After days of protests against police brutality in Los Angeles County, a young deputy sheriff at the front turned to her commander and staggered.
As a black woman, she wanted to show solidarity with her community by mourning the police's brutal murder of George Floyd. But as a law enforcement officer, she feared that her colleagues would backlash if she took a knee.
"My comment on her was, if it's real, if you feel that way, we won't criticize you," said Cmdr. April Tardy, who is also black.
This personal conflict underscores the delicate duality of being a black policeman in America at this moment of unrest.
In interviews, those responsible for the black law enforcement agencies said they were uniquely able to understand the racism embedded in the criminal justice system, the history of their community's oppression, and decades of distrust of the police. You will be able to bridge the differences.
However, some recognize that working within the system has not always resulted in policy or behavior changes. And recently, black officers have also been at the forefront of racial insults and derogatory statements.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott speaks to reporters in San Francisco.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said he was very aware and sensitive to both sides of the nation's debate about racial justice.
In an interview, he told of personal incidents that remain indelible: "For Sale" signs that appeared when his family moved to a largely white neighborhood in Alabama in the 1970s and were in stores where one employee each of his Movements watched and heard car doors closing on the street as he passed.
"When you grew up in this environment, you can't avoid the fact that you're black," he said.
Experts said that progress requires a culture change in policing that goes beyond diversification of ranks and prioritizes honest talks about longstanding harmful practices.
Hiring additional color officers means little if they are not in managerial positions or are empowered to speak out against misconduct, said Rod Brunson, a professor at Northeastern University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
"Inclusion brings people into an organization and hopes that they won't stick to particularly bad practices, but they will help change the culture of policing from the inside," he said.
According to the Pew Research Center, law enforcement surveys in 2016 showed that 72% of white officers said that black deaths in America during police encounters were a one-off, while 57% of black officers said they were signs of a systemic problem .
But as important as monitoring communities is how they are monitored, Brunson said. At least two of the officials involved in a widespread Atlanta incident in May, in which two college students were insulted, were colored people. One of the four officers charged with Floyd's death is Black.
An officer race "doesn't magically isolate people from mistreatment," said Brunson. "There is also an organizational requirement. So what kind of behavior is expected and culture is tolerated and, more importantly, promoted in police stations?"
Charles Ramsey, then police commissioner in Philadelphia, will be shown at a press conference in 2015.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
Charles Ramsey, the former Philadelphia police commissioner who chaired President Obama's 21st Century Police Force Task Force said the officers had to see themselves through the eyes of the police. Ramsey has sometimes been criticized by the grass roots for being too tough disciplining officers. He believes it is important that officials understand how the police have been used to implement racist policies such as the Jim Crow Laws.
Negative encounters with the police, many current black officials say, drove her to a law enforcement career.
As a teenager, Horace Boatwright went home from a baseball game in South Carolina when an official stopped him.
"He says if he catches me again at night I wouldn't make it home," said Boatwright, now deputy chief of the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department. "I was immediately afraid of law enforcement."
He joined the career to "do my part to model what a cop should be – that's ethical, accountable, and compassionate about the needs of the community."
Officials involved in misconduct should be held criminally or administratively accountable and the rules should require their colleagues to intervene when they testify to unethical behavior and report bad behavior. Boatwright also said it was important for his colleagues in the department to understand why black people might be concerned about or react negatively to police interactions. He had these conversations.
Horace Boatwright is the deputy head of the sheriff department of San Bernardino County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
"I'm trying to let them know that even though that person has a perception, that perception is a reality, that feeling is real," said Boatwright.
For black police officers, building relationships in their own community requires delicate navigation. Some say they were referred to in uniform as a traitor, a sellout, or Uncle Tom.
"If I get to be black myself, yes, the first thing that comes to mind is that I'm hurt. But then I try to understand where they come from," said Boatwright, adding that it never made him rethink his career choice. "I still think I can do a job."
Frank Harris, a deputy from the San Bernardino County, was recently assigned to a protest by Rancho Cucamonga against approximately 300 people that was disruptive. People in the crowd threw objects on cars and jumped on a school bus, he said in an interview with the sheriff's Employees' Benefit Assn.
