From New York to Los Angeles, police departments across the country are consistently accused of racism. Although historically white police precincts have been slowly integrating over the past few decades, disparities still exist between the number of minorities and the number of non-minorities that make up law enforcement. In urban communities, police are much whiter than the people they serve. According to the Police Officer Statistics and Facts in the US, as of September 2021, there are over 324,882 police officers currently employed in the United States. The most common ethnicity of police officers is White (64.9%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (16.8%) and Black or African American (12.1%).
In addition, Black police officers still encounter racism on the job. However, they face additional challenges as they patrol the streets to keep communities safe. And so, my story begins about Black police officers – Black in Blue.
As protesters demonstrate against police violence, the reality is minority communities distrust police. Unless you have been living under a rock all your life, you would know that this is not a recent phenomenon. That sentiment is based on a long history of racist policing in America, even if it doesn’t apply to every single officer today. Until the police acknowledge this issue, they will continue to be perceived as trying to cover up their long history of oppression. And the distrust, and at times hate, will continue.
People need and want to feel safe in their communities and everyday life. Protection must be provided. Policing has to be someone’s job. I don’t believe civilians policing each other is the answer. But with all the negative actions against people of color, and that’s putting it lightly, why would anyone other than a non-minority want to be a police officer anywhere in the U.S.? Why would anyone want a job where not only racism runs rampant, but the people don’t trust you and the community hates you? Why endure all these challenges in the name of protecting others?
The Black Police Officer Navigating Turbulent Worlds
This is the struggle of Black police officers, then and now. Surprisingly, there are more minorities joining the police department. For many, being a police officer is considered a decent job in public service, even with the inequalities and hate that exist. They sign up for a job that offers a path to a middle-class life and a chance to serve their communities by pledging to protect them. Yet these same communities, being skeptical of law enforcement, challenge the loyalty of minority officers and question their motives and intentions. Black police officers must deal with double pressure: pressure that comes from being black in America and pressure that comes from being black in law enforcement. As the shootings of Black people continue to rock cities across our nation, debates about reform and what it means to defund the police continue. As a result, Black officers are finding themselves navigating two worlds that are often at odds, and sometimes even at war, with each other.
John Q. Williams, a sergeant with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department in Georgia explained, “Then you have family and media and people telling you, these things clash, and you can’t be both. You’ve got to be more one than the other. That’s not true. When you’re a human being, and you’re doing this for the right reason, you just do it.” This, my readers, is an example of the lived experience of Black police officers.
Black Officers and Police Reform
After the death of George Floyd and other recent cases of fatal police encounters, the public clamor for changing the culture of policing has now put law enforcement under a microscope. Even though Black officers are up against a police culture with a legacy of prejudice, resistant to self-examination and primed to use force, they want to be the change. Black officers want to change how communities perceive the police.
With everything Black officers face, within the walls of the department and outside in the communities they serve, I believe they can transform policing without being viewed as race-traitors, sell-outs or “Uncle Tom.” They are poised to play a critical role in police reform. Chicago police Sgt. Jermaine Harris stated “Black officers are positioned in the optimal place at a time when the country is primed to make substantial repairs to its patterns and practices. It is of utmost importance that our voices be heard. Now is the time to unapologetically inject Black into Blue.”
What Needs to be Done
Black police officers can be an abundant resource in communities and can be relied upon to create the solutions needed to reform policing that is sustainable. They can be pivotal in helping with the rebuilding of community trust. For instance, Black officers allowed to police Black communities bring community knowledge and cultural connection as a form of trust-building. We already know that when community trust in its law enforcement erodes, it compounds the already tense relations between some communities, specifically urban communities, and police departments. Police officers must understand not just the city, but the people in the city they serve.
Police reform includes holding police accountable. When police do use excessive force or engage in other types of misconduct, there needs to be more transparency and accountability in the aftermath. Training is one of the most important factors shaping an officer’s behavior, and those behaviors ultimately drive community outcomes. Introducing cultural competence into policing is way past due. Police should be trained to address their racial biases. When emotions take over in intense situations, it can lead to misjudgment, which can be the difference between the life and death of another person.
Communities are watching and waiting to see positive change in law enforcement. As Blacks in blue, Black officers must be prepared to lead in the evolution of police reform. They can capture the moment by using their voices to inspire the change that will reshape policing forever. It is one thing to see what good policing can do, but another to restructure what it means to police, and retrain who is doing it. Without this backbone, the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve will continue to fray, and it’s this coexistence that we rely on so that we can live freely and safely.