They were always in my neighborhood when I was growing up in Charleston.
That is, Charleston’s East Side.
But not the place where Rainbow Row adorns the peninsula.
No, I grew up in the Ansonborough projects, also known as the “Borough” by a few of the older folks, where my fatherless home was situated in an impoverished neighborhood.
Back then, my neighborhood was considered one of the roughest parts of town for a kid like me to live. And the “warriors” — that is, the police — would always be around. Many times as faithful public servants. But sometimes, at least to me, it didn’t feel like they were there to help us.
One of my childhood experiences with police would change my life forever.
It was a typical hot summer day in Charleston. I was an innocent kid just playing on the block when, out of nowhere, I found myself handcuffed by a warrior for no reason. I was just hanging out with childhood friends after playing a few games of basketball at Calhoun Street Park.
You see, this encounter with police was my pivotal moment. A moment in my life when I started questioning my very own existence. A moment when I felt vulnerable. A moment when I realized my purpose.
It was during that experience that I made a decision to become a cop. That’s right. I said it, a cop. I wanted to be something that I had often feared growing up as a black kid in Charleston. I thought to myself that I would be better at serving the community than those who cuffed me on that hot summer day. The way some of those offiicers were policing was wrong in my opinion. They had a warrior mentality. A “them versus us” mindset.
I knew I would be a public servant who would work on improving and protecting communities for the better. All I needed was a chance. I wanted to break a cycle of hopelessness I saw in the community.
So, I studied hard, nurtured by a strong mother, and learned from good role models how to be a man. As a young adult, I applied for my first job as a law enforcement professional with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. And I was hired and given a chance by Sheriff Al Cannon — as a guardian of and for our citizenry.
In his book, “The New Guardians,” Dr. Cedric Alexander writes, “Law and order is not something we just enforce upon the public. As professional guardians, we need to understand this and serve a vast and diverse public in a democracy, treating everyone with the same full measure of respect, regardless of who we are and where we are from.”
That is exactly who I am. That is precisely what I do. And this is certainly how I insist that our agency perform its service to our community.
We are guardians, not warriors.
Eric Watson is chief deputy of operations at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.