Being A Black Police Officer In America
What is it like to be a Black Officer In America?
Growing up, in East Palo Alto in the shadows of Stanford University, I used to ride my bicycle all over the affluent neighborhoods of Palo Alto and the extremely affluent neighborhoods of Atherton. I was always well aware of where I stood when I ventured into those neighborhoods. I was from the wrong side of the creek. I was from over there. I was one of them. I could see it in the eyes of the people driving by, wondering if I was looking to break into one of their houses or vandalize one of their expensive cars.
It did not bother me at the time because I knew what the great equalizer was going to be. I was being educated at a private school, I was going to go to college and one day, and unlike many of those I knew from the neighborhood, I had no criminal record. I was on track to become someone who commanded respect, admiration, and appreciation from all. I would be a police officer.
This dream came true for me many years later. As I went through the academy, I thought a lot about those days riding through different areas. I thought about how different it would be once I was wearing a badge and wearing an official police uniform. I was excited, and the future was bright.
Following graduation from the academy, the reality of the job became apparent to me quickly. I knew that the criminals did not like the police. That made logical sense. The police were trying to stop them from doing what they wanted to do. What took me by surprise was the number of educated, non-criminal folk out there that did not like the police. To me this was illogical. The officers I knew got into the profession in order to do good. They were willing to risk their lives every day because they were following a calling to protect society. These people saw media depictions of crooked cops beating citizens, and heard reports of cops using their authority for personal gain and attributed that to the rest of the officers in America. Appalling, but not to surprising. But wait, there's more!
While on a call at a local park, a citizen reported to me that there was an white male in the park swinging a rope with a knife at the end. When I stopped the subject and spoke with him about the knife, an older black man approached me. He said "Why don't you quit harassing that man?" I told him I would talk with him when I was done with the weapon wielding man. When I was done, I spoke with the older black man.
I asked him why he thought I was harassing the guy with the knife. He promptly informed me that he walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and that he thought I should be ashamed to wear the uniform. My reply:
"I appreciate what you did, fighting for our rights to do what at the time only whites were legally able to do. In fact, I would venture to say that because of what you did, and what you fought for, I am able to wear this uniform. You should be proud! The unfortunate thing is that though you don't know me, and you don't know the situation, you assume that I am doing something wrong. Isn't that exactly what racist whites did to you during the civil rights era. They would look at you, not knowing anything about you or your situation and assume you were up to no good. And if you are against me wearing the uniform, then you are really saying you think only non-blacks should be wearing it."
So the question is this; What is it like being a black officer in America? It is difficult to say the least. Every police involved shooting sparks debate in the family and with friends. Like many of my black officer friends, I have those in the family that are, well, ghetto. The debates can be particularly colorful with them.
At work, often black officers are made to feel invisible. That is to say, when the group is brainstorming or analyzing a situation, their comments are often blown off and never considered. What they say can easily be misunderstood. I have felt at times that I am speaking another language. And when they demand to be heard, the question is why are you being so confrontational and angry?
I think the main tool a black officer has to find is a mentor. A mentor can help a black officer navigate the minefield of mistakes and image breakers that makes up a law enforcement career. As a black officer, every move has to be thought out. Every reaction is political and has to be calculated because it can easily result in that officer being blacklisted. Your mentor does not have to be black. They just have to be someone who has navigated their career successfully and who is willing to help guide the officer in their career development.