Failing Faith by Wade Bearden, Free for CAPC Members
In Failing Faith, Wade Bearden invites us into his life so that we might find a faith that can hold up under the weight of real-world realities.
A teddy bear probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of police gear. But for Officer Tommy Norman of the North Little Rock Police Department, teddy bears are essential equipment. You can find them in the trunk of his squad car, nestled right next to a cooler full of cold drinks and packages of chips. When Officer Norman patrols the inner city neighborhoods of downtown North Little Rock, kids run up to his police car while others rush to tell their friends and family members that “Officer Norman has arrived!” These are not cries of fear but cries of pure joy as they sprint up to the rolled down window of Norman’s car (sometimes even forgetting to stop!) to greet the officer who always addresses them by name and reminds them that they’re his “buddies.”
Norman’s famous trunk is a treasure trove of goodies for the kids he sees on a daily basis. And he makes an extra effort to visit these same children every day, even if his day is extremely busy. He believes that “just two minutes” can have a powerful impact on a child’s life, and that the contact, care, and showing of love must all be consistent in order to build an actual relationship. He also knows that the small gifts he gives to the children he serves — e.g., cold drinks, candy, stickers, his own business card, blue bracelets that say “Be Kind” on them — are “like pots of gold when they come from the hand of a police officer.” (Norman recently learned that the business card he gave to an eight-year-old boy was placed on his nightstand; it’s the first thing he sees in the morning and the last thing he sees at night. Such a small thing became a precious reminder of the security and love provided by his friend, Officer Norman.)In Norman’s work, we see authority that is not built on reckless or threatening attempts to grasp power, but rather, on mutual respect engendered by an authority figure whose intentions are truly to serve, protect, and “be a friend.”
On days when he has a bit more time, Norman gets out of his police car to play with kids, check on the elderly, and even hand out drinks to neighborhood workers. On his extremely popular Instagram account, he writes, “Some people call it foot patrol but it can also be considered love patrol!” You’ll hear the word “love” spoken over and over — mostly from the mouth of Norman himself as he frequently tells those he serves that he loves them. Handing teddy bears to kids and the elderly is just one small way he concretely expresses this love.
Norman has worked for the North Little Rock Police Department for seventeen years. At first, he thought that a friendly honk and wave were enough to establish a relationship with the community he served. But he soon realized that the only thing he was learning about the community was that “they wave back,” which was not enough. He needed to get out of his car, sit on porches, and learn the stories of others by listening to them and participating very actively and consistently in their lives: “You work eight hours a day as a police officer — but those other sixteen hours a day are those people’s lives.” Norman believes that he needs to be “aware and connected” to those other sixteen hours. And he is just that, even on his days off. On Instagram, we can follow his frequent visits — both in and out of uniform — to Boys and Girls Club, Arkansas Dream Center, United Cerebral Palsy of Arkansas, church events, block parties, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and even as an honored guest at a local barber shop’s community appreciation party. (The North Little Rock Police Department, under the guidance of Chief Mike Davis, has created an infrastructure that enables and encourages this kind of positive policing as officers are regularly involved in events like “Shop With a Cop,” the Special Olympics, “Fish with a Cop,” and the yearly “Season of Giving” event.) As a result, Norman’s specific community has radically embraced him, a powerful response to his commitment to them.
On one of the many videos of children running excitedly towards Norman’s car, an Instagram follower writes, “To see kids run TOWARD a police car is so encouraging.” This striking image is a reflection of his radically relational approach to community policing. Norman is a white police officer that is very respected and loved by the mostly African American residents on his patrol route. This respect has been earned from seventeen years filled with often sacrificial acts of love — such as taking his day off last week to travel to another city for a surprise visit with his dear friend, a Special Olympian named Ashley. You can see the community’s deeply rooted admiration for Norman in his many videos as children address him as “Sir” without even being prompted. The body language, frequent giggles, and playful teasing of their favorite officer are evidence that they feel a sense of peace and comfort around him as if he were a trusted family member. And like any beloved family member, he attends birthday parties, visits those he cares for in the hospital, and uses his time off to reconnect with friends that have moved away from his patrol area. This family connection was strikingly evident when Norman was recently contacted by the daughter of an elderly woman who had passed away a few months before. While sorting through her things, her children found a photo album in which she had preserved a photo from a 2010 newspaper clipping about Norman; her pride and joy in their friendship was obvious because she had written “My friend” and “Neighbor Hood Street Cop” on the photo, keeping it in a special place as a treasure.
