Can familiarity build trust? A white cop moves into black Atlanta neighborhood

One street in Atlanta shows why American race relations are so fraught – and the steps toward how they might be made whole.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Atlanta police officer Mike Costello stands outside his home in the Edgewood neighborhood of Atlanta.

Not long after Mike Costello moved into a renovated brick ranch on Ericson Street earlier this year, he was helping the cable guy at his house when shots rang out – first one, then another.

As a cop, Mr. Costello knew exactly what the pops were. And as a cop, he didn’t just peer through the blinds. He ran outside. At first, he couldn’t see anything amiss, but then Raymond Hinton came running fast around the corner.

Everyone on Ericson Street knew Ray. Wherever he was, trouble usually wasn’t far behind. He’d had run-ins with the law before and usually hung with the wrong crowd. There was a felony on his record for getting caught with a rock of crack cocaine.

And just as surely, everyone knew Costello was the new cop next door – even if, on that day, he was just in his street clothes.

In that moment, as the two men stood looking at each other in the echo of gunfire, the gears of America’s debate on race clicked into place: The straight-laced cop and the troubled black man found in suspicious circumstances.

The kaleidoscope of relations between police officers and the black community has often spun around just such scenarios. Whose suspicions were right? Whose actions were justified? Too often, those encounters have ended in death and national upheaval.

On this day, Mr. Hinton turned and ran.

When his fellow cops arrived on the scene, Costello told them what had happened, and they quickly zeroed in on Hinton as the guy who shattered the silence.

But the thing was, Hinton was the victim. He was the one shot. He was the one doctors were able to save, but only barely.

The story of Atlanta’s Ericson Street, in many ways, is a picture of why America remains so racially divided – but also of how it might be able to overcome that and put itself together.

The story of Officer Costello and Raymond Hinton didn’t end amid recrimination and distrust, because the story of Officer Costello and Raymond Hinton still has not ended. They live right across the street from each other, after all.

Costello and other neighbors bought Hinton pizza and drinks to wish him well. It might seem a small thing, but to Hinton, it matters. The road to racial understanding, it turns out, can be a lot easier when you know whom you’re looking in the eye.

“Don’t get me wrong, Officer Costello is a good guy,” Hinton says. “I mean, he’s never said he’s sorry or anything like that for pegging me as the shooter, and that’s OK, I get it. But that’s why I think it’s good for cops to live where they work: It can take awhile for people of different ethnicities to figure each other out, you know, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try to do it. I think it’s really the one way we can bring it to understanding.”

Costello is among a growing number of Atlanta officers moving into the neighborhoods they often patrol. For the 2015 Atlanta “Officer of the Year,” home is now Edgewood, a blighted-but-improving neighborhood three miles from downtown. Many of Costello’s neighbors are black, and one Edgewood resident runs a police watchdog group that once exhorted residents to throw bricks at police cruisers. Some did.

Many days Costello jogs by the spot where one of his friends was shot in the face and leg with a shotgun in an ambush three years ago. The friend recovered but gave up the badge.

Atlanta police hope that officers like Costello will help heal relations between the police department and the black community. Only 13 percent of the city’s white cops live in the city. Critics counter that nothing but better training will make a difference.

Regardless of what it does for the Atlanta Police Department, however, Costello’s move has changed him and those around him. For each, the change has been different and often subtle – the neighbor who resented police for how they pulled him over, the neighbor who was herself afraid to move to Edgewood, and the neighbor whose first instinct when he was shot was to flee from the police. 

•  •  •

Frankly, Costello didn’t have any idea how things would go when he decided to move to Edgewood.

He had lived in New York City, where he “knew all kinds of different people.” His partner on the beat is black – a former stand-up comedian. And Costello was officer of the year for single-handedly collaring an armed home invader whose gun had already been fired.

But before he joined the Secure Neighborhoods Initiative, which gives cops a $300-a-month stipend to move into blighted neighborhoods, Costello he had never really spent a night in a neighborhood like Edgewood, where even the clergy are armed. In Atlanta, he had lived in Buckhead and Virginia Highlands, playgrounds of the Atlanta elite.

The Atlanta Police Department opted against a low-key arrival. The city rolled out a red carpet and news cameras showed up when Costello moved in. When they left, he took stock, started building a shed in the backyard, and hoped for the best.

“The cat was out of the bag,” he says. “It would either turn out great, or it would be mayhem.”

The fissures running through America run down Ericson Street, too. Costello has had to ask himself every day whether he is in Edgewood as a cop or a neighbor. In other cities, encounters between white cops and black men over things as minor as jaywalking, selling loose cigarettes, or fixing a broken tail light have led to fatal violence.

So what does Costello do about the fellow down the street who smokes pot? In this case, let it slide.

“I know I can’t be out here rousting everybody for every little thing, acting like the sheriff of Ericson Street,” he says. But he admits that sometimes “it can be a fine line.”

But he is here, and that matters. Generally speaking, segregation is still the reality of American life. And the many complications of race in America begin with the fact that so few whites and blacks get to know one another as neighbors, some experts say.

“Atlanta is very emblematic of the persistence of racial problems that really are plaguing all of the United States, and in particular metro areas,” says Steven Holloway, a cultural geographer at the University of Georgia in Athens. Mixed neighborhoods “are part of what the civil rights movement has been and is continuing to be: If you don’t interact with people and understand each other as humans and the human condition, you’re going to spiral away from one another, and things are not going to get better.” 

•  •  •

Marquita Moore, for one, isn’t sure what to make of the cop next door.