At some point, at least two people threw racist insults at him, including the N-word. Video captured the encounter.
At the moment, Harris said, he wasn't impressed by the fact that he insults all the time. It wasn't until he saw the video that it hit him.
Deputy chief of the San Bernardino County sheriff, Horace Boatwright, left, speaks during a morning briefing.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
"It really just made me sad," he said in the interview, adding that he chose law enforcement because he saw a lack of diversity. "I kind of wanted to be out there in law enforcement to give young black men a voice or a helping hand."
This type of blurring hit Matt Burson hardest at the beginning of his career.
"I was so frustrated that I thought," Why am I doing this? "Said Burson, head of the professional standards department at the sheriff department of LA County." But then you look around for the violence and the things that people were experiencing back then: yes, I know exactly why I do it do. I just have to concentrate on that. "
In 1979, Burson was a teenager who went home in South LA when he heard gunshots. He said the whole neighborhood raved about the scene where two officers shot a black woman, Eula Love, the mother of a girl with whom Burson's brother was dating at the time over a gas bill. News reports that she had a knife and that the police commission later concluded that the officers had made "serious errors in the assessment".
"I tell you I hated the police," said Burson. "I hated LAPD and everything they stood for."
A few years later, he began working as a damage prevention retailer, which required regular interaction with the officials. His brother had joined the California Highway Patrol. His feelings developed.
"Over the years, you learn to either be part of the solution or nothing," said Burson.
Scott, a former deputy LAPD chief, also had a negative encounter with the police in college.
Scott said he went back to school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa when he was stopped by an official.
"The first thing that came out of his mouth was," Boy, "" said Scott. "In the south, when you were called a boy, it meant that you were less than a man, less than you."
Scott did not see law enforcement as a career until a cousin who worked for the LAPD told him that black officials "could do good things". Scott soon entered the department.
After 27 years, Scott was tapped in 2017 as the head of the scandal-ridden San Francisco police department, including allegations of racist text messages from officials. The U.S. Department of Justice found that the Department disproportionately used violence against colored people and stopped and searched black people more often than other ethnic groups.
Since then, San Francisco has banned chokeholds and strangleholds, and officials have had to try to de-escalate tense situations and file a report when firing a gun at civilians. In the past month, the department has also ceased to publish mug shots of people who have been arrested unless the person poses a risk to the public.
The department has not had police shootings in two years and the use of firearms by officials has decreased by 60%, Scott said.
"Good politics, if properly enforced … drives culture," he said.
Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Gerald Woodyard said when he entered the department he looked up other black men in management positions. His own trip to the police began when he was stopped by an LAPD officer in Inglewood years ago.
The officer said he smelled marijuana from the car, and Woodyard and a friend, both in suits and on their way to church, were searched. Instead of getting angry, Woodyard decided to join the LAPD.
As a leader, he tries to recruit more black officers. Of nearly 10,000 sworn officers, about 9% or 951 are black, and the department expects many to retire soon.
"I prefer the community to see people who look like them, and maybe they can relate to us and are not afraid of us," he said.
Woodyard, who had shown solidarity with demonstrators, said the recent demonstrations had opened opportunities for "uncomfortable and authentic" discussions with the community.
"It has forced us as an organization to really look at how we monitor certain communities," he said.
Joses Walehwa, sheriff of Orange County, said friends and family members had participated in protests.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)
Lt. Joses Walehwa from the sheriff of Orange County, whose family immigrated to the United States from Uganda as a child, said friends and relatives had participated in protests. He spoke extensively to one on the phone and told him that no one he knew in law enforcement could justify what had happened to Floyd who died after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for a long time when he was out of breath asked.
"This is a rare, unique situation where everyone agrees … it shouldn't have happened," said Walehwa. "That was probably the biggest thing I could share with him."
"At the end of the conversation, I was happy to say that this person said," I am proud of you, I am proud of how you portray what you do, "he said.
In protests in which he wears a uniform, some interactions have been characterized by anger and frustration, but there has been a productive dialogue over the days.
"It wasn't a" we-against-you "thing, but" let's give everyone room to speak. "