A few months ago, I found myself in the office of a professional polygraph service we contract with for background checks and any other instances we may need a test done. I was there to have an officer polygraphed based on an allegation of misconduct against them.
On that particular day, the usual polygraph examiner we use wasn’t there. So instead I found myself sitting in the office making small talk and getting to know, the substitute examiner, prior to him administering the test. The polygraph examiner was a retired Chief of Police, who had started a second career as an examiner upon his retirement.
As with what is typical when two cops meet for the first time, we discussed all things policing and differences in the profession today, as opposed to when he was on the job. He expressed to me how much he found it unfortunate when he had to polygraph cops, but assured me he would be able to provide me with fair and objective results. We also talked about our families, and he shared with me some photos of his son who would soon be going away to college on a basketball scholarship.
Our conversations led me to discuss my work on the side, with activism for ethical policing, and basically the sum of all things civil rights related. When I brought up some of the things I do, the former Chief’s tone became a mix of somber and serious for the first time since we had met. He told me, “You know, I understand how police work is. I also understand it’s a tough job, and the majority of all police officers are good cops. Additionally, I get that the public misinterprets a lot of what we do. However, as a father of a Black male teenage son, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am concerned about what could happen if he ran into an overzealous or bad cop.
In truth, what the polygraph examiner said to me that day, isn’t something I haven’t heard countless times, before and since, from active and retired, minority police officers. In fact, when I was in Washington D.C. this last time, it was at the invite of an incredible woman, Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart. Rev. Stewart and her husband are both retired officers from the Washington D.C Metro Police Department. In my conversations with Rev. Stewart, she shared with me a story of a negative interaction her own teenage son had recently experienced with two police officers he had come in contact with because they believed he looked, “suspicious.”
The most heartbreaking thing in what Rev. Stewart told me, was the imagery of innocence lost in her son’s contact with those police officers. Both of his parents were career cops, and Rev. Stewart expressed to me how he had grown up his whole life around police officers. To him, cops were like a part of his family. In fact, he even wanted to be a K9 officer one day. However, on that day, Rev. Stewart’s son learned that not all cops were like the one’s he grew up around.
Now, this should come as no shock to anyone: I may be a Jewish, Yarmulke wearing cop, however, I am not a racial minority. With that said, I have said for several years now, as much as people express their respect for the perils law enforcement officers face, there is one segment of the police profession that has it tougher than the rest, and that is the minority police officer.
For the Black police officer in the age of Black Lives Matter, one will find themselves walking a very precarious tightrope. At times, the Black police officer can find themselves at odds with the very racial community they are a member of. For example, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen other African Americans get upset with a Black officer and call them an “Uncle Tom.” Last July, former police officer Edward Johnson wrote an article that was published by the conservative-libertarian media site The Federalist. In his article, Johnson discusses how he didn’t tell his family when he applied for a job in law enforcement, nor when he was hired and started the police academy. Johnson kept his new career venture a secret because he knew what his family’s reaction would be. Ultimately, Johnson sums this reaction up when he describes telling his Grandmother about his graduating the police academy with top honors. “With no emotion on her face and in a tone of thinly veiled disappointment, almost under her breath, she replied, “I don’t’ know why you wanna go do that for.”
“Our shared history has created a multigenerational — almost inherited — mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies.”
Those were the words spoken by Chief Terrence Cunningham, President of the largest police association in the U.S., the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Chief Cunningham’s statement is also exactly why many Black police officers find themselves under scrutiny from their own communities when they decide to put on the badge.
Most minority police officers understand and know that the words of Chief Cunningham are indeed preciously accurate in describing the historical interactions between law enforcement and people of color. However, for many minority officers, this is also the exact reason they choose to join the ranks in the first place. In fact, in his article Edward Johnson, shares that his decision to become a police officer was influenced by seeing his younger brother pistol-whipped and knocked unconscious by a police officer after his brother refused the officer’s demands to engage him in a fist fight. Many minority officers recognize the problems in the profession and they also realize that the most significant way in facilitating real change comes from within. Especially, when one is a member of a minority demographic that is inherently on the out.
With this said, even from within, the minority police officer is not immune to the ill effects of a nation steeped in racial disparity. When Chief Cunningham finished his speech at the IACP conference last October, he apologized to minority communities for the historical mistreatment by law enforcement. The response inspired a standing ovation from most of those in attendance that day. However, as Santa Monica Chief of Police, Jacqueline Seabrooks, points out in the documentary film both of us appear in, Walking While Black- L.O.V.E. is the Answer, “Not everyone stood up that day and applauded. Take from that what you will.”
