Interview and article by Calvin Hughes published by Civilized Magazine on November 12, 2018.
A few years ago, when Tim McMillan was still serving as a police lieutenant in Savannah, Georgia he made a traffic stop that would make America's racial tensions apparent in a way they had never been for him.
"On October 1st, 2016 I pulled over a car as I was getting off from work. I initially thought it was a drunk driver and encountered a young man who was texting while driving—at the time I was a lieutenant, so I didn't do a whole lot of traffic stops. When I got to the car it was a young African-American kid, 18-years-old. It was the first time I was confronted with the things I had been hearing about in terms of race relations and minority relations with law enforcement," McMillan told Civilized.
"I saw this young man was terrified of my mere presence," McMillan explained. "I was already off the clock, headed home and I would have never stopped him if it wasn't for the fact that his driving was concerning. It was an esoteric awakening moment—I was able to see the fear in somebody's eyes from my mere presence. My entire intent was to make them aware of how they've been driving because I was concerned. I didn't want to see him getting in a wreck, or somebody get hurt. That was a life-changing moment."
From then on McMillan couldn't help but become aware of the shortcomings of the nation's law enforcement agencies. He realized things had to change, and a few years later, he became a full-time advocate for police reform.
"I started to see my own willful ignorance of certain things—racism and all these different systemic problems that I've seen. Drug reform: the way that drug laws were ineffective in bringing anything positive—which is what I feel like the criminal justice system's ultimate goal should always be. That was the flashbulb moment that sent me ultimately retiring from policing to pursue [advocacy] full-time."
"I never wanted to be a cop growing up. I got into police work after two friends of mine were murdered here in Savannah, Ga—before that I wanted to be a research psychologist. So maybe not being enamored by the 'cowboys and Indians' feel of the profession allowed me to approach it a little differently. But that that moment allowed me to be confronted with a lot of things I was woefully ignorant to."
Why do you think racist and ineffective laws continue to be enforced?
It doesn't take a big leap of faith to say that anybody who looks at American politics, or the collective American conscious, right now will see it's pretty tumultuous. I think what we're seeing is a generational clash. An outgoing generation of people that are growing older and retiring and leaving that stakeholder stance in society, and a younger generation is coming in. Some of the older generation has been raised on this erroneous belief of how to handle crime, particularly drugs. It's hard for people to let go of the heavy-handed, law-and-order mentality that they were raised on. You can't solve something like the drug epidemic in America by continuously locking people up for tremendously ridiculous long periods of time.
It's hard for people to realize that cultures changes, society changes—especially with the marijuana debate. A lot of states have legalized it for recreational use, but you still have people holding onto incorrect beliefs of the dangers of marijuana. I try to remind people there was an alcohol prohibition in America, slavery was legal in America. So you can't simply assume because something has been illegal your whole life that's what is morally and ethically correct, or even scientifically correct.
Drug use is not a problem that can be solved by throwing manpower, resources and money at it.
How do you reach people that are stuck in that prohibitionist mindset?
A lot of it is trying to tell them it is not what we see on TV—the more sensationalized rhetoric. Everybody who has an opinion on something, it has been formed from somewhere and we can have incorrect opinions.
If you have someone who believes that marijuana is evil, dangerous, you have to reach them on a position that's important to them, that someone could equally say might be evil or dangerous. Make drug laws relatable to them and hope that people will think for themselves. You can't blunderbuss people into changing opinions, it has to be something they want to come up with.
I try to explain that the concept of law and order doesn't truly exist—this idea that all laws are treated the same. When everybody gets the same punishment for breaking the law, homicide and speeding become equitable. I try to explain to people that everybody breaks the law, they just justify it whenever they do it.
Then also trying to present the legitimate peer-reviewed, empirical studies about drug usage. And provide some personal insight into what I've seen over the years of policing. People can read all they want, but they like to hear what it was like for you.
A guy who worked for me—a really good officer, a drug officer that made a lot of cases—I remember him bringing me the idea that he wished there was some kind of nonprofit or diversion program in our area where you could get people into rehab instead of court. He could see it's just a cycle, you don't solve addiction by locking people up.
I was a K-9 handler for five years of my career. Primarily dealing with felony or dangerous crimes, but in between that was street-level drug interdiction. I saw a lot of it. You have to try your best to humanize the people who are the drug offenders. In my experience these were always individuals who grew up in really bad, disadvantaged situations that essentially instilled learned hopelessness. For them, drugs were the only escape they had from a reality they didn't choose. You don't help entire communities come out of generations of learned hopelessness by punishing them.
Typically when you think illegal drugs, you're thinking the crack cocaine or meth, the guys standing on the street corners. But prescription pill abuse is rampant. That goes on in the suburbs and the high-class areas, wherever. So it's getting people to relate to what they perceive as the drug offenders: the guys on the corner selling crack cocaine, bringing it into their own areas, and understanding the reason people are using crack cocaine in the inner city is the same reason that somebody is abusing opioids in the suburbs. We've got this underlying social thing where we gotta try to fix that—so we feel good about ourselves and don't feel like we need an escape. When it comes to drug addiction, unfortunately, there's a significant number of people in America who can relate to a family member or something like that.
Reflecting on your time in drug policing do you have any regrets about that period, or anything you would have done differently?
No, I wouldn't say regrets. I always tried to be open and willing to share my own experiences. When I was 15, I was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana, like a lot of teenagers experimenting with it. That simple juvenile arrest for literally one joint—that I plead guilty to, I owned up to it did everything right—prevented me from being accepted to flight school in the military. I tell them that's the truth, that's the system that's there.
