Two years ago, Devyn Nixon sent her son Marcus to school dressed as a police officer for Halloween. Marcus was 7 years old at the time, and the costume coincided with an assignment — research what you want to be when you grow up, and wear the uniform for Halloween.
But the Nixons, a black family of five, were careful about the details. Marcus could wear the uniform, he could wear the badge and he could wear the peaked cap. But the flap on the waist of the pants — meant to resemble a holster for a handgun — would have to come off. A toy sidearm was out of the question.
“The story will be, ‘Black male impersonates officer,’ ” Devyn said.
Marcus is now 9 years old, and he has stopped talking about being a police officer amid the rising nationwide tension between law enforcement and blacks, Devyn said.
Marcus’ fear led Devyn and her husband, Matthew Nixon, to meet with members of the Bellingham Police Department, to show their children, Marcus, Matthew III, who is 11, and Moriah, 18, that police and black people can interact positively. The Nixons and Officer Kevin Bean, one of the three who met with the family, said the candid conversation allowed both parties to see a polarizing issue from another point of view.
Devyn, a nurse, and Matthew, a teacher, both 35, moved to Bellingham nearly a decade ago. Both are quick to point out that they’ve never had negative experiences with Whatcom County law enforcement.
Still, Devyn said, the anxiety surrounding police interactions with black people is very real — and it carries different undertones than racism by ordinary citizens.
The thing that I worry about is their training. Because I don’t think that what we’re seeing on a national scale is one officer or one police department. I think it’s the culture — what we’ve allowed.
Devyn Nixon, Bellingham resident who met with police officers
“The police anxiety is different,” she said, “because you pretty much know that they have a free pass to be violent to the point of killing.”
Following recent shootings that left black men and police officers dead, Devyn sent a private Facebook message to the Bellingham Police Department’s page.
“We’re hurting terribly for your people and ours,” Devyn wrote, adding that the family would keep an eye out for community events where they could meet with police officers. “Our children need to see us interact positively.”
Bean, a K-9 officer who also serves as an administrator on the Facebook page, responded soon after.
“It was cool that she messaged us,” Bean said.
His response to Devyn explained there was no need to wait for a community event to meet with officers, and invited the family to come to the station and meet with Bean and his dog, Destro.
Officer Sukhdev Dhaliwal and Master Patrol Officer Damon Landry also attended, but could not be reached for comment.
‘Risk versus benefit’ – the meeting
The Nixons were apprehensive about the meeting. It was hard to know, Devyn said, if it would help quell her sons’ fears about the police, or exacerbate them. Moriah stayed home on the day of the meeting.
“It was like, OK, risk versus benefit,” Devyn said. “Overall, will they walk away more afraid or less afraid? And that’s kind of what helped me make my decision. I felt like if they went and saw and got to ask their questions, that they would be less afraid.”
Expectations from both parties varied. Bean said he hoped the meeting eased the family’s concerns and answered their questions.
“I see the benefit in being available and in our citizens being able to get to know us in neutral terms — when people aren’t in crisis,” Bean said. “I just wanted them to come down and meet a police officer and for us to hang out.”
Devyn was concerned about being misunderstood.
“I expected a little hug, Kumbaya, ‘We’re not all bad,’ pet the dog and we’ll all just pretend like we’re not hurting and we’re not angry,” she said.
The boys were apprehensive at first, she added, but eventually asked questions of their own. They took turns petting Destro, sitting behind the wheel of a cruiser — they also took turns trying on Bean’s vest.
“It was so much heavier than I thought it was,” the younger Matthew said with a laugh.
The boys came away with a pair of stuffed toy German shepherds, and a stack of officer trading cards, which have baseball card-style details about department personnel.
We’re just people and we all come from different experiences that shape who we are. That’s a thing to celebrate as opposed to what may be occurring in other places.
Officer Kevin Bean of the Bellingham Police Department
The parents, meanwhile, asked about the officers’ decision-making process in heated situations and the toughest challenges that come with the job. As someone who once worked as a mental-health assistant in a hospital, the older Matthew said he identified with the officers’ concerns that there weren’t enough resources to address mental-health issues.
“I know firsthand the lack of support there is for mental health in the community,” Matthew said. “So they have to go out there and make life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye.”
People talking to people
Bean said the conversation became less about police officers talking with residents of color and more about people talking to people.
“We’re just people and we all come from different experiences that shape who we are,” Bean said. “That’s a thing to celebrate as opposed to what may be occurring in other places.”
The Nixons admit that the discussion didn’t erase every concern the family had.
“The thing that I worry about is their training,” Devyn said. “Because I don’t think that what we’re seeing on a national scale is one officer or one police department. I think it’s the culture — what we’ve allowed.”
Devyn said she also has reservations about how the meeting would be perceived by others.
“My fear was that my family would be showcased as tokens — that I would be viewed as this token who says, ‘Because I say it’s OK, then those other black people need to get over it because I know a black person who is cool with cops,’ ” she said.
Still, Matthew said he thought the meeting had the best outcome possible. Devyn said she felt all three officers were genuine, authentic and honest.
“They want to serve their community,” she said. “That’s what we want.”