Sgt. Willie Davis has been with the Little Rock Police Department for 23 years, and works with the Little Rock chapter of the national Our Kids (OK) Program, which recruits at-risk African-American boys in the sixth grade and follows them through high school, providing mentorship and support. Every spring, he presents a program called “Before the Casket,” which brings family members of homicide victims to speak to an audience of young people about how a trigger can never be unpulled. David Koon spoke to him at the Willie L. Hinton Center on 12th Street, not far from where he lives in the Central High neighborhood.
I’m from Granite Mountain. The projects. I saw a lot of death.
My mother stayed on her knees praying many nights for us, man — for me and my brothers. I had a strong, God-fearing mother, who instilled in us the value of “treat people how you want to be treated.” She kept us in church, even though I didn’t want to be a lot of the time. And, you know, out of the four of us, one of us has been in and out of prison. One of us is in prison now. I think those things coupled with my choice of not wanting to be incarcerated, not wanting to disappoint my mom, wanting to do something different from what my daddy showed me, made the difference. I thank my daddy every day, because he showed me what I didn’t want to be. I think those things, coupled together, assisted me. I had a life-changing experience in high school. I came to know Christ as my lord and savior. My mother hated me when I was younger, and she should have, because I was a knucklehead. That’s why I believe these young boys are salvageable. I don’t think we can get all of them, but I believe anybody can change. I will always believe that.
“Before the Casket” was inspired by a young man in the neighborhood who was murdered right down the street here: Decree Thomas. Seven years ago. I read an article in the newspaper where a young lady was saying he’d been out there on the street at the wee hours of the night. She said it like it was a common thing. So I went ahead and approached his parents, grandparents and his mother about the OK Program. When I was telling his mother about the program, her response was: “You mean to tell me you have a program like this and my son is dead?” That bothered me. I didn’t have an answer for her. So I started the “Before the Casket” presentation, so that community members can see the impact that homicides have.
The thought behind it is a threefold meaning of “Before the Casket.” What was the victim’s life like before the casket? What kind of person was he or she? Second thing was, what does a family member — a mother, father, sister or brother — feel like standing before the casket? And lastly, what will we do, as individuals, before we’re in the casket? What difference will you try to make in your community, in your home, in society to curb this cycle of violence we see in the black community?
I get three family members a year to get up and talk about it — to relive that moment in time when time stopped, when they got the call about their loved one being murdered. It’s emotional. Powerful. I want people to see the hurt and pain on these mothers’ faces. I’m saying mothers, because that’s who shows up to do this. These mothers appeal to these young boys. They’ll get up and say, “My son was a dope dealer and that’s why he’s dead. My son was selling weed.” They’ll just be real with them. They’re not trying to cover anything up.
I usually have a singer who sings a song, and then we have a viewing. At the end of everything, you walk by the casket. I put a mirror inside of the casket. While they’re looking at it, my statement to them is, “The person who can make a difference in the community, who can change the cycle of violence, is the person you see in the casket.” The idea is to get them to do something. To make them curtail the violence we see.
This violence we’re talking about? It starts up here [points to his head]. I told a young man the other day, “The gun is already cocked up here. You pull the trigger with your hand, but it’s cocked up here.”
So we’ve got to change their minds. You’ll get killed now for looking at someone the wrong way. Sadly, right now, we’re operating like animals in our communities. We have one unique thing over the animals: our ability to communicate with our mouths. We can say, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” Animals don’t do that. They lash out. We can say something, “I’m sorry.” We can talk, man! And right now, we’re not talking, we’re shooting.
When I talk about the issues of homicide and incarceration, particularly as it relates to the African-American community, I always think about the family orientation. I think that’s where things start. Your family life, the home you come up in, that’s your first introduction to society, from that perspective. That’s our first opportunity to get our name, our heritage, our beliefs. A lot of things start there.
When you see what we call the cycle of violence in a 26-year-old person, he didn’t just start killing or being violent at 20. If this is something he’s come up in, you see he knows no other way. That’s not how it is with all the black families I see. But in a lot of them, there’s a disconnect. There’s no male role models in the house. There’s no parental involvement. So, what do they do? It’s easy. You listen to rap music. That’s your motivation. That’s your encouragement. The local drug dealer will take care of you if your daddy won’t. They’re gravitating to that. Maybe he’s got a friend he’s close to, and that friend has a dad who is a drug dealer. He’s showing him all the money his dad is making. He wants to try it, because his mother is barely making the bills. It’s attractive.
But they don’t understand the end result. It’s usually jail, death or something violent.
I’ve never said this publicly, but two of the homicide suspects this year turned themselves in to me. It was because of relationships. That’s something we need to do differently in the police department. Our relationship with the community is going to have to change. I’m not talking about becoming best friends and hugging and loving on one another. I mean the relationship needs to be better so they can communicate with us. Kind of like community policing was back in the ’90s when I was out there. It meant something. You became the peoples’ police.
