DeQuincy Howard, a former Mizzou football player and the new head coach at Roosevelt High School, has worked in local law enforcement for more than a decade. He was on the front lines of the Ferguson protests. He knows there are plenty of good police officers. He knows there are deeply rooted problems to fix.
When he watched the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, Howard didn’t put himself in the boots of the officer but the man choking to death. He related to black, not blue.
“I know that could have been me when I was younger,” Howard said in a phone interview. “I’m a grown man now, but I did some wild things in my younger days. ... I just know if I was there as a civilian I would probably be in jail because I would have taken action to get that brother off Mr. Floyd.”
COVID-19’s paralysis of the sports world has meant more time to reflect, read and listen to the anger, the anxiety, the hurt felt across the country, especially in the wake of Floyd’s death. In recent weeks, my impulse was to connect with the most thoughtful people I’ve come across covering Mizzou as they process what’s roiling the nation. Cuonzo Martin and young high school coaches like Robert Steeples at De Smet and Will Franklin at Vashon shared candid, heartfelt thoughts on these pages in recent weeks.
It was Franklin who first mentioned his close friend Howard, whose 37 years on earth have shaped layers of different perspectives that resonate with today’s current events, from the surge of nationwide protests over police brutality to college athletes leveraging their platform beyond the field of play. Franklin likes to invite his former Mizzou teammate to talk to his players about the positive impact police can have in the community. “To talk about it,” Franklin said, “helps change the narrative.”
Here’s what I knew about Howard before this week: The Tyler, Texas, native had the misfortune of playing tight end in an era that produced two of Mizzou’s best of all time in Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman. Instead Howard played mostly special teams from 2003-06. “And I enjoyed every bit of it,” he said.
There’s a lot more to learn.
During his freshman year, Howard attended a charity bowling event with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter. It was, Howard believes, his calling toward public service. He asked coach Gary Pinkel if he could take part in a community outreach program with the Columbia police. For the next three years he interned with the department.
After college he moved to St. Louis and joined the city police department. When Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014, Howard served on the front lines during the ensuing protests. Howard called those shifts “mentally draining” — Howard was cursed and spat on, he said — but credited Pinkel’s offseason training program for making it through each night.
“I still hear his voice him in my head at times,” Howard said. “The whole Mike Brown incident, Coach Pinkel built me for five years for those days. … I’ve seen a lot of people break down on my line who weren’t mentally tough enough to deal with those situations.”
In the fall of 2014, after the first wave of protests, Howard said he decided to step away from police work.
“There’s a lot of good officers out here. And I’m one of them,” he said. “The good guys who have to fight this fight — and it’s not their fight — it’s draining. Take it from myself. Back in 2014, that wasn’t my fight. But since I wore the badge and wore the blue, I had to fight that fight. Even though I didn’t want to, I still had to. It doesn’t matter your skin color. If you’ve got that badge and uniform on, the civilian is going to think you’re the fella that killed Mr. Floyd. That’s automatic. You have to change their mindset. That’s really hard. I’ve been working on that for five years, especially in Ferguson, to change the mindset of young folks. But trust in police is at an all-time low now.”
Howard moved to the St. Charles Juvenile Justice Center and worked as a deputy juvenile officer. In 2017, new Ferguson police chief Delrish Moss hired Howard as a police officer. He was impressed by Howard’s drive to engage the community, especially the youth.
“There are lot of police officers who come into the profession who don’t get how important relationships are, how it’s not to protect and serve, it’s to serve and protect,” said Moss, now a police captain at Florida International University. “He understood.”
For the community to recover and thrive, Howard knew Ferguson couldn’t be defined by black versus blue. So he organized a basketball tournament to raise funds for a local graduation ceremony, matching the police against the students. He raised money to help 30 McCluer South-Berkeley High students spend a day at the movies to see “Black Panther.” He organized a neighborhood pool party where officers could mingle with local students and their parents.
“A lot of African American children, they have no trust in police,” Howard said. “What I did was let them see my everyday process, how I live and what I do, my walk, how I talked. Then, they came on board.”
Wanting to work more closely with youth, Howard took on an expanded role as a student resource officer in the city public school system. Two years ago, Howard was named the state’s school resource officer of the year at the Missouri Police Chiefs Association conference.
“He was the kind of officer who didn’t think his only tool was arresting people,” Moss said. “He was really good about building relationships. He represents the essence of what community policing is.”
Howard is currently a reserve officer with the Hillsdale police but works primarily at Roosevelt High. In March, he agreed to take over as the school’s varsity football coach, his first full-time coaching job. Through a recent GoFundMe drive, he raised more than $13,000 so his players could have new equipment this fall. Next week, he’ll start classes through UMSL to earn his master’s degree in education. He wants to become a school principal.