Hoboken police officer Jonathan Butler and former Hoboken judge Ross London take on racial profiling and police abuse as co-authors of the one act play “In That Moment,” which has been performed in New York City and New Jersey and is being converted to DVD. The play has been used as a teaching tool for law enforcement officers and as a vehicle to encourage dialogue on these issues among diverse communities.
The one-act play is about an African-American police officer who is riddled with internal turmoil and identity issues as he attempts to understand his actions in a homicide case. The play opens with the main character, played by Butler, who is seated in a jail cell before he goes to trial for shooting a black youth. A guard challenges him each step of the way as he attempts to understand his own identity in relationship to the black youth and how his personality changed once he became a police officer.
Issues relevant today
“Historically the Black and Hispanic community has struggled with a good relationship with any police department,” said Butler.
“The history of policing the minority community has been one of the sorriest chapters of American history, because it has always been a combination of abuse on the one hand and neglect on the other,” said London. He said that only within the last several decades have police forces begun to reflect the communities they serve.
“The first time the play was performed was during the Sean Bell trial as it was unfolding in Queens,” said London.
“The message of loving and respecting the community is absolutely vital to policing.” – Ross London
Most recently, the Florida shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer of Latino ethnicity, has re-ignited national debate over racial profiling.
“These incidents that occur with alarming frequency only underscore how sensitive they continue to be,” said London.
Providing sensitivity training
“In That Moment” takes audiences through a police officer’s mind as he faces a life and death situation and demonstrates how misperceptions about race and identity can negatively lead to decisions that have fatal consequences.
London and Butler have conducted police officer training sessions using the play as a vehicle and tool to stimulate dialogue on these types of issues.
“I think that plays like this are good for sensitizing both police officers and also community members because it puts a human face on these problems,” said London. “The play gets audiences thinking about how to bring about policing that is powerful and effective against crime but also respective of the rights of individuals.”
“I grew up in the same communities that I police,” said Butler. “Whatever was taught in the environment is what I learned.” He said that it takes practice to train the mind to change your perceptions. He said he treats every person he encounters like a family member and with professionalism and respect until the situation changes.
“The message of loving and respecting the community is absolutely vital to policing,” said London.
“I knew Jonathan and I knew his family for many years,” said London. London had started the Hudson Theater Ensemble, a local community theater group. Butler taught theater at the Hudson School where the ensemble had performed. London was also a director of Off Broadway shows in New York City. Butler had been performing since the age of five and had done theater, film, and commercial work as well as write and direct.
When Butler started his own production company, One Mile Productions, he sought out London for ideas about what to produce. London got his Ph.D. in 2006. He teaches Legal Studies at Berkeley College. Butler broached the topic after he appeared as a guest speaker in one of London’s classes.
“I was at the point where I wanted to stop auditioning for acting parts,” said Butler. “I wanted to produce my own work.”
London told Butler that he should create his own script. He said he told Butler, “You embody one of the most important issues that we face in policing, and that is police-minority relations.”
“And then that is how he put the bug inside my head,” said Butler. “We both put our heads together.”
To write the play, the two went through a series of soul-searching sessions to explore a lot of the underlying issues.
“I am a white guy. He is a black guy, and you have to be totally and completely honest about everything,” said London. “It was a wonderful dialogue that we had with each other [and] what emerged from it was the outline of this play.”
London and Butler are in the process of developing a DVD and educational package with lesson plans, study guides, reading lists, and power point presentations.
For more information, visit: http://criminaljusticeoutreach.net/index.html.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.