Faith and Confidence – A Message from Chief Mew of Anchorage, Alaska

The following message was first posted in 2015, but it holds true still.  We re-read it recently and wanted to share it to make sure it isn’t forgotten.  Mark Mew was Chief of Police in Anchorage, Alaska at the time this was written.  The officer in the photo is Maurice Cullinane, who would serve as Chief of Police for the Washington, DC MPD from 1974 to 1978.  He grew up in the Trinidad section of the city.

A Message from Chief Mew:  Faith and Confidence

Posted On: 1/2/2015

MPD Police Chief Maurice CullinaneThe photograph to the right is one of my favorites. My daughter gave me a framed copy of it over the holidays, and today I was proud to hang it in my office. I have thought a lot about this image in the last couple of weeks, and a lot about policing in America as it is presently portrayed.

About The Image

Contrast this picture with the images we are shown—relentlessly—by the media today. There’s not a lot of “faith and confidence” in the discussion right now. After reflecting on these matters, I was compelled to do something I almost never do: share my personal thoughts and musings publicly. The New Year is a time for reflection—and for new commitments—so here it goes.

First, let’s talk about the photograph itself. It is a nice autumn day in 1957 in Washington D.C. and residents flock to the streets to watch a Chinese cultural parade. The faces in the crowd are white, black, and brown. Everyone is having a good time. A young boy races into the street, hell bent on joining up with the Chinese lion passing by, while firecrackers are being set off all around.

The Creation of Faith and Confidence

A Metropolitan Police Department patrolman—seeing a disaster in the making—gently intervenes. A conversation develops between the cop and the boy. No one knows exactly what is said, but the moment is both magical and fleeting. Photographer William Beall captures a single reflexive shot, creating an image that will transfix the public worldwide and win him the Pulitzer Prize the following year. He entitled his work Faith and Confidence.

How did Beall arrive at his title? We don’t know. But I see faith and confidence in the expression of the boy. Undoubtedly he is disappointed at being prevented from completing his mission, but I like to think he trusts that the policeman is being fair in applying the “no-lion” rule. Moreover, the boy is curious about the policeman, interested in talking to him about whatever they were discussing, and at ease with the encounter.

You don’t engage the system in this way if you don’t have faith in it. But maybe Beall is referring to the cop. Maybe the cop has confidence that the most mild and good natured approach is the one that will do the trick, and that no parent is going to get in the middle of this and make it into something it isn’t, create a big stink in front of the crowd, and try to get the cop in trouble with his bosses. But then again, maybe Beall is talking about the crowd. The bystanders seem unconcerned with what’s going on—as if it is a given that encounters such as this are both necessary and healthy for society. Perhaps Beall is actually talking about all three—the cop, the kid, and the crowd. Finally, it is possible Beall doesn’t even see these three as separate entities. Maybe Beall sees everything in his frame as one organism—a community—that has faith and confidence in itself.

There is a name for this place: it is Mayberry.

Now I realize this little piece is going out on social media, and many of you reading this now are of a generation that never saw The Andy Griffith Show and do not know what Mayberry connotes. Sorry, I can’t help you out on that right now – Google it. God, it felt good to say that. But you old timers know what I mean. So, what happened to Mayberry? Have we lost it? Did it ever really exist?

I would like to propose that Mayberry has never existed quite as we saw it on TV, that is, as a defined jurisdiction whose people and officials were always—unfailingly—able to sort out their problems in a just, peaceful and respectful way. But I would also propose that Mayberry, as a transient and occasional state of mind (both of individuals and communities) has existed and thrived throughout our country’s history, and continues to do so today.

For every Ferguson image we see on the news, there are countless Mayberry moments that have gone unnoticed and unrecorded all over the country. Cops and citizens—acting alone or together—do compassionate, selfless and unrequired things all the time. We rarely learn about them, and it’s easy to assume that faith and confidence are gone for good. That would be a tragic mistake—for our police departments and for our communities—but I fear that our nation is on the verge of making just that error.

A couple of winters ago, a New York City beat cop dug into his pockets and bought boots and socks for abarefoot homeless guy in Times Square. A tourist captured the occurrence. Her photo went viral.

NYPD Office Larry DiPrimo helps a homeless manAt right – NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo and a Homeless Man, Photograph by Jennifer Foster, 2012

I would propose to you that this is a Mayberry moment – Mayberry in New York. Is this the same New York City we are seeing on the news every night? Yes, of course it is.

When this story broke, there was lots of media and public interest. The cops had mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, they were happy for the good press. In this business, you take everything you can get. On the other hand, the apparent amazement that such a thing could occur was baffling. “Who hasn’t done this?” a nation of cops was privately asking, “we do this all the time!”

They do, and they have always done so. And they do it here in Anchorage. Coffee and soup, sacks of groceries, sandwiches, cab fares, and in the old days—smokes. I remember Mid Shift passing the hat one night to pay for week’s worth of motel lodging for a family down on its luck. The cops don’t want any recognition, they don’t put it in their police reports, and they don’t get reimbursed from petty cash.

Cops are about solving problems, and they are about taking care of their beats. They are resourceful, and they will find the most expedient ways—official or unofficial—to establish and preserve peace in their areas of responsibility. So they will buy boots and talk to kids if it helps preserve the peace. Nationwide, this has always been their history, although from time to time and from place to place this ethic has been harder to find.

Now is a time when we must look hard. There is no doubt that there are cities experiencing real and serious problems. These need to be fixed. But these problems do not exist everywhere, all the time, and failing to acknowledge this helps neither the cities in crisis nor the rest of us. The last thing we need is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, if you look hard enough for evil—anywhere—you will find some. But the vast majority of cops are really good people, and the vast majority of communities have a pretty decent relationship with their police departments, and the justice systems work pretty well most of the time. These things we must not forget or refuse to see.

Yes, Mayberry is transient. Bad things will happen in every community. Controversies and conflicts will erupt. But I think that a town that has been Mayberry a lot—and knows it—will be able to recover intact from those dark times when no sign of Mayberry can be found.

Recently here in Anchorage, we have had rallies supporting those who oppose their police elsewhere. We worked hard with the organizers to make sure these events happened peacefully. From 2011 to 2012, we spent months rubbing elbows publicly with the Occupy Anchorage people, while quietly working with them behind the scenes to ensure we had a relationship that could withstand external pressures to use violence. It worked, to their credit and ours.

In the last two years, we have had a couple of protests against the APD itself—in front of our building. The protestors committed no offenses, and we stayed away and let them have their say. To me, these are signs that Mayberry can and does exist in Anchorage, particularly when we want it to and make the conscious effort. I think there is trust and confidence between the police and the public in Anchorage, a reasonable amount anyway—and that is nothing to sneeze at. My job—and yours—is to build up the bank account of trust and confidence, and never allow it to be depleted.

The boy in Mr. Beall’s picture looks to be 3- to 4-years-old. That means he and I were likely born about the same time. I wore those overalls. That’s my haircut. I loved talking to the cops when I was a tyke. That kid is me, in 1957. The cop? He’s the guy I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to be. I guess that’s why I’m drawn to that photo. But I don’t work a beat anymore. Now I ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations, and foster a safe and vibrant community. When I forget what that means, I look at this picture—the cop, the boy, the crowd. In my mind—as corny as it sounds—that’s what the APD and Anchorage should feel like.

We’ve got a good start. I think our community has had some successes this last year, even as other communities have faltered. I will continue in 2015 to bring as much Mayberry to Anchorage as I can. I hope you will join me there.

Mark Mew
APD Chief
January 1, 2015