The past month has been surreal for Black police officers, who find themselves straddling the line between Black and Blue.
Standing on the front lines with fellow police, they have been pelted with rocks and racial insults from Black Lives Matter protesters who say they don’t understand how a Black person can be part of a racist police system.
Black officers say they have always faced greater challenges than White cops, but now they find themselves empathizing with the very protesters who are scorning them.
“The internal struggles of a Black police officer is not one a lot of people would understand,” said Mirtha Ramos, chief of police in DeKalb County, Georgia. “You have to justify not being blue enough because you are Black, and not being Black enough because you are blue.”
The Washington Times spoke with a half-dozen active or retired Black officers about their experiences. They all said they had experienced racism on the job, including refusals by White officers to speak with them and finding a noose hanging in their squad car.
“We don’t speak up because it’s career suicide,” said Regina Coward, who recently retired after 27 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “We let a lot of things slide because we know for a fact that when we speak up we get locked out. So we just go along with the program because there is no consequence.”
She spoke up after two years on the job when a White sergeant told her she had “good d—k-sucking lips.”
The supervisor was ordered to attend sensitivity training, but Ms. Coward said her consequences were more severe: She was not promoted during her entire career.
Still, she said, she has no regrets.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole 27 years of service,” she said. “It taught me to fight. When I spoke up, I wasn’t popular at the time, but what it did do was make people instantly respect me.”
Questions of race and policing have surged to the forefront of the national conversation after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police. In the weeks since, peaceful protests and violent riots have broken out in cities from coast to coast, some politicians have sought to slash police budgets and Congress has started working on new national standards for officer conduct.
The Justice Department says the U.S. has more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies, which employ more than 700,000 sworn officers. Local departments account for 468,000 full-time sworn officers.
About 11% of those officers are Black. That figure has remained constant over the past two decades, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The share of Hispanic officers has grown from about 8% to 12.5% over that time, and they now outnumber Black cops. Both sets of numbers approximate the Black and Hispanic shares of the U.S. population.
Academics say it’s difficult to say how much racism and bias are connected to excessive use of force by police, but a 2019 study found that Black men are 2.5 times more likely than White men to be killed by police. Black women are about 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than White women, the research showed.
Charles P. Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers and a 45-year police veteran, said increasing the number of Black officers might change those odds.
He recounted the shooting death of Rashad Brooks, a Black man killed by a White officer in Atlanta this month.
Authorities say Brooks failed a sobriety test and resisted when officers tried to arrest him. One of the officers attempted to use a stun gun, but Brooks grabbed it and ran. Video shows Brooks turning back and aiming the stun gun at one of them, and the officer firing on Brooks.
Mr. Wilson spoke to about 30 members of his organization about the shooting, and they all said they would have handled it differently.
“Nobody that I know of as a Black officer would have taken that shot,” he said. “We look at things a little bit differently than our counterparts do. We treat people with respect and dignity due to every single human being.”
A major component of the debate is whether policing is systemically racist. Attorney General William Barr said he doesn’t see it, but several of the officers who spoke with The Times insist it pervades policing.
Terrance Hopkins, president of the Black Police Association of Dallas, said policing hasn’t been able to shake what he views as a legacy of racism.
The precursors to the modern police departments in America were slave patrol teams first formed in the 1700s in the Carolinas. Those patrols later assumed general law enforcement duties. The first publicly funded police department was formed in Boston in the 1830s.
“We know the history of this country as it relates to Blacks and Whites,” Mr. Hopkins said. “It only makes sense that those beginnings continue to manifest in today’s policing. We are still in a dominant conservative White male profession. That doesn’t mean that every one of them harbors that type of mentality, but that component is still there.”
Mr. Wilson said that “racism exists within every single department in the country.”
“It may only be one officer, but one is enough,” he said.
Chief Ramos said racism in police departments reflects a broader problem in America.
“Everything that is going on right now is being geared toward law enforcement,” she said. “The real truth is racism is a platform of how this nation was built. Instead of dealing with that, we are scapegoating law enforcement who are committed, highly motivated and trying to make a difference in every community that they serve.”
Mr. Wilson, who served as the first Black police chief of a Cleveland suburb, said several of his organization’s 9,000 members are embedded in the communities they serve and in some cases in the same communities where they grew up.
“We go on the job to try to make a difference in how people are treated in our communities,” he said. “We understand the issues, concerns, fears of people in those communities. We know for an absolute fact that a great proportion of their concern is real and factual.”
Yet that makes the insults against Black officers even worse.
“It does hurt more,” Mr. Wilson said. “Who [the protesters] see in their minds represents the failures of a system that is supposed to be protecting them.”
Despite the difficulties, Black cops aren’t leaving the force en masse like their White counterparts who say they feel unsupported by their communities and leaders.
Chief Ramos said she has had two resignations and one pending in the past month. All were White men who cited the anti-police climate for their resignations.
“Morale is lower with White officers. The reason being the Black officer is not under the microscope right now,” Mr. Hopkins said. “We are not the ones being accused of doing these things to unarmed Black men.”
Chief Ramos said there are incidents of black officers killing unarmed black men but the media ignore those cases.
“If a Black officer kills a Black unarmed person, the news won’t latch on that,” she said. “Just because it makes the news doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It happens both ways.”
But the tension within police departments over toeing the blue line is tricky for Black officers, who have to try to explain their fellow officers’ behavior to a wary community.
“What are we going to tell kids because George Floyd complied with the police? He did everything they asked him to do, and they still killed him,” Ms. Coward said. “We still have to give our youth the message of compliance, but every time we take 10 steps forward, something happens that pushes us seven steps back.”
Ms. Coward said she has seen evidence that community outreach can help bridge gaps. She spent most of her career at Bolden Area Command station, in one of Las Vegas’ most notorious crime-ridden neighborhoods in the 1990s.
At the time, the neighborhood was in the midst of a violent crime wave fueled by gang and drug wars. Animosity toward cops was severe, and protesters burned down the original station house during rioting over the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the savage beating of Rodney King.
The command’s supervisors sought to change the dynamic by hosting community events. Officers hosted block parties, farmers markets and free haircuts. They even created an annual Christmas tradition of having Santa arrive in a police helicopter and be escorted by police officers dressed as elves.
“We policed them by offering things they didn’t have, and I knew they didn’t have them because I didn’t have them,” said Ms. Coward, who grew up in the same neighborhood.
Ms. Coward said that relationship-building paid off but acknowledged it took nearly 20 years for the effects to manifest. Still, after the 2014 death of Michael Brown, a young Black man who died in a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, there was no repeat of the 1992 riots.
Instead, citizens showed up to a community forum hosted by police to discuss the incident.
“They stopped seeing us as the same people bringing them to jail but as having a human side,” she said. “The same Metro helicopter looking for suspects is landing Santa, and that was huge. We’ve had 5,000 people attend an event.”