Two members of the community “family” that are closest to Norman are Deborah and Jay Meadows, a formerly homeless couple who have become Instagram celebrities on his page. This couple, who have no family nearby, have now secured housing; according to Norman, the couple has always chosen to stay in the area he patrols because it provides them with a sense of security. He checks on them on a daily basis. Because of the many touching interactions between Officer Norman and the couple documented on Instagram, significant donations from those following their story have come in for Deborah and Jay, including an air conditioner, a microwave, and groceries. Just last week, Norman announced that he was planning a renewal of marriage ceremony and reception for Deborah and Jay; Instagram exploded with offers of donations towards the events. In another recent post, we see Deborah and Jay surprising Alyssa, Officer Norman’s daughter, with a birthday cake that they bought from a Kroger a mile away. (Deborah traveled in her electric wheelchair and Jay walked alongside her in the 100 degree Arkansas heat to buy it.) Deborah’s warm, giving nature is palpable through the screen, and Norman highlights it often as we see her coming out to wash his windshield, bring him a homemade lunch, or hand him a first aid kit that she bought him (especially for the cuts that he gets when shaving his head).
It takes time and repeated effort to grow these very enriching relationships with members of the community. This is especially true in the wake of this year’s many difficult stories about chaotic, tragic interactions between police officers and people of color. On his Instagram account, Norman offers narratives that show the peaceful, transformative results of what he calls “leading from the heart more than the badge” as he relentlessly works to “bridge the gap.” He was recently asked by a local mother to come spend time with her three-year-old son who had been having nightmares about the police. Norman went to visit the child and quickly developed a relationship with him, dispelling the fears he held. Officer Norman also frequently invites children to sit in his police car (and even turn on the siren!) or wear a police helmet and badge sticker; these help children associate police work with love, hope, and protection rather than fear and punishment.
New children to Norman’s neighborhood are sometimes hesitant to engage with a police officer. In one instance, as Norman pulls up to meet a group of children for the first time, they quickly jump off their swings and run back into their apartment. He gets out of his car, walks to the apartment, and asks their mother if he can speak with them. When he asks them why they ran away, one child responds: “We thought you was fixing to lock us up.” Norman quickly asks, “Why? I’m your friend,” and offers them drinks from his trunk. In the next video, we see Norman sitting in a swing with the same child pushing him as he tells him to “get me way up in the air.” Norman’s response to this child’s fear is a model of servant leadership, effective community policing, and good parenting. Rather than ignoring or dismissing these children — or worse yet, making assumptions about them — he moves out of his police car, enters their home space, and engages them in conversation to reassure them that he was there for them, not against them. Perhaps the most telling picture of relational policing is when Norman temporarily becomes vulnerable, comically disempowering himself and allowing the child pushing him on the swing to be the one in charge. He enters into the child’s world at his level, showing that he trusts this young man. Soon, the trust will be on both sides.
This trust even plays a part in solving crimes. When the mother of a young man involved in a drive-by shooting called Officer Norman because her son wanted to turn himself in, Norman went to the home and arrested him. During the drive to the station, Norman asked him why he chose to turn himself in. The young man then explained that he remembered Norman’s visits to his school and neighborhood. As Norman recounts it, even though the young man made bad decisions as an adult, his childhood memories of positive police interactions left him with “an amount of respect and trust in [Norman],” as well as the knowledge that when he was arrested, he would be treated with “dignity and respect.” This man is now in prison and Norman visits his mother.