The one that happened on Battery Street where the brother killed his brother? [Police say Tristan Lewis killed his brother, Freddie Hinton Jr., at 1622 Battery St. on March 12.] His mother called me crying. I knew him. She said, “Sgt. Davis, can he turn himself in to you?”
He sat there in my living room for 45 minutes, telling me the whole story. I told him he didn’t have to tell me nothing. But he wanted to appeal to me, because he knows how I look at it. I told him, “I’m so angry at you right now. You’re totally what I’m against. You took one of our brothers, man! You can’t do that.” He was just bawling. Last time I saw him, he was little. I used to cut his hair. He’d ride his bicycle over here to get his haircut. He was a little ol’ scrawny boy.
I’ll tell you, I cried. I hugged him. It was mangled, man. I told him, “You’re wrong. You’ve committed a crime, and you’ve got to suffer the consequences of that.” It wasn’t even about him and his brother. It was about him and some other guys, and the brother was trying to get him to stop what he was doing. And they got into it. Can you imagine that? I said, “Man, what do you think is going to happen when you’ve got a gun in your hand? What were you thinking about?” He said, “I didn’t mean it.” You’ve got a gun! What are you going to do with it? It’s just a mindset.
That’s what “Before the Casket” will show you, it’s about the impact. It’s not just, “I’ll shoot you, and it’s just about you.” It’s not just about one person. That person has people who love him. People from his job, his next-door neighbors, his aunts, his uncles, his grandpas, nieces and nephews. That’s a whole lot of people you hurt when you shoot somebody. That’s a lot of people who hurt. They don’t even know you, and they’re mad at you because you took away their loved one. That’s the impact.
When somebody presents to me what they call a “bad kid,” I always say this, “How did he get that way?” Think about a newborn baby. Have you ever seen a baby born with a gun in his hand? Ever seen a newborn baby sagging? What about disrespecting his parents? Disrespecting authority? No. So what happened? He was a pretty baby. We come to the hospital and hug and kiss the babies because of how pretty they are. They start crawling. They go to church. So how does he go from a baby to a 15-year-old gang member? How’s that happen? Because we allowed it to happen. Right before our eyes, man. That concerns me. We’ve got to take responsibility as grown folks. A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. The first agency of socialization is the family.
I had some friends come over, and they had a little boy. He couldn’t have been more than 3 years old. I was dressed just like this [in slacks and a polo shirt]. I didn’t have my gun on or anything. She says to her son, “You know who that is? That’s the police!”
Three-year-old kid, you know what he says? “I’m going to jail!” Where’d he get that from? A 3-year-old kid looks me in the eye and tells me he’s going to jail? They laughed. But I didn’t think it was funny.
I call bad behavior “attention-getting stuff.” You see a kid walking down the street or in a classroom acting a fool, somebody might say, “He’s bad. There’s no help for him.” I see a kid that’s saying, “Sgt. Davis! I’m over here! I need your help! I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to act!” That’s the totally different lens I’m looking through, but they call me crazy for dealing with him? [laughs] Let me ask you this question, who is going to get mad at me for loving them? What kid you know who is going to hear “I love you” and get mad about it? What you gonna do, fight me because I love you? It’s not going to happen.
Can you stop a bullet with love? You can stop a person you love from shooting one. You can influence that. Yeah.
Is my program changing things for the better? That’s a really hard question. When I see young boys walking across the stages to graduate, to me, that’s success. When I see a young man who comes in my program with a 1.5 grade point average, and in the second quarter he has a 2.0, to me that’s success. When I have a mom that comes and tells me that she’s so proud of the improvement she sees in her son, and doesn’t know what she’d do without the OK Program, that’s success. This work that I do is hard work, but it’s good work. It’s rewarding work. To see these young men mature from year to year and develop into respectful young men who can speak and who know how to mediate conflict, who understand the value of telling someone “I love you” and really meaning it? To me, that’s success, to see these young men changing before my eyes.
It’s not about just talking. I’m not interested in sitting around a table. No black-on-black crime task force. No roundtable discussion. That’s over with. We only do that when stuff happens. How about some preventive stuff, like the OK Program? Why is it that we have meetings where we talk about youth, and no youth are in here? That’s puzzling. We’re good at being smart people with letters behind our names, telling kids, “Here’s what we’re going to do for you!” But we never ask him, “What can we do for you?” Why do we do that?
Give him a hug. Tell him you love him. Speak to him. I know how I look to you, but talk to me. I’m not saying that’s the sole answer to it, because it’s not. But at least we’re doing something. We can’t sit on our hands and criticize the people who are doing something when we could be doing something. A lot of us need to get our mirrors and look into them.