In Flint, Michigan, where roughly 100,000 residents have been dealing with the consequences of lead-tainted water since last year, problems reach far beyond the kitchen sink.

In an op-ed for The New York Times published yesterday (November 21), Flint Police Department Officer Brian Willingham pens an open letter about the greater issue underlying the predominantly Black city’s water crisis: structural racism and the role the nation’s police forces play.

Willingham writes:

How can citizens in Flint trust the police to protect them when they can’t even trust their government to provide them with clean water? This is the kind of question that has placed police officers and African-Americans on a collision course. Police officers are seen as outsiders in urban America. White officers are seen as racist, while [B]lack officers like me are seen as traitors to our race.

The officer admits that while police sometimes make faulty decisions, “the bigger problem,” in his words, “is the social structure that dictates the negative interaction in the first place.” He offers eradicating poverty as a solution.

Willingham also believes police officers can take small actions that offer hope to the lives of city’s residents. In the piece, he shares a story about buying meals for a family of five facing eviction. “Did you come to bring us food?” a boy about seven-years-old asked when Willingham arrived to the house where neighbors suspected that young children had been left alone.

He goes on:

These are things that Flint police officers of all races and genders do for citizens on a regular basis, though often the police administration and City Hall officials have no idea. Protecting and serving in an urban community is about much more than crime fighting.

Read the op-ed in its entirety here.