Lonnie Brigham has come a long way from the police-hating, gang-banging youth he was in a tough Chicago neighborhood.
He has come so far that police officers in his adopted home—Janesville—shook his hand and hugged him Thursday.
They had chosen him to speak at a ceremony close to their hearts, the annual Rock County Law Enforcement Memorial Service, honoring law enforcement officers who gave their lives while on duty.
“I was a thug myself growing up. I came from a broken home, basically, and the streets was my first education,” he said after the speech.
“What I went through on the streets of Chicago is the main reason I’m trying to give back now,” he said, “because I know how it is for a young man growing up who doesn’t have a father at home, and who was raised by his uncle.”
Brigham, an administrative assistant in a doctor’s office in Madison, came to Janesville 17 years ago. He saw it as a place where he could escape the fast pace of the city without giving up some of the big-city amenities and as a place he could raise his children, he said.
“When I was invited to be the keynote speaker for tonight’s ceremony, I asked, ‘Why me?,’” he told the crowd at Rotary Botanical Gardens. “The answer, I was told, ‘Because Lonnie, you get it.’
“Apparently my history and my love-hate relationship with the man behind the badge, without my knowing it, has given me an understanding and respect for the work of law enforcement officers and their duties every day,” Brigham continued.
He told some of his story during the speech.
“I grew up hating the police officers,” he said, and as an adult, he once worked as a paralegal for a civil rights attorney.
“We sued the Chicago Police Department, and we sued police officers, so basically I have come full circle, with hating them, being raised by them, suing them, and now being an advocate for them.”
As chairman of the Janesville Police Department’s African American Liaison Advisory Committee, he tries to help a police force of nearly all white officers understand what it’s like to walk around in his skin.
But Thursday was about fallen officers, so Brigham kept his story short, omitting some of the details already told here.
He told them about his uncle, who he says rescued him from the streets. His name was Michael Angelo Weaver, and he was a Chicago police officer, now retired.
Weaver would come home every day and tell his wife about his experiences that day.
She listened for years, but one day she told him she couldn’t do it anymore, Brigham said.
But Weaver needed those talks.
“He began to struggle with the darkness of what he went through every day,” Brigham said. “Eventually, I became his sounding board.”
Brigham called that “a hell of an education. But listening to him every day, I also began to understand the fear of losing someone who worked in a dangerous job. You’re always worried and waiting for that call to come. Fortunately, that call never came to us for my uncle.”
That was a blessing, Brigham said, especially because Weaver worked in the police district designated Englewood 007, “one of the hardest-hit crime areas in Chicago.”
Brigham said his respect for police grew from his talks with his uncle and led him to his work with Janesville police.
“I support the men and women who daily put their lives on the line to serve and protect their communities,” he said. “I am grateful for their commitment and ask that you join me in honoring the officers who have fallen in the line of duty. We must not forget them now. They are gone and have made the ultimate sacrifice. I also wish to share my sympathies with their families.”
Brigham calls himself an advocate for police, but he hasn’t forgotten the injustice he saw as a young black man in Chicago. He has expanded his giving-back by joining the Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which brings together top officials of the local criminal justice system, county human services and concerned citizens to seek improvement in the criminal justice system.
Two hours before the ceremony, Brigham was telling fellow council members that they needed to take action to address inequities in a system that imprisons black men at rates far exceeding those of whites.
His pursuit of justice may take years, but Brigham has one accomplishment under his belt. He has built a bridge of respect from his reality to that of the local police.
“Hey man, that was awesome, seriously,” one of his well-wishers, Janesville police Lt. Charles Aagaard, told Brigham after the speech.
“I was nervous, very nervous,” Brigham said. “... It’s just the magnitude of the event, you know? And it was a way for me to reach out and thank my uncle for raising me, and also it was an opportunity to show my pride here and what I have here in Janesville and for the Janesville Police Department.”