To be black and a law enforcement officer is to be part of two communities that, at times, seem completely at odds.
Black officers experience a unique tension because, perhaps more than anyone, they understand just how difficult the job is, while also empathizing with communities of colour that report being more frequently victimized by police officers.
12 days of violence
After the deaths of two black men who were shot by police — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota — tension between police officers and black people reached a high point this July. In retaliation, there have been several attacks on police officers, including an ambush in Baton Rouge that led to the deaths of three officers.
One of the officers to die in that attack was Montrell Jackson, both a black man and an officer. Two weeks before he was killed, Jackson posted a message on Facebook about how, in a way, as a black cop, he is the embodiment of the contentious nationwide debate.
“In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat,” Jackson wrote.
Four black law enforcement officers in the New York area, both currently on the force and recently retired, spoke with INSIDER from their unique perspective and shared how to solve this problem that only seems to be getting worse.
Black officers sometimes fear the police, too
Damon Jones is a Mount Vernon, New York Corrections Officer and the New York representative for Blacks in Law Enforcement of America. He’s listened to the concerns of black officers for years and noticed that the concerns in the black community are often shared by black officers.
“How do you stand up for your community and work in a department that doesn’t treat your community the way it treats other communities?” Jones asked.
Each of the officers we talked to said he was concerned for either his own safety while out of uniform or the safety of their black family members when confronted by the police.
Black officers experience racism on the job
The officers did not deny the racial tension between the black community and the police, and told stories of their own experiences with racism on the force.
Michael Hannon is an officer in White Plains, New York, who became a cop because he wanted to help his community. He told INSIDER he remembers being at target practice while in the police academy and watching one of his instructors write “FUBU” on the chest of one the targets. FUBU was a popular urban clothing line in the ’90s. It stands for “For Us By Us,” — us meaning the black community. Hannon said he remembers the instructors chuckling about what was written on the target.
Harold Thomas spent just shy of 30 years working as a NYPD officer and elite detective. In 2012 he was leaving the New York nightclub where he was celebrating his birthday when he was approached by police as he walked up to his white Escalade. He told INSIDER that he tried to tell the cops that he was a fellow officer, but he ended up with his head pressed against his car and charged with assaulting an officer among other things. All charges were dropped. Thomas is confident this would never happen to a white officer.
Though they criticise law enforcement, they don’t respect the badge any less
While each officer described having to deal with racism from colleagues, which is not an uncommon complaint among black officers, they still said they took pride in their work while on the force.
Police violence in communities of colour has been politicized. This often pits officers against the black community and those who sympathize with their concerns. But the officers we spoke to illustrate that it is possible to care about both communities. After all, they are members of both. When asked about the recent police ambushes all four officers were quick to condemn the attacks and expressed sadness about their fallen colleagues.
“I know people that work in Dallas,” said Damon Jones, the correctional officer in Mount Vernon. “I was heartbroken.”
All police aren’t against Black Lives Matter and the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t against all police
The debate is often framed as Black Lives Matter activists against every police officer and vice versa. Though the officers that spoke to INSIDER had some constructive criticism for the movement, they said they understand its purpose.
Corey Pegues is a retired NYPD Deputy Inspector. He described himself as a “major Black Lives Matter fan.” In fact, though Pegues is not personally involved in the movement, there are similarities between their goals and what he tried to do while on the force. Pegues acknowledged that the vast majority of officers are good cops, but, “If there was a cop unhinged in front of me, I would put him in check right there on the spot.” He sees Black Lives Matter activists as protesting against that same group of officers.
Four steps that we can take to turn the situation around
To start, we should hire more minority police officers, the officers who spoke to INSIDER agreed.
Retired officer Harold Thomas helps mentor young minorities who want to become officers. He said until more fair-minded and sympathetic officers join departments across the country, nothing will change.
“The only way we’re going to make policing better is you have to hire more minorities,” Thomas said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who challenged protesters to apply to become officers.
Police should live in the communities they serve.
Each officer brought up the Eric Garner case, which happened in New York. Video showed Staten Island officers tackle Garner, a black man, after he would not come with them for selling individual cigarettes on the street. An officer used a chokehold during the altercation, which led to his Garner’s death. Thomas said if the officers lived in, or were from that community, they most likely would have known Garner and the situation would not have become so heated.
Police must fight against the “Blue Wall of Silence” from within.
“If 99 per cent of the good police talk about the one per cent of bad police, trust me, this goes away,” Pegues said.
The officers we spoke with said their colleagues are hard-pressed to speak out against fellow officers. Jones went so far as to say that officers’ first reaction when faced with any kind of criticism, is to label it anti-law enforcement.
Jones is an advocate for legislation requiring accountability and punishment for trained officers who blatantly act outside of policy. He’s also in favour of “If you see something, say something” departmental policies requiring officers to report colleagues when they notice use of force violations.
Finally, law enforcement and communities of colour need to sit and talk to each other.
While it may be hard to fathom the two groups coming together, it should not be a surprising suggestion coming from black officers. Talking to these four officers, one gets the sense that the source of the problem is a lack of trust on both sides, steeped in racial tension.
Jones said that along with some concrete policy changes, we need to have honest conversations about why there is this lack of trust toward police in black communities. This call for unity was echoed by slain officer Montrell Jackson, who, in his Facebook message, offered to pray with anyone feeling hurt, whether they be a protester or a police officer.
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