved lives, they've found their kids, they've given them rides to school, they've bought groceries. I'm talking about white Seattle police officers that you never hear about. They've done great things for people of color in the communities, but we don't hear about it.
Q: Do you see a path forward?
A: The path forward I think is communication. Open communication, but people coming to the table. We've been talking about police brutality for 40 years and nothing has changed, so we've got to do things differently. We've got to get rid of the old and bring in new people with new ideas, including white officers.
The Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington (BLEAW) was founded in 1975, and has two types of membership: individual and associate. Individual membership is open to any person who is employed or retired as a commissioned law enforcement officer with any law enforcement agency within the State of Washington. Associate membership is open to any person who is employed as a non-commissioned member with any law enforcement agency within the State of Washington. The mission of the BLEAW is to increase the awareness of the community, to be the conscience of the criminal justice system, and to enhance the quality of life in the African-American community.