In terms of the larger cases, the trafficking cases or the sales cases—I don't know that I had any regret, superficially. It would be years later. I remember watching a documentary, 13TH, about privatization of prison. They mentioned how in the American criminal justice system it's not advantageous to try to—even if you're not guilty of a crime—to fight for your innocence. People are offered plea deals where you do six months in jail if you plead guilty, or take it to trial where you can risk 20 years. What are you going to do?
I remember that moment, realizing, 'Oh my god, that is 100 percent correct.' At that point I'd been well over a decade in policing. I realized that outside of the violent crimes investigations—homicides and armed robberies—I maybe had been to court to testified ten times in 15 years. Because so many people just took pleas. At that moment—I don't know regret is the right word or a kind of sadness in a way—realizing you are a cog in a wheel that you didn't know existed. Even though you never willfully participated in the second half you were the ones who brought people to those positions.
Do other law enforcement officers realize these laws are ineffective and racist regulations? Or do are they just trying to follow the rules?
The latter. You don't ever look at it from such a global perspective, it's never presented to you in a global perspective. So you're just doing a job. Even for the ones who know how to interact with the community, most of them take the same kind of view I did. Which was I never took it personally, I never got mad at people or mistreated them. It was like, 'Hey, we're playing for two different football teams.' Quite often you become accustomed to the old routine: you arrest them, they go to court and you never see them again.
There's a systemic problem in how we qualify what makes a good police officer. In 99 percent of the cases, the officers are judged in their effectiveness on the job by quantifiable measures. How many arrests they make, how many tickets they write how many reports they take—because you can count them. So the qualitative measures, how much impact you have on people, how you might have taken extra time and talked to somebody, change somebody's life. They don't get measured by that. So if you want to be successful as a police officer, you focus on what they're judging you by.
But that causes people to disassociate emotional connections. They're dealing with human beings, with lives and families. They're people just like us, they're not numbers. Unfortunately, cops are judged by something that somebody can count. Everything else that we're talking about is never really thought about. Law enforcement is a profession where, if you want to have any length of time in it, you have to learn to disassociate yourself to some degree. We see some horrible things. It's very difficult as a lieutenant, trying to train people to disassociate themselves from certain things but never lose their humanity in dealing with people. But that comes down from supervision—it comes down from the top.
When I was a lieutenant I would say, 'I'm not trying to raise good cops, I'm trying to raise good people.' That's not always done. I think if you asked the average cop on the street they would probably fall back on what they were trained. Which is, 'If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.'
Did you face any conflicts or issues when you were transitioning from a law enforcement officer to a full-time advocate?
I faced a lot of scrutiny while I was still active as a police officer from cops all over the country. When you mention things that we weren't doing right in law enforcement—policies and practices that were ineffective, or even in some cases racist—people get very defensive. It is a profession that is termed as a Brotherhood—when people feel like they're speaking out against the Brotherhood, you can be ostracized.
There were plenty of times that I saw lots of criticism or heard about it, especially through own website or Facebook. I reach a couple million people a week, so there was plenty of opportunity for people to say whatever they wanted to say. The only people who have the authority to violate someone's civil rights oftentimes are police. So when you say you want to be a civil rights investigator and advocate full-time, people look at you as a traitor.
For a white cop out of the south to come out and say certain things were racist, prejudice, biased and certain drug laws were erroneous—that caused a significant ripple. People felt like that was a bigger betrayal against the Brotherhood. I'd rather feel like I stood up for what's right then just stand up for an institution that's doing something wrong.
I believe in the nobility of law enforcement, I believe that as a profession, as an institution, as an entity it has tremendous power in societies to do great things. Everything I've ever spoke out for has been about wanting to see that institution flourish and be what it really can be.
Do those sorts of criticisms prevent other law enforcement officers from speaking about issues that concern them?
Absolutely. There's plenty of times that you may see a national incident that's disturbing or shocking and behind closed doors, we would talk about it as officers and we would have the same negative views towards whatever happened that the general public had by and large. But, when it comes out into the public arena, cops are silent or fallback on the trope of 'just wait and see.' Or, 'wait till all the evidence is out.'
Law enforcement hurts themselves by not ever saying, 'Well, that looks bad.' If something changes in terms of evidence—or whatever the investigation reveals, and it doesn't look as bad, well that's okay, say that. But the unwillingness to say that only causes a bigger divide and more friction between the public and police. Most officers are going to learn the culture of what's wrong and right from the people they're around. The culture is very family-like, in the sense that you can talk about your family but nobody else can.
Tim McMillan began his law enforcement career in 2003 with the Garden City Police Department in Georgia following the tragic deaths of two close friends.
Over the course of his career, McMillan served as an investigator, crime scene technician, K9-handler, Sergeant and Lieutenant.
He is a Peace Officer Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) certified law enforcement instructor and has taught courses for law enforcement on subjects including implicit bias, perceptual awareness, and cognitive psychology.
McMillan has devoted himself to improving police relations with minority communities, racial equality, and civil rights issues. He appears in the 2017 documentary Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. Is the Answer and Black and Blue with Tony Harris.
He is also the founder and director of the The Four Trees Project, a nonprofit that focuses on police research, training, and reform. McMillan retired from policing in 2018. He holds a B.A. in Mathematics and a M.A. in Psychology. He is a graduate of Columbus State University’s Professional Management Program. He was named 2006-2007 Police Officer of the Year for the Garden City Police Department and 2012 Police Officer of the year for the Tybee Island Police Department. He is a seven time Chief of Police Accommodation recipient, and his police reform activism has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership is a non-profit organization that brings together people in various law enforcement roles to advocate for public safety solutions, including better drug laws, in the United States. Civilized has teamed up with LEAP to profile their members and push the message of drug reform forward.