In today’s world of policing, the brave men and women who have taken on this profession have been placed under immense scrutiny and pressure, more than any other time that I can recall in my 34 years as a police detective. Unfortunately, the scrutiny is not unwarranted. The actions of police, witnessed in real time and through social media, have resurfaced old racial wounds that have plagued African American and Latino communities for decades.
As an officer myself, I have witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly in this job, not only from an insider’s perspective, but also as a citizen who lives in the communities I have sworn an oath to serve and protect. I see the questionable shootings, unprofessional displays of police tactics, disrespectful treatment of our fellow citizens and the often disturbing absence of transparency, and, like many of my colleagues of color across the country, have become torn between doing what I have sworn to do and upholding the “thin blue line.” Recent unrest, that we as police have brought upon ourselves, has not only caused a major backlash from the communities we serve, but has also caused racial discord between officers within. Many of us who are officers of color are asking ourselves, “What are we doing in this job?” indicating a fracture not only between the police and the community, but within policing itself.
To understand this sentiment and begin to open ways to repair it so that we can move forward in our commitment to serve and protect the public together, I set out to speak to officers and gauge their feelings about how the current racial unrest and climate in policing has affected them. I conducted interviews with local, state and federal law enforcement personnel in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area where I live and work. Through 20 conversations, mostly with officers of color, I heard feelings of anger and frustration as well as key challenges that we must face if we are going to make it through better.
First, as contentious as they were, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were a pivotal moment for many Americans, particularly Blacks and Latinos, including the officers I spoke with. The protests compelled Americans of all colors to examine and grapple with systemic injustices that we have not paid enough attention to over the years. In June of 2020, 67% of Americans and 58% of police officers supported the Black Lives Matter movement, per a Pew Research Center study and Morning Consult survey, respectively. These numbers show that the majority of Americans, even officers, recognize that our systems are biased, are not working for everyone and that things must change. While the number of supporters has decreased in the last year as attention has waned and conflict has deepened, Black support is still extraordinarily high at 87%, reports Pew.
Among the Black and Latino law enforcement officers I interviewed, the public conversation about racism in how we police the community has heightened our attention not only to the injustices communities have experienced and how to police them better, but to racism within our own organizations. Officers expressed their experiences of being victims of discrimination and unjust punishment within their departments and subject to harsher discipline than their white colleagues. Empowered by the public discourse, there is a rising sense that this is something that can no longer be tolerated. Officers expressed resentment at putting their lives on the line every day for organizations they don’t feel respect them.
Additionally, officers noticed a contraction and defensiveness among many white officers against Black Lives Matter, as the movement and the media cast police officers as the public enemy rather than the public protector. While officers of color feel similarly maligned, many are concerned by the hostile, dismissive or indifferent responses to the minority experience they see from white officers. Officers reported that they don’t feel that their white colleagues understand how the events of the social movement affect them as officers of color. On the one hand, officers of color empathize with the experiences of the community, because they have been subject to racism themselves living and growing up Black and Latino in America. On the other hand, they feel that they face even harsher judgment from angry community members who feel betrayed by them. The barriers to understanding between white officers and officers of color are creating an unsettling division, leading officers to trust each other less. In a job where officers rely on one another for backup and support in situations of danger and crisis, this is not only bad for morale, it could be dangerous.
Finally, officers reported that the culture of silence in policing is stubbornly strong. Law enforcement has never liked to air its laundry — clean or dirty. Talking about these issues is hard and uncomfortable. As a result, there are very few, if any, outlets for officers to have frank and open discussions with their colleagues and leadership about how to work through the problems of internal discrimination and racial misunderstanding. This is a significant roadblock for officers, who feel like policing in communities and the culture of policing within departments must change or there is no place for them.
We hear calls for dialogue to repair division and build trust between communities and police, and those are important, but what these interviews reveal is that we need to increase the call for dialogue within police departments as well. Departments need to reckon with internal, organizational racism and build mutual understanding between officers who rely on each other every day. This racial reckoning does not have to pit one side against another, but can expose where we can be better to one another — both as colleagues and as public servants. To do this, we first have to admit that there are conversations to be had. Admitting that would not lead to defeat, but to improvement. It would open the door for change, humanity in policing and solidarity among officers.
Dialogue is paramount and will take courage and leadership. Through it, today’s police men and women who proudly stand on the front lines and in harm’s way will be able to find common ground and begin to understand not only each other, but ways to gain the trust of communities as we police in this new era of ever-changing policing. By dealing with our own biases, shortcomings, misunderstandings and perceptions of ourselves as police, we will overcome what divides us and stand united in service of the badge and our communities.
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