William Johnston is senior associate for police and community programs with the Facing History and Ourselves Law Enforcement Project, which helps law enforcement agencies integrate moral decision-making and personal integrity into professional policing education and police culture. A nationally known expert on identifying and investigating hate crimes, Johnston retired from the Boston Police Department as deputy superintendent in 1997, the year in which he was selected to receive the first Civil Rights Award given by the International Association of Police Chiefs. Johnston speaks nationally on tolerance and the toll that hate-motivated violence takes on families, neighborhoods, and society. Recently, he was keynote speaker at the White House conference on hate crimes.
Excerpts from Lessons and Presentations
In this excerpt, William Johnston responds to a student’s question about how his experience as an investigator of hate crimes helped him to understand first-hand, “How do people move from name-calling and words to out-and-out violence?”
“For the first time in my life, I realized what it was to be a victim. I had never known that. As a police officer, I was there when? After the fact. I took the report and then I went off to my next call. The other lesson I learned: that if people perceive you as different, they treat you differently. You don’t even have to be different. As a decoy, if I was coming out of a straight bar, I was roughed up but only roughed up enough to get the money. Once you had the green, see you later until the back-up guys put them under arrest. But when I was coming out of a gay bar, the dynamics changed. It was always the words, “Kill the fag!” They perceived me as being gay, therefore I was different. And let me make this clear. When we’re dealing with those cowards, those haters, when they’re making you different, they’re making you less than them. And if they can do that to you, they can do anything they want to you. When my back-up officers would place those guys under arrest, they’d say, “What’s the beef?” They’d say, “You just robbed that guy.” They’d say, “But he’s only a fag!” To them, it wasn’t even a crime. It wasn’t an arrestable offense. In fact, they could go back into their community and brag, “I assaulted a person who was different.” How does it go from words to violence? Remember, when we’re dealing with haters, we’re dealing with cowards, and they don’t want to pay the price. So they always start with the words, and they step back to see if there’s any reaction. [They ask,] “Is anybody speaking up?” And if nobody’s speaking up, it goes up! And it’s assault, assault and battery. And they step back again. “Is anybody—the press, the media, the students, the teachers—is anybody saying anything?” If not, great! And it keeps on escalating up ’til somebody dies. And who killed that person? Was it the hater at that moment, or was it all of us [who] at any level could have said, “This will not be tolerated!”