At first blush, she, her husband, and their baby twin boys might seem like precisely the kind of family that would welcome a police officer in the neighborhood. Stray bullets here have been known to fly through houses with kids and middle class parents inside. Street racers screech down side roads with their cars thrumming in high gear.

Moreover, Costello seemed like a nice enough guy, she says.

But that has not made getting along easy.

Ms. Moore can’t quite shake a suspicion of police officers, given recent videotaped tragedies involving cops and unarmed black men. And her husband, Drew, who grew up in predominantly black Atlanta neighborhood, can recount instances where he was pulled over by police without good cause – at least from his point of view.

“My husband is a great, upstanding guy, and for someone like him to get hassled because of the way he looks, well, it just bothers me,” she says.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Mike Costello (l.) visits Drew Moore at his Atlanta home earlier this month.

She glances at her two wide-eyed twin boys.

“Plus, given what’s been going on, I worry about them.”

Jennifer Winfrey, however, has a different take. To the retired real estate investor, Costello has knitted himself into the Ericson Street community more quickly than she could have imagined.

He has participated in the cleanup of Sugar Creek, where dozens of residents armed with plastic bags picked through the little valley that runs behind her house. He has also worked with community leaders to plan security for the neighborhood’s first attempt at a street festival, the Mac and Cheese Fest, coming up in a few weeks.

“I mean, you can live on the same street and not be part of a community,” Winfrey says. “And it’s true that, here, blacks and whites have different churches and maybe different social lives. But everybody here is working for the same thing: Making the neighborhood better for everyone.”

Ms. Winfrey, who is black, was as uncertain about Edgewood as Costello when she first moved here. She still has a steel security door on the rental property she renovated and moved into two years ago. And like many here, she’s armed.

But Winfrey has always wanted to live mixed neighborhoods – feeling it was the only way for America to move forward racially. She grew up in the roughest part of Atlanta and came to Edgewood only when she decided it had become safe and integrated enough. 

What she found was that simply living with different people wasn’t enough. What’s needed is a sense of common cause. And that feeling spreads. After Costello helped on the creek cleanup, Winfrey cleared her entire backyard, which fronts the creek, terraced it, and has planted fruit trees – a life-long dream.

“He has helped us to trust each other, and once you feel that, it’s an atmosphere you want to keep,” she says.

Working as peers “means a lot in terms of changing perceptions of race and stereotypes and prejudicial views that people might have,” says Adia Wingfield, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “If a white officer is able to interact with black residents as peers on the same footing, that presents a lot of potential for optimistic change.”

But she also cautions: “You have to remember that there’s also been lots of periods of history where interracial proximity didn’t create racial progress.” 

•  •  •

When the shots rang out on Ericson Street two months ago, Costello immediately called his colleagues at Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 6 precinct. The street was soon flooded with blues.

Costello’s first impression was that his neighbor might have been involved. “I saw him come around the corner, and then he ran away from me,” Costello said later. “That was suspicious, and that’s what I told the responding officers.”

What was actually happening was that Raymond Hinton was bleeding. A man in a car had shot at him once. When Hinton ran, another shot rang out. He felt what he thought was a bullet breeze by him, but when he got home, his brother lifted his shirt and said, “Buddy, you’re hit.”

Hinton has been in and out of the criminal justice system, and when he was caught with a rock of crack seven years ago, he couldn’t afford an attorney to argue that he didn’t intend to sell it. Instead, he took a guilty plea, and now has a felony record. “That’s how guys like me do,” he says.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Raymond Hinton sits on the porch of his Ericson Street house in the Edgewood neighborhood of Atlanta.

But that day on Ericson Street changed Hinton, he says. On one hand, it reinforced the stark divide between even the best and bravest cops and the communities where they serve. But it began to show him a different side of the man across the street.

“I guess I see police in a different way, too. I can see that he’s out here trying," says Hinton. "When we see each other these days, we say, ‘Hey.’ ”

The change was not only in Hinton, but all of Ericson Street, says Nathan Dean, the pastor of Edgewood Church and one of Costello’s confidants.

“Yes, the neighborhood has wanted to get rid of Raymond because drama and danger has followed him before,” he says. “But I think after the shooting there was a realization that Ray is a neighbor, too, in need of pastoring and assistance. The humanizing experience works both ways.”

•  •  •

Costello acknowledges that his time in Edgewood has given him a different perspective on how African-Americans see policing. Previously, he saw the claims through the somewhat jaded eye of an experienced cop.

“As any cop knows, there are three versions of the truth,” he says, “His side, her side, and then what really happened.”

He used to be puzzled by protests that seemed founded on false witness accounts or incomplete video and “just [threw] fuel on a fire that’s already spreading.”

But now, Costello sees beyond facts and evidence.

“After a while, you do realize that at least some of these violent reactions to shootings have to do with history that’s finally come to a head,” he says. “Law enforcement tends to look at the facts, case by case, but it’s also clear that some things are a long time coming before they suddenly erupt.”

On a recent afternoon, Costello shows up at the Moores’ door while walking around the neighborhood, talking to folks. Mr. Moore, who before now has mostly only been pulled over by cops, now gives his new neighbor a bro hug, hands clasped, shoulder on shoulder.

Having watched Costello the past six months – interacting with everyone from hipster newcomers to retired black couples, Moore has begun to let go of his reservations. The program seems less and less a public relations stunt.

Moore says his hope is that his sons, when they grow up, will be treated without prejudice by police. And with Costello, that seems like it just might be possible – even as cities such as Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C., pulse with protest over the deaths of black people at the hands of police.

“You can see that he looks at people more as people than as potential criminals,” Moore says. “And that gives me hope at this moment.” 

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