This summer was a hard one for Lt. Robert McGarner, a black cop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who’s spent 28 years on the force.
After Alton Sterling was killed by one of McGarner’s fellow officers in Baton Rouge, on July 5, the department was thrust into the center of an ongoing national debate about the appropriate use of police force — a conversation that has included near-continual peaceful protests across the country and, occasionally, violence.
McGarner, 47, knew every victim. But he knew Montrell Jackson the best.
“You couldn’t miss him,” McGarner tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “Six three, six four. A big man. Always had a smile on his face.”
For much more about Robert McGarner’s experience as a black police officer in Baton Rouge, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
McGarner’s street crimes unit with Baton Rouge police rolls out in a platoon of chargers, each cop in their own car, working the city’s most dangerous areas. After Sterling’s shooting death, he faced tough questions everywhere he went.
“Why are the officers not in jail? Why is it taking them so long to finish doing the investigation?” he recalls. “These are questions I can’t answer.”
On one recent day on the job, McGarner’s unit pulled up on a group of teenagers parked in a car outside a convenience store instead of being in school.
The officers questioned the boys and ran a check on some pills in the passenger seat before letting them go. One of the boys grew agitated, yelling into the street that he was being harassed: “They want to f— with they own color.”
McGarner didn’t react. It’s a criticism he has heard many times during his tenure, he says. It’s just the nature of the job.
As a lifelong Baton Rouge resident, a cop and a black man, McGarner faces the delicate task of confronting his city’s tragedies while standing in multiple worlds which don’t always overlap.
For example, McGarner says that these days, people tend to whip out camera phones the moment he gets to a scene — which is good, because it reminds officers that “big brother is always watching.”
And while some videos can be taken out of context, he says, “There’s nothing you can video on your phone that’s going to get me in any kind of trouble.”
“If you’re trying to resist me, I’m going to have to use the force necessary to affect the arrest,” he says. “You ain’t gonna catch me on video doing nothing but my job. If I have to put my hands on you, you earned it.”
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McGarner supports Black Lives Matter, and he says he’s just as concerned with the young black men who are too often killed by one another. “Everyone wants to jump on a soapbox when law enforcement engages a person and a civilian ends up getting killed,” he tells PEOPLE. “We need to bring all of it to attention.
“I’m sick and tired of seeing a young man old enough to be my son laying out here.”
McGarner is married and has a daughter studying criminal justice at Southeastern Louisiana University. “As long as she don’t try to be police, we good,” he says. “I’m not spending all this money for you to be the police.” He’ll retire in four years, then “find some land and move into the country.”
“They can have all this traffic,” McGarner says. “They can have it.”
One day, he hopes, his community will find a way to heal. He even knows where to start. “We’re all mad at each other, and nobody is listening,” he says.
“At the end of the day, we all bleed the same. We’re all children of God. We have to put this stuff aside, so we can bring the city back the way it needs to be. We’re going to get better. I pray to God we’re going to get better.”