Developing authentic relationships with North Little Rock’s children also has a positive effect on the crime rate itself. According to Norman, “When you become friends with a child, when they think about breaking the law, they know you will be upset and that they will disappoint you, and they think twice before doing that.” Norman acts as a friend and even a father figure to many children; because these children know that he cares for them, they want to make him proud. In the context of a positive relationship, they are also taught that they have value, potential, and a future. Because of this, Norman says, “My tickets are down and my arrests are down — but the hope and the promise, they’re up.”
In Norman’s work, we see authority that is not built on reckless or threatening attempts to grasp power, but rather, on mutual respect engendered by an authority figure that shows he can be trusted because his intentions are truly to serve, protect, and “be a friend.” His relationship with the community he serves is a reflection of 1 John 4:8, which tells us that “There is no fear in love.” And another specific way that Norman shows love for his community is how he very intentionally portrays them in a positive light on his social media accounts, subverting stereotypes about the homeless, inner city residents, and those with disabilities. We see this on his Instagram account when he features a photo of neighborhood teenagers walking from house to house looking for work (and captions it a “brag moment”), as well as multiple videos in which he comments on the good manners of the children he encounters. In one very poignant and timely video, he allows us to truly hear a child’s voice, giving her a sense of agency as he films her saying that police officers need to “treat people right,” a phrase that he then repeats in order to to affirm her point of view. She later paraphrases the golden rule, saying that police officers need to “Treat others the way you supposed to be treated.”
Norman’s passion for serving others and conviction that he needs to be “treating others as you supposed to be treated” is something that was cultivated within him long before his 1998 entrance into the police force. He credits his mother with teaching him that it’s important to put others first, even if this meant going without himself. He remembers a strong sense of what he refers to as a “calling” to serve as early as age twelve when he sought extra jobs in order to earn money to sponsor a child through Feed the Children. Amazed that he could actually impact the life of a child across the world, he recognized that this desire, gifting, and opportunity could only come from God. Before he became a police officer, Norman volunteered regularly for Big Brothers & Big Sisters, United Way, hospice care, and other organizations. When the opportunity came to become a police officer, he saw that this position could provide a platform that would enable him to reach, serve, and care for many more individuals than he could otherwise.
It’s evident in Norman’s relaying of his history, as well as his current impact through the North Little Rock Police Department, that there is no clear dividing line between his work and his life — both reflect the same deep sense of joy and purpose. This is a vivid example of the Christian concept of vocation, the idea that, in serving others by doing the things you love, you are actually serving and loving God Himself. As Parker Palmer explains in Let Your Life Speak: “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” Norman’s sense of joy and fulfillment in his given vocation is undeniable when watching him give back to his beloved community.
Another beloved community has formed on Norman’s social media accounts. Although he has been a local celebrity for many years — his colleagues joke that he shouldn’t direct traffic because all of the residents stop and wave, causing a traffic jam — he became nationally known in 2011 for winning the “All Star” award from America’s Most Wanted. He became an even more widely known public figure this past May when Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike went on CNN to encourage white viewers to “get involved” in the black community “like a policeman in North Little Rock.” Because of Killer Mike’s advocacy, Norman was also interviewed in this segment; within a few days, his Instagram followers rose from 6,000 to 25,000. Just this week, some of Norman’s photos were featured on the front page of Imgur and a comical video of his learning to “Hit the Quan” got over 2 million views on Facebook. (The follow-up videos are even more hilarious.) Many of his social media followers express a sense of surprise and encouragement when looking at the over 5,000 photos and videos on his accounts. One follower, echoing the sentiments of many, writes, “This dude is changing my mind about police officers on a daily basis… It’s so refreshing to see someone being a positive authority figure not abusing power.” Another explains that “Black lives matter and he understands.” The joy contained in Norman’s simple glimpses into everyday neighborhood life do have a particular power to dispel any cynicism. When one follower asked Norman “When do you have time to do police work?” he simply responded with “This is police work.”