Often times the minority police officer has to mitigate the feeling of being a minority, within a minority. Demographically, law enforcement is fairly representative of national racial demographics. The current police workforce is 76% White, and 24% being non-white (12% African-American). Where the biggest discrepancy between a minority officer and even the general public emerges, comes from the dramatic differences in views between White officers and Black officers.
In January 2017, The Pew Research Center published a large-scale and comprehensive study on the views of police officers in America. This study presents a very interesting and potentially telling portrait of American policing and how it relates to race.
In terms of how many officers believe that Black Americans currently on the national level have equal rights and opportunities as White Americans, an alarming 92% of all White officers say there is racial equality in America presently. I say this is alarming because the national statistic for White Americans for the same question is 57%. Essentially, statically speaking, there is a massive gap between the views of racial equality between White Police Officers and White Americans as a whole. Conversely, only 29% of Black Officers think there is racial equality in the United States. This gap between the views on racial equality between White Officers and Black Officers is massive!
Conversely, this isn’t the only area White and Black Officers don’t see eye-to-eye. 72% of White Officers say that the deaths of African-Americans by the police are isolated incidents. Only 43% of Black Officers say the same. 42% of White police officers say the public doesn’t understand the risk they face, while 29% of Black Officers agree. When it comes to making a decision to use force or react to the public, 61% of Black Officers say that, police officers don’t take enough time to diagnose a situation before reacting to it. In polar opposite, 60% of White Officers say, police officers don’t react quick enough to situations.
When it comes to how important it is to get to know the community, 69% of White cops think it is important, compared to 84% of Black Officers. 92% of White Officers believe their relationship with the Black and White communities are good. Interestingly, 60% of Black Officers say they have a good relationship with White communities, however, on 30% say the same about their relationships with the Black community. Essentially, confirming what was initially discussed, in that the relationships between the Black community and Black Officers is a tumultuous one.
The last statistic I’ll mention is the view of protest over the deaths of African Americans during encounters with the police. Only 27% of White Officers believe that protests are based on genuine concerns and a desire to hold police accountable. Whereas, 69% of Black Officers agree that public protests over deaths are rooted in valid concerns.
The results of this recent Pew Research Study highlight some very significant issues.
One of my two Undergraduate degrees is in Mathematics, so basically I’m a numbers guy. Upon seeing these statistics, I realized, I am indeed absolutely insane. Basically, the moment I discuss racial disparity or even publish this article right here, I do so with the understanding that 84% of my entire profession is not going to agree with me, and probably doesn’t particularly like me all that much for saying these things.
A degree of insanity at times can be a good thing. It leads to fearlessness in having no concern on how one is viewed amongst their peers or others. Basically, the guy you passed in the parking lot talking to a light pole, wearing a too-tight t-shirt that says, “Daddy’s Little Girl” and looks like he competed in a Tough Mudder race… six months ago… You think that guy is concerned with how people view him?
At the end of the day, whether people want to accept it or not, it’s not easy at times being a minority in America. To borrow a quote from Edward Johnson’s article you have to be, “At least twice as clean as the other person in order to get the same treatment as that person.” Just because a Black person puts on a blue uniform, doesn’t change that racial disparity. Moreover, when a Black officer takes off the uniform after their shift is over, in the eyes of society, they are now just that, a Black person. Probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to hear came from a very close friend of mine, who himself is a Black Police Officer. He told once, “They’ll shake your hand and thank you for your service. They’ll tell you blue lives matter. However, once you take the uniform off, you’re just another n----- to them.”
I don’t know about you, but that was heartbreaking to hear one of my close friends and fellow officers say that to me. So look, I get it, I’m not going to win over all the hearts and minds. I’ll accept that, remember I’m talking to the light pole over here in my muddy clothes. However, to my fellow White officers, if you don’t consider the public’s concerns to be worthwhile to listen too. How about at least listen to the concerns of your fellow minority officers. The ones you talk about sharing a “brotherhood” with. The ones you depend on to come to your aid if your life is in danger. The ones who are willing to die in the line of duty for you. How about you at least be willing to listen to them and see what they have to say. In truth, they’ve been listening to us for quite some time. Whether they like it or not.