As he watched the horrific video of that deranged Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee for nearly nine minutes into the neck of George Floyd, Robert Poles wanted to spring into action. The former Rochester cop wanted to climb through his television screen and yank Derek Chauvin off of the prone, handcuffed, gasping-for-air Floyd. He wanted to toss Chauvin aside just like he tossed aside all those would-be blockers back in the early 1980s when Poles was an All-Big East Conference defensive lineman at Boston College. The genteel, mountainous man known to most as Junior wanted to ask Chauvin and the three officers who stood idly by what the heck was wrong with them.
“With that cop, it wasn’t a matter of training,’’ Poles was saying the other day. “It was a matter of heart. That cop didn’t have one. He had no compassion, no empathy, no respect for that human being and no respect for the uniform he was wearing. Neither did the other officers on the scene.”
The death of a black man at the hands of an unhinged white police officer has become an all-too familiar and painful story in America. Not surprisingly, this latest one set off protests — some violent — in Minneapolis that swiftly spread to cities around the country and the globe, including here in Rochester. It also prompted Poles, an African-American, to relive some unpleasant moments. As a black man. And a cop.
Growing up black in the predominantly white town of Caledonia, Poles and his siblings were God-fearing, upstanding citizens who got along with pretty much everyone. They were quite popular in their community, in large part because they were all exceptional athletes and students. But that’s not to say they didn’t encounter racism.
“My brothers, sister and I would hear the N-word in Caledonia and other places throughout the county, including when we were competing in sports,’’ he said. “Early on, our parents educated us about this stuff. They said, ‘Listen, there are going to be some people, who, when they have nothing else to use against you, will resort to this. They’ll employ the N-word to try to get you to fight. You’ll need to rise above it, and not get dragged down to their level.’ It wasn’t easy to deal with, but you realize this was a minority of bad people doing this. Most people were and are decent and good.”
At an early age, Poles dreamed of playing in the National Football League. And, for a time, it seemed as if that aspiration might come true. At 6-foot-6 and close to 300 pounds, Poles dominated the competition in high school, earning small-school, New York State Player-of-the-Year honors at Caledonia-Mumford in 1978. Widely recruited, he wound up at Boston College, and after earning All-Conference football honors and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he was signed by the Seattle Seahawks in 1983. Training camp went well, and Poles thought he had made the team, but wound up being the final cut. He was crushed, and decided to give up on football. But two years later, he still felt an itch and signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Again, he performed well, and, again, he was released. “I was really down,’’ he said. “But, looking back, what seemed like a curse wound up being a blessing.”
At the urging of his father-in-law, a career state trooper, Poles took a law enforcement exam, and embarked on a 35-year journey in which he has attempted to make his community a better place by working with young people. “That wound up being my calling, my mission in life,’’ he said.
He spent nearly 22 years in the Rochester Police Department, earning numerous honors and commendations for his community service. Much of his work was done in local schools, where he coordinated anti-drug and anti-violence programs, and helped build trust between the police department and the large minority community it served. After retiring from the force in 2008, Poles earned a master’s degree in human resources from Nazareth College, and spent four years as a minority recruiter for Paychex.
A strong desire to work with young people again prompted him to obtain a teaching certificate from SUNY Brockport, and he spent the next six years with the Rochester City School District — first as a coordinator of Career Pathways to Public Safety and then as the director of operations for the University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men. Now, he’s preparing to launch the Poles’ Academy of Public Service, which will seek and train minority men and women to pursue careers in law enforcement.
The coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests ignited by several highly publicized cases of police brutality and racial injustice have many Americans worried that the country is going to hell in a hurry. But Poles, a devout Christian and church deacon, hasn’t lost hope. As a patrolman on the scene of fiery protests in Rochester following the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police in 1992, Poles witnessed first-hand how peaceful rallies could devolve into riots similar to one that transpired in the Flower City two Saturdays ago. While he doesn’t condone the looting and destruction by what he calls “opportunists,” he understands the depth of despair often felt by people of color who believe their voices for justice and equality aren’t being heard.
“I’m encouraged that young people — black and white millennials — aren’t willing to tolerate racism and certain traditions of the past,’’ he said. “They are fearless. They aren’t going to settle for the status quo. My faith teaches me that out of bad can come good, and I think that’s the case this time. I believe the glass is half full, and we’re filling it a little more each time we go through things like this.”
Poles continues to do his part, recruiting young, compassionate people who will treat police work as a privilege not an obligation and seek to heal divisions with the community they serve. He’s hoping helping hands will replace knees to necks. He’s hoping a senseless death brings about substantive, positive change.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digital formats at amazon.com.