Black police officers can often find their allegiances questioned by both their colleagues and community. Photograph: Alamy
In the emotionally charged debate about police brutality, misconduct and the perceived targeting and victimization of African Americans, many of us not only identify with the frustration of black citizens in Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago and Baltimore, but have our own experiences of racial profiling by law enforcement. The largely white law enforcement community often counters those anecdotes by claiming that they have to make snap judgments about the level of force necessary to get a suspect to comply and to keep themselves – and others – safe. And, in the middle, stands black cops and their families, often either branded Uncle Toms by their families, friends and neighbors or traitors to their profession if they approach any discord between cops and African Americans with objectivity. Three of the six Baltimore City Police Department officers, for instance, charged in Freddie Gray’s death are African American.
Police brutality is not a black-white issue; much like a bruise on the skin of our communities, it is black and blue.
I was recently asked to join the chief of police and his chief of staff of a particular locality for a lunch meeting to discuss how to help their new recruits learn cultural competency – part of their commitment to public safety, community relations and diversity on the force. But as the three of us sat in a restaurant, laughing and talking about our mutual interest in gang history despite our racial, cultural and age differences, I saw a group of young black men and women outside and got nervous. My first thought was that the young black people – who were hardly paying attention to me – would think that I was snitching on someone or something. I feared that the faux revolutionaries whom I follow on social media would get a picture of me and accuse me of working with “the feds” or being a modern day informant for Cointelpro, and even that the family members who spent time in jail would be disappointed in me, thinking I turned “5-0” and, by extension, turned my back on my people. I worried that other black people might come to believe that I condone some of the atrocious acts of violence that officers have committed against black and brown citizens, even though any help for which I was asked and which I offered would be to try to protect them.
It gave me a taste for the way that black officers must feel – the ones who love their profession, but are also concerned that their sons and daughters could be the next Rekia Boyd or Mike Brown.
The history of the relationship between law enforcement and black communities has been fraught from this country’s’ beginning: Dr Victor Kappeler, for instance, posits that modern policing descends from slave patrols established in the early colonial period to protect property and surveil, contain and control black bodies. Later, from the end of the antebellum period through the Civil Rights era, police were the enforcement arm of the American racial apartheid state. As black consciousness grew during the Civil Rights era, people began to not only be proud of their African heritage, but to view the black ghettos in all major urban areas as occupied territories, subject to brutality from a militaristic local police force, and groups like the Black Panther Party saw the “pigs” as the enforcers of a white supremacist, capitalist system.
The Civil Rights movement also spurred the development of a different (and flawed) philosophy about how to improve the lot of African Americans: liberal integrationism. The liberal integrationist truly believes that fairness and justice are possible in the American system, and that, by integrating individual people who have been historically marginalized into all segments of the society (as opposed to radically transforming the institution), change can be made. So what better place into which to integrate black people than the entities that have been so brutal towards them, like the police?
Some black officers – past and present – feel that, as law enforcement officers, they are doing a service to the law abiding citizens in their communities. But other members of the black community think that black cops are simply members of the colonized group protecting the interests of the distant colonizer and, in the wake of a rash of well-publicized police killings of unarmed black men and women and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, police organizations from around the nation have ratcheted up the “us versus them” rhetoric. In New York City, for instance, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association union stated that, because of the protests after Eric Garner’s homicide, it had become a wartime police department.
But wars dictate that people choose sides.
It is possible to be a both pro-black – caring and working actively for the advancement of black communities – and be a police officer; the safety and wellbeing of African American men, women and children and the ability of cops to do their jobs effectively are not mutually exclusive. However, it requires that officers look beyond the uniform and at their colleagues, superiors, and at the entire system and ask if the three are serving the needs of all segments of the public.
For instance, black officers cannot ignore or defend the individual or institutional racism they witness in the system: from ignoring the racist actions or statements of colleagues to taking part in “stop and frisk” activities that unfairly (and unlawfully) target black and brown people, black officers can’t simply work in police departments and expect to alter the system by their mere presence, they have to actively agitate for change. Police officers need to try to solve the problems of brutality and community distrust through mentoring youth, working with community leaders and activists and strongly advocating for best practices among their police superiors to be part of the solution. Though members of the law enforcement community do not create the laws, their devotion to black and brown people and the civil liberties guaranteed every citizen by the constitution must come before professional goals or comradery with fellow officers. Black officers must lead the way in ensuring that even so-called “career criminals” receive due process. They also must refuse to accept racially insensitive and dehumanizing remarks or jokes from their coworkers about the people from the communities they police.
There are organizations like B-CAP or Black Cops Against Police Brutality that care about their communities and their profession enough to want to see racism and violence eradicated from both. Being pro-law enforcement can mean wanting to see fair policing, solid community relations and officer safety – and safe policing is absolutely dependent upon community relations and trust. Fighting racism within various police forces and improving a community relations will be a slow process given the history but, if black police fight for it with the same fervor that they fought for inclusion and promotions in police departments, they will be able to empower African American communities and protect their fellow officers.
Being black and blue it not only is a sign of a past injury, it’s part of the process of healing.
- This article was amended on 28 May 2015 because of an editing error that incorrectly identified the police chief with whom the author met. The Guardian regrets this error