As protesters in the California Bay Area and across the country accuse police officers of brutalizing people of color with few consequences, many African American officers are working to reconcile their intimate understanding of racism with their strong belief in the job of law enforcement.
At times, black officers have been singled out during rallies and marches, called “sellouts” by protesters. To the officers, such jeers discount their devotion to their profession and suggest, wrongly, that they have a tolerance for incidents of police abuse or racism.
“As a black and Latina woman, I don’t necessarily disagree” with some of the issues raised by protesters, said Capt. Bisa French of the Richmond, Calif., Police Department, who recently passed out pizza to demonstrators in the city. “It’s a conflicting situation. They (black officers) are part of these segments of the community, too. I think about how I would be treated if I wasn’t wearing the uniform.”
After grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict white officers who killed unarmed black men, protesters have focused on racial profiling, saying police routinely target black citizens for arrest and are too quick to use force against them. But French noted that the broad brush painted both ways, with whole agencies denounced for the actions of a few officers.
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“I certainly understand that there are injustices within the criminal justice system, but we’re all being condemned,” she said. “Some of our officers feel like they are out there doing the right thing on a daily basis, but they are getting judged for the actions of the few who do wrong.”
For many black officers, fairness in policing is a paramount issue. Lt. LeRonne Armstrong, a 16-year Oakland, Calif., Police Department veteran, said he had experienced apparent racism while out of uniform when he was pulled over in an East Bay city about five years ago. He said the officer, who never gave a reason for the stop, let him go after he revealed he was a cop.
“Ultimately, I wasn’t cited, but the whole thing made me very uncomfortable,” Armstrong said. “You want to believe that it’s all lawful, but sometimes you just don’t know.”
Sgt. Yulanda Williams, a 25-year police veteran in San Francisco, who leads Officers for Justice, an organization representing police of color in the city, said she has seen racism on and off the job.
Her grandson, who lives in Roseville, Calif., was the target of an alleged hate crime in November, when some of his high school classmates spread cotton balls on his lawn. The incident was treated as a high school prank by authorities, Williams said, until she called the police force to complain.
“I was outraged, but I was also glad that I was a police officer. If I was calling in as a regular citizen I don’t know if it would have made the difference,” she said. After her call, 13 students were referred to the juvenile justice system on suspicion of terrorizing with hate symbols, a misdemeanor, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Williams said she has warned her grandson, who is biracial, to handle himself carefully when talking to police. “He wants to stand up for what’s right, which he should,” she said, “but he also needs to be extra cautious because he comes from a mixed-race background. Racism is alive and well in this country.”
Williams said she has has been upset to see some African American colleagues called out for their race in recent weeks. In a widely circulated video of a demonstration in San Francisco on Nov. 28, a black officer walks next to a group of demonstrators in the Mission District.
“We are ashamed of you,” one protester yells at the officer. “Lay down your badge and march with us, sir!” The officer continues his stride as the crowd chants, “Sellout cop! Sellout cop!”
“I’ve witnessed it happen to some of our members,” said Williams. “The agitators are few, but they are very aggressive. They get in your face, invade your personal space.”
On Dec. 15, protesters chained themselves to the entrances of Oakland’s downtown police headquarters. Armstrong said he was behind a line of officers when demonstrators began to call him names and suggest he take off his uniform and join them.
“To suggest that it’s not a good thing to have African Americans as part of law enforcement? Inclusiveness is the greatest thing we need right now,” he said.
He recalled that when he grew up in West Oakland, he saw no black police officers in the neighborhood. “Coming from a community like that, it was always my intent to change that,” he said.
Lt. Steve Walker, a 23-year Oakland police veteran, has seen the same behavior toward black officers at protests. “You hear the chants of, ‘Whose side are you on?' and things like that, but when you’re working, you focus on the task at hand,” he said.
Walker said he understands the passion behind the demonstrations. However, he said that as a black man and a cop he has a different perspective on the dangers police officers face and the fact that they must use force at times.
“I understand use of force and investigations and testimony, probably better than 90 percent of the people out here,” Walker said.
But the reaction by police officials to fatal shootings is also critical in developing community trust, said BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey, an African American who took his job in 2010 – the year after a white transit officer fatally shot Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, on a station platform in Oakland.
Rainey pointed to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., who was shot by a white officer who said Brown had attacked him in his patrol car, as well as the killing of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old boy shot by a white Cleveland officer who reported mistaking a toy gun for the real thing.
Flawed tactics and a lack of proper training were at least partly to blame, Rainey said, after officers first engaged Brown and Rice from the seats of their vehicles.
“Whether I’m stopping someone for a bank robbery or jaywalking, you never do it from the seat of your car,” he said. “These were bad tactics, and for us, as leaders, not to say that? Shame on us.”
Rainey said significant work needs to be done to address the rift between police and minority communities. “I’ve worked in six departments in three states and everyone, from chiefs to beat officers, says they want community policing,” Rainey said. “But few of them want to actually teach officers how to be culturally competent in all segments of the community.”
While Rainey has overseen a raft of reforms in the aftermath of the Grant shooting, he said racial injustice is a problem that goes beyond police.
“As a society, we have to address what we’re doing to create these scenarios that keep happening.” he said. “There is data that shows, if you go to school in a certain ZIP code, you’re more likely to go to prison, and that isn’t right.”
For Williams, the San Francisco officer, recognizing that problems exist within the system is one of the things that keeps her motivated as a cop.
“We, as police officers, took this job because we wanted to make a difference. We wanted to take control of the policing in our communities,” she said. “We don’t sleep in our uniforms at night. We’re all human.”