Technically, Sam Walker is retired and has been retired from the University of Nebraska—Omaha for nine years. But the 71-year-old author and civil liberties activist is still going full throttle. His national profile as a voice for police accountability has arguably even risen in these years when most of his contemporaries are stepping from the fray.
Walker recently sat down at a Midtown coffee shop to do some reflecting. But it quickly became clear he plans to remain a vital and vibrant member of the civil liberties movement that he’s been active in for nearly five decades. He’s not unlike many whose ideals were forged fighting racism in the segregated South of the 1960s. A passion for justice doesn’t easily retire.
Walker says he was recently invited to do work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Early Intervention Systems, a computerized database dealing with officer performance. The Canadian trip comes right after a conference in New York. Walker also was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal in October about the lack of a national database regarding officer-involved shootings.
Walker has become a national expert in police accountability and civil liberties. He is usually the first person local media seek out whenever there is an issue with law enforcement, but he also has been asked to provide insight by national media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, among numerous others.
Walker has written 14 books in 36 different editions. His most recent book on policing, The New World of Police Accountability, was just released in a second edition. Walker says he enjoys the continued work on the various editions, cutting out the old and working in new developments.
In the last few months, Walker has been fielding numerous phone calls and emails regarding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Walker says that even though he retired from UNO, he knew he was going to stay busy. He saw firsthand what retirement did to his father.
“My father had a forced early retirement at 62,” Walker says. “He was an executive at the railroad, middle management, and he had no outside interests. He just sat around every day and started drinking and before this he wasn’t a drinker—maybe a drink at a party but that was it. My mother tried to push him to find interests but it didn’t work. So I think, ‘Where was my father at 71?’ He was an alcoholic.”
His mother, though, was a very active woman and lived to be 98, tending to her garden and staying busy until her final years. Looking at Walker, you’d never guess his age. He is still tall and trim. A graceful man who speaks very directly and gives answers that are fully thought out—no abrupt pauses or half sentences like most of us communicate. One gets the sense that Walker is constantly taking in information, studying, and collecting data to come to deeper understanding. He is pretty much what one would expect a professor emeritus to be like.
A friend and former peer in the 1960s civil rights movement recently found a photo of a young Walker taken in Mississippi standing on a porch working to register African-American voters. Walker was a student at the University of Michigan at the time and wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life. Things changed for him one night in 1964 when he went to see Bob Moses speak about the Mississippi Summer Project. He ended up traveling to Mississippi that tumultuous summer and worked to register voters.
Then the conversation quickly turns back to pressing current affairs. Walker gives his predictions on how the Ferguson crisis would play out and what the slew of press leaks might mean to the looming outcome. This is Walker’s world. Strides have been made in police relations with minority communities. Obviously there is much more work to be done.
But perhaps more so in this quasi-retirement, Walker can shift gears back toward more traditional leisure-time fare. He loves taking in movies (he’s a frequent patron of Film Streams). This self-admitted “rock and roller” has more than 9,000 records, a collection so large it has outgrown his home. It seems the hectic pace of retirement suits Walker just fine.
“I’m working harder than I was when I was getting paid,” Walker says. “And loving it. It is very gratifying when those phone calls and emails come in from people who know me only though my work. And they keep on coming.”