This daily documentation of Norman’s heartfelt interactions with the community seem almost irresistible to his online following. They see the glorious simplicity of childhood, the ordinary joys of everyday activities, and the sweetness of friendship. They meet North Little Rock’s Wendy’s employees, Norman’s own children, and even one of the local sign shakers. Many of Norman’s followers express a desire for their home states, whether it be Rhode Island or California, to have a similar strong sense of community. But this almost idyllic picture of an Arkansas community is due in large part to Norman’s ability to treat everyone he encounters as if he or she was truly valuable. Part of what attracts us to his Instagram account is that the Imago Dei in each individual — be they child, homeless person, elderly neighbor, or fellow police officer — is highlighted. These encounters are glorious because human beings are glorious; Tommy Norman truly “gets” this, and he treats them accordingly. As one Imgur commenter said, “Officer Norman is teaching us how to be human.”
In a sense, Norman’s Instagram account has inspired a movement; there are many stories of individuals — local college students, children, out of state followers — who bring or send donations for North Little Rock’s children. As we watch Norman teaching his “buddies” ways to be kind and share the joy of giving, we repeatedly see that, as one of his followers notes (echoing Acts 20:35), “It is better to give than to receive.” When Norman shared the recent story of a young girl who was undergoing brain surgery, a Miami family sent her flowers and balloons. Others are starting their own events to give back to the community: Little Rock residents Eureka and Nathaniel first met Officer Norman when they brought him a shopping cart full of treats to share with the residents of inner city North Little Rock. Soon after, Eureka had a vision for organizing her own large back to school event for children in need so that she could provide them with essential items such as socks and underwear as well as food — and a visit with special guest. (Officer Norman, of course.) When Norman posted Eureka’s call for donations on his Instagram account, one New Yorker donated $300 worth of gift cards. There’s no doubt that this “movement” to give will just keep growing.
The shared stories of the online community are an equally powerful aspect of the growing movement. One of the most moving sets of comments thus far comes from a 47-year-old woman who explains that when she was a child, an officer named Detective Allen protected her and her mother from an abusive stepfather. She says that “he was the only reason I could sleep at night” and that she might not be alive if it wasn’t for this officer who stepped in to shield her. She asks Officer Norman, “Have you ever wondered how many of the kids life you have saved? How much that community will give their own lives to protect you?” She then relays that there were times as a child when she could not sleep for fear of her abusive stepfather returning. Her mother had a talk with Detective Allen, and he promised that “he would watch over us”; he would flash his lights when he passed their house at night “just so we knew he was watching over us.” She concludes her comment by telling Officer Norman, “You are that spotlight for many.”
This moving story highlights some of the often unseen aspects of police work and reminds us that Norman’s bond with members of his community, especially the children, can be truly life-altering. Norman explains that “the stats that matter are the hearts that you are mending, the trust and the love that’s instilled in the hearts of people that see that.” When those that he serves know that he loves and trusts them, there is a healing in their hearts as they also love and trust him. From Norman’s many posts narrating and showing his love for the community, we learn that, perhaps most of all, he desires to see peace on the faces of those he serves. And often, as his work days wrap up, he thinks about the children he has spent time with during the day, wondering if, “When they lay their heads down at night and go to sleep, are they at peace knowing that the police officers of their community care about them?” In Officer Tommy Norman’s patrol area of North Little Rock, Arkansas, the answer is “Yes.”
I would like to thank Officer Tommy Norman for the kindness he has shown by taking a great amount of time, both on the phone and in person, to share so many stories of his inseparable life and work. I also want to thank Chief Mike Davis, Sergeant Brian Dedrick, and Officer Carmen Helton of the North Little Rock Police Department for the time they have each taken to talk with me in person, on the phone, or via email in preparation for this story.
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