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To Save Black Lives, Protester Bruce Franks Will Do the Unthinkable: Work with Cops 

Can he really reform law enforcement from within?

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click to enlarge Franks, right, argues a point to a police minority-recruitment class as instructor Sgt. Bill Clinton stands in the background. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Franks, right, argues a point to a police minority-recruitment class as instructor Sgt. Bill Clinton stands in the background.

Franks named his new grassroots organization, 28 to Life, after the statistic-turned-meme that a black person is killed by a cop every 28 hours. That figure, pulled from a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, went viral in the wake of Ferguson. It's not true.

The statistic has been debunked by PolitiFact and the Washington Post. But Franks hasn't given it a second thought — which is indicative of how fast he's been moving. He seems to experiment with a new initiative every week, just to see what sticks.

It also reflects how singularly focused he is on his programming, at the expense of branding — not to mention fundraising.

"He's not very good at asking for money," says Alderwoman Cara Spencer of the 20th Ward, where Franks is based. "As soon as he gets that 501(c)3 status, we can maybe get that rolling." For now, Franks says, he has only received a few hundred dollars in donations. He and his team work as volunteers.

The group's logo shows the number 28 inside the Superman diamond. He chose that shape, he says, because he's "in the business of making superheroes." That's partly a reference to the several teen summits he has held on Cherokee Street, wherein local kids meet law enforcers — employees of the FBI, U.S. Attorney's office, Circuit Attorney's office and city police have all attended. With their input, the teens hash out the problems on their blocks and craft plans to fix them.

But "superhero" is also a reference to what he thinks every cop should be: a nimble problem-solver who not only locks up villains, but can also disarm a threatening suspect through verbal or tactical jujitsu, without killing him. He recognizes that in some cases, deadly force is necessary and legal. But it should be rarer than it is.

In addition, Franks believes, a "superhero" cop is also incorruptible. That explains his reaction to a radio segment he heard on April 5, when Heather Taylor, a city police sergeant, called into The Demetrious Johnson Show on Hot 104.1 FM.

Taylor had just been elected president of the Ethical Society of Police (ESOP), which has historically been a black officers' association. Displaying no fear of rankling the top brass, Taylor knocked them for failing to promote black officers. She also bemoaned the new distribution of manpower that favors downtown at the expense of the largely poor and black north side.

Yet when it came to ethical crime-fighting, racial solidarity took a back seat.

"If white officers are doing wrong, they need to go," she said. "If black officers are doing wrong, they need to go too, because it's all about the community."

Hearing those remarks, Franks immediately texted his police contacts to find her.

When they connected, she told him that the previous November, the mayor's office had agreed to set aside $50,000 in public-safety funds to partner with ESOP on a minority-recruitment program. The course's aim was to bolster minority applicants to the police academy by getting them up to speed on computer literacy, professional etiquette, use-of-force protocol, and strategies for acing the required exams.

Taylor invited Franks to attend and give the pre-cadets a citizen's perspective.

"When he started class with us in March, he was very angry," says 29-year-old applicant Rosa Rojas. "His intention was to bash cops."

But by debating with instructors sergeant Bill Clinton and detective Keaton Strong over use-of-force videos, she says, Franks seemed to find some common ground.

"He really just wants to stop African Americans from being killed," she says.

Common ground doesn't always come so easily. Progress can become mired in politics.

Franks recently hatched an idea for a gun-buyback program. He wanted it to include a resource fair, a job fair and amnesty for certain nonviolent offenses in exchange for community service.

So he broached the topic with city police chief Sam Dotson, who supports the buyback concept. Franks found another receptive audience in board of aldermen president Lewis Reed, who had already passed a resolution authorizing buybacks in January 2014.

But Franks didn't realize how complex city hall alliances could be. The media got wind of the plan and publicized it before Franks, Dotson and Reed could hash out who else would be involved and how exactly to fund it. A flurry of phone calls and miscommunications ensued, and Franks feared his coalition was unraveling.

While he says the project is now back on track, the lesson was a frustrating one.

"I don't give a fuck about these politics, man," he said at the time. "I want everybody to be involved."

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