WASHINGTON – In a bar in the District of Columbia’s Chinatown tinted blue by the lights, Timmy Hall takes the stage. The space is busy, with people sitting at tables and standing by the bar. Thursday is open-mic night.
Hall opens his act as he usually does, revealing he used to be a cop. He can sense the audience is tepid.
“I know y’all hate the police. We hate y’all, too,” he says. “I’m just there for the benefits and the credit union, believe me.”
Chuckles come from the crowd. Hall delivers more lines quickly, before the audience at Regional Food and Drink has time to think.
He goads everyone to indulge in all the alcohol and marijuana they want. When the show’s over, he says, he’s arresting everybody he sees. It gets a good laugh. He knows he’s got them.
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This Baltimore police officer-turned full-time-comedian thinks he may have a secret that will help close the rift between police and communities of color: laughter.
The way he sees it, humor is as important as sober discussion right now. It’s a way to bring people together.
“We can talk all we want, but everybody likes to laugh,” Hall said.
Hall ended his 24-year career with the Baltimore Police Department in January 2015 to follow his dream of performing. In all but four of the years Hall spent in law enforcement, he moonlighted as a stand-up comic and comedy writer, even secretly doing a show once while on duty. One year, he said, he did more than 200 shows.
Just three months after Hall left policing, Baltimore erupted in one of the largest displays of social unrest in a generation. The city reeled over the death of West Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal injury in the back of a police van.
The city’s top prosecutor filed criminal charges against six officers involved in the incident. The case ended with no convictions, but Gray’s death had become a pivotal moment in the national debate over police treatment of African Americans.
Hall’s comedy had always drawn from his job. But now he sees a deeper purpose to his humor.
As an African-American man, a Baltimore native and a father to two sons, Hall has had to confront the realities of discrimination both on the streets and within his own family.
He recently gave his oldest son “the talk,” a conversation urging his son’s caution and compliance when interacting with law enforcement to ensure he isn’t wrongly perceived as a threat.
“It saddened me that I had to give my son a talk about what to do if a police officer pulls you over, knowing I was a police officer all these years,” Hall said.
As an officer, he thinks that in his early years on the force, he was given assignments in higher-crime areas because of his skin color. He said he once disobeyed a commanding officer he believed showed prejudice in giving an order to make an arrest Hall felt was wrong. He needs a reason to grab someone on the street, he said.
But after nearly a quarter-century as a cop, Hall rejects the idea that there is deep-rooted racism across police departments. He thinks cultural and policy failings are to blame for many of the problems.
Chasing people as a profession, he said, eventually wears a person out – and that’s when mistakes happen in policing. It can be a brutalizing job.
“It’s ugly work,” he said, “and unfortunately some officers do take it too far and their training goes out the window – because they’re so scared, you know?”
Raise police shooting cases caught on camera, and Hall urges caution about jumping to any conclusions before all the information comes out. The public rarely sees the beginning of the interactions, Hall warns, and may have an incomplete picture of events. It’s a position that’s put him in tense discussions on social media.
Hall, who worked in patrol and on a drug task force, doesn’t believe he goes out of his way to defend the police. But, echoing others who have previously been involved in law enforcement, he said it’s hard for the public to see things from their perspective.
“Everybody wants the police to do something, but nobody wants to see them doing it,” he said. “You want this person with the gun off the streets, but you don’t want to see us arrest him or shoot him. You don’t want to see that.”
Too much of policing, Hall said, has pitted officers against residents.
“It’s us against them,” he said. “It’s that mentality that we have. . . . And that’s where it all becomes kind of cloudy, because it’s not supposed to be that way. It’s supposed to be us for them.”
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Hall’s joke about arresting people after a show isn’t purely from his imagination. At least once during his career, he actually did perform while on duty as a patrolman.
He was asked by a club manager downtown to fill in for an act who had dropped out. His commanding officer, who had heard the part-time comedian perform before, looked the other way as Hall slipped out of uniform. It didn’t take long before he was in a set of street clothes performing as the “Comic Cop.”
Hall went onstage, told police jokes, got a standing ovation and within a few hours was back in his uniform breaking up a fight several blocks away.
He suspects many of his fellow officers accepted his side gig because he could say things others couldn’t. But he did have a handful of negative responses over the years from off-duty officers who had been in his audience.
Police work is an occupation that comes with extreme highs and lows. There are a few people, Hall says, who can never turn the law enforcement mind-set off, even when they’re home.
For Hall, the police work sort of invaded his hobby of performing stand-up.
“You want to do comedy? Write about your life. Nobody can steal your life,” Hall recalled one of his mentors telling him.
These days, Hall reaches a wider audience, taking to the radio with well-known Washington-area radio personality Donnie Simpson. Hall is a sidekick on Simpson’s show Monday through Friday on Majic 102.3.
“Timmy has a unique perspective on it because he’s from the streets, from both sides of the street, and that’s kind of cool,” Simpson said.
The radio crew regularly discusses national front-page stories on air as a matter of public interest, and Hall’s voice was a timely addition.
“That friction between the police and community is as old as America,” Simpson said. “I think that Timmy can play a very important role in creating a bridge between those two communities.”
Community activists and police leaders also welcome Hall’s voice in the ongoing debate, although they caution that it’s one small piece of a complex solution.
“People heal in different ways, and comedy has a potential to be one way that healing happens,” said DeRay Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and former Baltimore mayoral candidate. “Comedy can be a powerful vehicle for amplifying issues.”
Mckesson isn’t familiar with Hall’s routine, but the activist knows about attaching his message to comedy after appearing on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” earlier this year. However, the Baltimore native warns that laughter isn’t going to resolve the problem of holding police officers accountable for their actions.
Malik Aziz, executive director of the National Black Police Association, feels that comic relief is important but that action needs to follow in repairing the public perception of police.
“It’s just another ingredient in the bowl to mixing up a recipe for better police-community relations,” Aziz said.
But, he added, “let’s use laughter as a starting point to start something more.”
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At Regional Food and Drink that Thursday night in October, David Lomison was skeptical when Hall took the stage.
“When they said he was a police officer, I was like, ‘Oh, God, what is this set going to be like?’ ” said Lomison, 35. “He totally flipped the script on what you would think he was going to talk about.”
Lomison laughed hard just recalling the show. He thought Hall was the funniest comic of the night. The move from tension to comic relief is exactly the comedian’s target.
There isn’t much Hall avoids in his comedy when it comes to police work. He joked about a Baltimore police force with budget problems so bad that officers were left using birthday streamers instead of police tape, or about squad cars with more violations than most drivers who get pulled over.
And he addresses discrimination head on.
“I ain’t no racist cop. I think racism is stupid,” Hall told the crowd. “But I’m not going to lie to you. If you’re white, I’ll pull you over all f—ing day. It’s not because I’m racist. White people have something black people don’t: their registration.”
For Hall, it’s important to tell his audience early on, “I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect.” With that out of the way, he says, everyone can have fun.
Twenty-year-old Brittani Gordon left Hall’s show thinking differently about those who wear the badge.
Gordon says she believes in the Black Lives Matter movement and has seen how there are police who act badly. But, she said, Hall’s act was a reminder that police are regular people making life-or-death decisions in a moment.
“Police are human, too,” she said. “Sometimes they have to make judgment calls.”