Courtesy Marquis Stephens
Marquis Stephens, left, a loan officer with Veridian Credit
Union, and Cory Stephens, a patrol officer with the Waverly Police
Department, pose for a photo Saturday.
WAVERLY — As activists took to the streets nationwide demanding an end to police killings of Black people in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Marquis Stephens reached out to one of the only police officers he knew.
“Haven’t talked to you in a while. How are you doing in these crazy times?” the Waverly man, who is Black, messaged Cory Stephens, a white Waverly patrol officer. “Hope everything is good.”
Cory Stephens — no relation to Marquis Stephens — wasn’t sure what to make of the message. He knew Marquis as his loan officer at Veridian Credit Union on a boat loan. Their sons played on an elementary-aged baseball team two summers ago; the men weren’t exactly best friends.
“Definitely crazy times,” Cory messaged back, noting he was praying for healing. “If you need anything, let me know.”
Marquis did want something, it turned out: In the midst of protests that seemed to pit the Black Lives Matter movement against the police and vice-versa, Marquis wanted to find some common ground. Could they have a productive conversation, he wondered?
Hesitant, Cory nonetheless agreed. He set up a police ride-along.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Cory remembered. “I thought, ‘OK. I hope his intentions are pure.’”
And then, Cory had another thought.
“I hope that I can listen well. I hope my intentions are pure.”
‘Lack of trust’
Like many Black people he knows, Marquis Stephens has had his share of “run-ins with the cops.”
The Lisbon native heard “backhanded compliments,” racist language and behavior even before attending Wartburg College in the early 2000s. It no longer surprised him to see an officer take a look at who was driving — a Black man — and flip on their lights.
“There was just that lack of trust there,” Marquis said. “But my friends have been through much worse.”
Hearing friends’ stories — and seeing the killings of Black people at the hands of white police officers — might have hardened Marquis. He still hears stories of Black students leaving Wartburg at the end of a semester, never to return.
But Marquis, now a 15-year Waverly resident, has gotten to know many of the small city’s residents. That includes two Waverly Police Department officers.
He remembered spending time in the bleachers with Cory, watching their 8-year-old sons play baseball, cheering on the “Stephens boys.” Now Marquis worried there was a “big target on cops’ backs.”
Right around the Juneteenth holiday, Marquis sent his message.
“We don’t want things to happen here like in other cities,” Marquis remembered thinking. “The African-American community here doesn’t see eye to eye with the cops. ... I said, ‘This is the first step. I need to feel valued, and I want that trust.’”
Not the plan
Cory Stephens didn’t plan on becoming a police officer.
But once the Evansdale native retired from the military, he wasn’t finding much purpose in his grocery-store. His father-in-law, a retired police officer, asked Cory if he’d ever thought about becoming a cop.
“I said, ‘No.’ He said, “Well, you should,’” Cory remembered. “Best decision I’ve ever made.”
The Waterloo East High School graduate started with the Waverly Police Department in 2008, moving with his wife and family and teaching drug abuse resistance education, or DARE, to sixth-graders.
“I could not ask to work for a better administration in a better town,” Cory said. “It’s given me that chance to — it sounds cliché — but to serve a greater good, to help the community.”
After 12 years on the force, Cory knows there are many different types of officers.
Most of them — he counts himself among them — “operate in the gray area,” trying to help people instead of punishing them. Others, he says, “portray themselves as being very brash and hard-nosed.”
He doesn’t think those officers are racially motivated. “It’s just not the way I would do it.”
A “pretty religious guy,” Cory lately has been listening to sermons from Quovadis Marshall, better known as “Pastor Q,” who leads Waterloo’s Hope City Church, known for its racially diverse congregation.
“One of the things I’ve pulled from his last sermon is, if you’re going to have dialogue, the first thing you have to do is listen,” Cory said.
So when Marquis reached out, Cory decided that’s what he would do.
“Marquis said, ‘I only trust you and like one other cop.’ That wasn’t easy for him to do,” Cory said. He realized, “It’s kind of a big thing for him to jump in a squad car.”
WASHINGTON — As calls for police reform swell across America, officers say they feel caught in the middle: vilified by the left as violent racists, fatally ambushed by extremists on the right seeking to sow discord and scapegoated by lawmakers who share responsibility for the state of the criminal justice system.
On Saturday, Marquis Stephens hopped into Cory Stephens’ squad car for a ride-along. Cory, he said, was true to his intention of listening.
“Me, being Black, I might think of a situation different from him, being white and a cop, too,” Marquis said. “We just talked about that, the experiences, and just fed off of that, asking questions.”
For four hours, Cory drove Marquis around Waverly, deep in conversation and thankful it was a “very quiet Saturday morning.”
Marquis heard about Cory’s journey to becoming an officer. Cory learned about Marquis growing up playing sports with his older brother and excelling in track at Wartburg.
Then, Marquis told Cory about the issues he had experienced with police. Initially, Cory didn’t want to believe that could include officers like the ones he’d worked with and relies on.
“As someone who has always had to treat everybody right — and coming from a diverse background — it didn’t make sense at first,” Cory said. “But then, when I listened to him talk about that distrust, it wasn’t toward me — it was his real-life scenarios.”
Marquis, Cory realized, wasn’t asking Cory to explain the actions of other police officers. Nor was he expecting Cory to atone for the wrongs of those officers.
Marquis just wanted Cory to hear him. Believe him.
“I don’t need to know that I caused it,” Cory said. “I just need to know that it’s a legitimate thing he experienced.”
The two ended the ride-along at the restaurant El Sol, where they both ordered their favorite dish: fajita quesadillas. At Marquis’ request, Cory invited along another officer, Tony Krull, whom Marquis also peppered with questions.
“I wanted, not just one or two cops to trust, I wanted more,” Marquis said. “Shaking his hand and getting his story, how he’s feeling in a time like this, it’s part of it.”
Marquis’ care eased Cory’s mind.
“The genuine care Marquis had — ‘How are you holding up? How are you doing?’ When you start with questions like he did, I can let my guard down,” Cory said.
Marquis shared a photo of the pair next to Cory’s squad car and the story of how the ride-along came together on his Facebook page. It amassed hundreds of shares in less than a day.
“I did not expect to see the impact this has had,” Marquis said.
Cory — one of the department’s field training officers — said he’s already thinking of ways he can use his experience to train new officers.
“To be able to have that brief moment in time, now I can take these new officers coming into the department and shape their minds. I can introduce them to Marquis,” Cory said.
Both hope their story will lead to opportunities for more dialogue, and eventually for change.
“When he’s telling me about his distrust for police, I make that jump almost automatically in my mind — ‘I’m police, you distrust me’ — and I need to get over that,” Cory said. “Just because he doesn’t trust the greater police doesn’t mean he can’t trust me.”
Marquis said he feels the same way. He wants to meet as many officers as he can — and wants them to meet Waverly’s other Black residents, including students.
“People of color at the college age see me, a younger guy who graduated from Wartburg, and maybe they can trust the cops, too,” Marquis said. “We don’t want their very first experience to be them being picked up, and already painting the cops in a bad light.”
Officers can help turn that perception around too, Cory said.
“It might be their worst day, and as police officers, we need to realize that and not to take that personally,” he said. “And dig deep on, ‘How do we really help them?’”