On a hot day in the early 1980s, Harold Dimbo, then a teenager, was standing on the street with a friend near his home in Bridgeport. Nearby, neighborhood kids had opened a fire hydrant valve to cool down. Police had already turned off the valve once that day, but as soon as they left, kids turned it back on and now the local officer was angry. The kids near the hydrant scattered as the officer approached, but Dimbo and a friend weren’t playing in the water and hadn’t been involved in turning it on, so they didn’t run. The nightstick-wielding police officer asked them who turned the hydrant on. “My friend, he said, ‘The guys who turned it on, they left,’ ” Dimbo recalls. “The police officer took the nightstick and whacked him over his hand, and said, ‘It better not come on again.’ ”
Dimbo was horrified, but rather than pushing him away from the police, it drew him to them. “I wanted to be a police officer because I wanted to treat people differently,” he says. “If I was with somebody who tried to do something like that it just never would happen. So I went and took the test with my father telling me, ‘If you want a solution, you’ve got to be part of the changes.’ ”
For 26 years Dimbo served as a Bridgeport police officer. He investigated gang-related homicides for the detective bureau and worked undercover, among other roles. Now retired from the force, he serves as the Bridgeport program manager of Project Longevity, an anti-violence partnership of law enforcement, social services providers and local residents.
I spoke with him about the anti-racism protests that have swept the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, which was captured on video.
There has been a lot of talk about police departments being fatally flawed in a way that requires fundamental change, including defunding. What is your response to those calls?
People are angry and they’re looking for solutions. You’re going to hear a lot of things being thrown out. My opinion, and this is only my opinion, is you have to look at your city. If you have crime in your city, you don’t want to take funding away because that will be endangering people’s lives, but what you should be doing is knowing your department, knowing the officers and knowing if you have a problem. If an officer has a lot of complaints, you should be checking that out.
So better policing of the police?
Absolutely. And, of course, community policing is a priority for 21st Century Policing [a set of police reforms issued by the Obama administration]. Community policing is the way to go because the officers get to know the community and the community gets to know the officer. So when you have that, you won’t have a lot of police officers mishandling people because they know them, and they’re not afraid of them because they can just walk up to them and say, “Hey, come here. What are you doing?” When your officers are just in a car driving around, they’re never going to get a chance to understand who that person is. So when they show up somewhere their anxiety is up to here [he holds his hand up to his head]. Right up to the top already. Everyone is afraid of the unknown, but if you know the person or you knew of the person, your anxiety would be more down here [he holds his hand near the ground].
So many minorities have had negative interactions with police officers. Sometimes it’s a violent interaction but often it’s something like a wrongful stop. This fuels this incredible level of mistrust. How do we address that distrust between the police and community members?
You have to have uncomfortable conversations to solve a problem when it comes to anything like racial discrimination, and I think that’s the problem that we have because everybody wants to say, “Not me; I’m not like that.” Instead of just listening and coming up with solutions, we’ve just been letting time pass on. It keeps passing on, passing on. It appears to be getting worse instead of getting better and you’d think that it should start getting better down the line.
Many people are calling for disarming police. What is your reaction to that?
I really don’t think disarming the police is a good thing because you would have to disarm the criminals. We have to stay focused that there’s still crime and there’s still shootings in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. Who would work a job that they are putting their life in danger and they are walking around with a Taser or a billy club? You still have to be armed, but at the same time you have to have a heart and you have to love people because every situation is not a shoot situation, but if you’re afraid, you may feel like it’s a shoot situation. So it’s one of those things, the officer has to feel comfortable, but you still have to feel love for the community. As a police officer, you do have other options than a gun. Choose your officers better. Make it a little harder to be an officer. Ask those questions that may be uncomfortable. See how they react. Don't ask it when they are just sitting down. Ask it during the polygraph and see the needle jump up when you start asking them uncomfortable questions.
Love for others is a fascinating concept as a prerequisite for the job.
All police officers are not bad. There’s a lot of police officers that have that heart, they’re out there doing the work because they love people. That’s the key to being a police officer, you have to love people. Without that it’s like being a football player but you don’t know how to catch. What are you doing?
Anything else you want to add?
My focus is mainly on the community. The police department has to find a way to connect with the community for a lot of reasons. With this happening around the world, with so many blacks getting killed by police officers, it’s not looking good. How are you supposed to trust? And without trust, what do you do? What do you tell your son? Do you tell him, “Don’t trust police officers”? At some point you want to say, “Trust the police; they’re your friend.” But I don’t think anybody is saying that right now. And the mothers I’ve spoken with, they’re afraid for their son’s life. Can you imagine? You’re afraid from the police, who are supposed to be helping you, you’re afraid they may kill your son. This is bigger in a lot of areas than what people actually can see. That is why I do believe we have to get stronger with community policing because at this point I think most every black parent needs counseling.
Yeah, my mom worried about me growing up but never because of police …
There’s millions of ways you can die — car accidents — there’s so many different ways. But you never want “by police officer” to be on the top of the list. At least not in the United States. Not here. This is America. We have to learn how to get along and stop judging people by the color of their skin. As Americans, we have to start loving one another more. Again, that word “love” is the key, because if you love someone you’re not thinking about hurting no one.