The speech Wednesday afternoon at Schreiner University was what most wouldn't probably expect, especially when the headliner in a Baltimore cop, but it proved to be a lesson in humanizing police through words and poetry.
As the featured speaker of the university's Weir and Nell Labatt Lecture, Baltimore Police Department Detective Edward Gillespie brought plenty of grit to his story. However, underlying Gillespie's grit was a story of where policing is heading.
Podcaster Tom Fox interviews Ed Gillespie at Schreiner University on Oct. 20.
Gillespie has distinguished himself as an academic, a 16-year veteran police officer and a poet. The way Gillespie sees it, poetry is a literary device to make police officers more human.
"Why poetry, and how does that speak to the experience of policing?" Gillespie asked the audience. "Writing and policing has never really been variance. We're used to the noir genre, the gritty detective novel, police procedurals. So, we're used to all of that. Anything that is reality-based, like the "Wire" or "The Corner" there's always that crossover. So, why did I go to poetry?"
One of the reasons Gillespie chose poetry was the economy of words. Later in the day, podcaster Tom Fox told Gillespie his poetry was reminiscent of World War I poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. They used poetry to capture or process their trauma on the battlefield.
"The immediacy of poetry spoke viscerally to my experience as a police officer," Gillespie said. "That spoke to me in the first part of my journey as a poet cop; it was cathartic. It was about taking the laws of emotion and the most direct painful experiences and finding, maybe in the economy of language, connection."
Before entering the police force, Gillespie earned a bachelor's degree from George Washington University and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins. The product of an upper-middle-class upbringing that afforded him opportunities in a private prep school, Gillespie had an academic future ahead of him. Still, something more profound was calling to him.
Always fascinated by public service, Gillespie made a gigantic leap to pursue a career with the Baltimore Police Department in the wake of 9/11. Despite the concerns from his family, Gillespie leaped into a new job — one filled with dangers, both physically and emotionally.
"I came from an academic world where often dealing with a question, dealing with a question and dealing with an objective," Gillespie said. "Things were very balanced and sanitized. Now, I was dealing with mayhem. I was dealing with chaos. I was supposed to be the manager of mayhem and chaos."
Gillespie receives a standing ovation from the Schreiner University audience.
To manage that, Gillespie turned to free-verse poetry. Over the course of his career, Gillespie has published "Masala Tea and Oranges," "On the Later Addition of Sancho Panza," "Socorro Prophecy" and "Aerial Act". His most recent title is "Gentrifying the Plague House."
His writing often captures the worst parts of his job.
There is a bluntness to his writing. In one poem, Gillespie describes discovering a body in an apartment after six months. The words are vivid and uncomfortable — just like the scene.
Today his focus is educating a new generation of police officers in Baltimore — a city that has long struggled with its department's presence in the community. In the 16-years Gillespie has served, the Baltimore Police Department has endured repeated controversies and scandals.
Even before the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year, Baltimore had tangled repeatedly with questions about the use of force and policing the Black community. The department is working through reforms.
The city's policing challenges are hardwired into pop culture through television shows like "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets." As a training officer in the department's academy, Gillespie is front and center of these challenges, and he's spoken repeatedly about teaching about implicit bias, along with humanizing his police work.
However, writing remains his fallback to managing stress and the turbulence of his chosen career. During his luncheon speech, he often spoke directly to Kerrville police officers in the room, lauding them for their service and commitment. However, he also spoke about his own experiences of being tightly wound as a patrol officer, earning a directive from his wife to seek counseling.
In turn, it was the poetry and writing that helped Gillespie move forward. At any one time, Gillespie said he's working on multiple writing projects — like any good writer. However, the focus on reminding people that police officers are humans remains paramount.