- Illustration by Corey Adams
Black police officers remain caught in the middle of the explosive debate over law enforcement in the United States. But it's often difficult for them to speak freely when they're torn between their jobs and their communities.
To get a better idea of where African-American cops stand, I reached out to three police officers who live and work in the Chicago area, two men and one woman. They all agreed to speak with me about the current heated environment only on the condition that I leave their names, ranks, and departments out of the story. The officers have a combined 45 years of experience in law enforcement.
As it turns out, the officers have a range of opinions on the current environment surrounding policing—just as it was when I spoke with three different officers in 2016. Of President Trump one says, "His bigotry has made many officers who support him feel bold enough to say and do as they please with little fear of repercussions." Another feels saddened by those who say "fuck the police": "It's a shame that my mere presence brings out so much hatred." All three believe Mayor Rahm Emanuel's $95 million new police training academy slated for Garfield Park is needed, notwithstanding the No Cop Academy movement that believes the money for the facility would be better spent on youth and community programs.
Below are their edited responses to questions I sent via e-mail. I've referred to them as Misty Knight, Roger Murtaugh, and Mike Lowrey, three well-known (but fictional) African-American police officers.
Evan F. Moore: What are your thoughts on the [July 14] shooting of Harith Augustus in South Shore by a Chicago police officer?
Misty Knight: An entire group of uninformed people gathered to protest a situation where they were lacking facts, very important facts. Someone lost their life as a result of their own actions, and instead of the community coming together to work toward a solution to a problem, the masses came together to cause destruction. This, as I have stated, is a hot climate, with headstrong people from both sides. I just wish there was some way for there to be a happy middle ground. We as black Americans always want to blame the cop, who is too thirsty [for action], or being a coon/Uncle Tom.
Roger Murtaugh: I know people are saying [Augustus was] a nice guy, and he probably was. He knew he had a weapon. As soon as you see a gun it ain't about maybe. It's about me going home. Black, white, Latino, we all think that way. Black people have got to stop watching TV. When we shoot, we're not trying to injure. We're trying to kill at that point. The white boys who carry on get shot too. We don't rejoice in making that decision. Three shootings in South Shore compared to how many other killings? Protest the people who [are] doing the shootings. You can't blame Rahm for this.
Mike Lowrey: Justified. All he had to do was comply.
Moore: Do you think that Blue Lives Matter is sympathetic to black police officers?
Knight: I do think the Blue Lives Matter movement is sympathetic to black police officers.
Murtaugh: Not at all. If anything, it's a challenge to see if they side with police or with their communities. One of the things that black officers deal with on a regular basis is the question of
Whose side are you really on? It's the same issue that [President] Obama had—is he the black people's president, or is he the president? There was no concern given to the fact that black people needed help, or that they had been playing on a slanted field. The only concern was, are you going to maintain the comfortable status quo? And that is what [Blue Lives Matter] says to black officers: We need you to ignore reality and blatant issues that many of us, your "brothers" [in law enforcement], have and continue to create.
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Lowrey: Honestly, I really don't think they care to be sympathetic to anyone but white officers since incidents are a constant of white officer versus black subject.
What were your thoughts on the viral video of the Texas police officer who said, "'Fuck the police?' Fuck you!!"?
Knight: That unfortunately is the climate that we are in, and it's a shame that my mere presence brings out so much hatred.
Murtaugh: It echoes what police officers are trained to believe across the country. It's "us against you'' and the "you" all depends on the governing administration. Unfortunately, officers are pushed toward not identifying with the people who they are said to serve. In the minds of most officers that I have encountered, they perceive that most people have the experiences and lives that they have, based on choice, not by circumstance. Therefore they see most people as "sheep" that will never measure up to themselves.
Lowrey: I thought it was unprofessional. Some officers feel that way, but it should never reflect in the course of their duties. Law enforcement is a job you can't take personally. If you are supersensitive and get upset because a subject calls you a pig or uses a racial slur, you should not choose this career.
What are the conversations like when you speak with family members about how to interact with police officers during a traffic stop?
Knight: When I speak to family members about how to deal with the police, I tell them to always be courteous. I have expressed to them that the way an officer reacts to them has a lot to do with how they react to the officer. Meaning, if I approach your vehicle during a traffic stop and the first words out of your mouth are "What? You must ain't got nothing else better to do," or something to that effect, you have already set the tone of our interaction.
Murtaugh: I hate those conversations because I shouldn't have to have them! At least with black people, I'm standing there telling them that the system is not fair, so you who look like you do have to play it differently.
Lowrey: I have a brother who just turned 20 years old. I advise him to fully comply with law enforcement when stopped: "Yes sir/ma'am," "No sir/ma'am." Make the officer feel relaxed to the point where they feel they can trust you. [Don't] have anyone in the car with you if you're unaware of their background! Do what's asked of you, nothing more, nothing less.
What would you say to those who think the police ought to be abolished?
Knight: I don't think I will ever understand someone's stance on wanting to get rid of the police. We, as a people, have a very hard time looking out for one another. It's the laws that keep some people from doing really bad things to others. If there were no laws and no police to enforce those laws, could you imagine how much crazier this world would be?
Murtaugh: They are fools who would want [police] back within 24 hours. The Purge would become a reality.
Lowrey: Be prepared to take the law into your own hands. Be prepared to defend yourself and your family against chaos and lawlessness without the help of those professionally trained to deal with these dangers! We are the 2 percent of the population that have the heart to run to what everyone else runs from!
What are your thoughts on the resistance to building a new police academy in Chicago on the west side?
Knight: New schools, new medical facilities, new strip malls, new churches are built every day. Why not a new police training facility? A new facility could potentially mean better technology, and better technology would hopefully foster an environment of new thinking, which is what the citizens want with respect to policing, right?
Murtaugh: It's needed. It doesn't matter if you like the police or not. How can you complain about the level of training and then get mad at the idea of having a top-notch facility? That's asinine.
Lowrey: I can understand the concern of the people who believe that a new police academy is unnecessary if the same tactics and training will be taught, but I believe we are going into a new era of policing, and with this new era, new training and tactics are called for to improve relations with the public and try to win their trust!
Do you think President Donald Trump's claimed "pro-police" stance has a positive effect on your job?
Knight: He has made it very difficult to be a police officer in America these days.
Murtaugh: It does for people who respect the police, or are afraid of them. But ultimately, politicians like him make it more dangerous. You cannot treat people as if they are beneath you and then expect them to follow you.
Lowrey: Not at all. His bigotry has made many officers who support him feel bold enough to say and do as they please with little fear of repercussions due to them being white and holding a badge, which has further exacerbated relations between white officers serving in black/brown communities and black/brown officers serving with white [officers].
Why do you think that police officers are viewed as heroes in some communities and villains in others?
Knight: Most of the people who hate the police have had a bad interaction with the police, obviously. Generally speaking, most people's interactions with the police are due to some sort of illegal activity/behavior: a neighbor is calling on them because their music is too loud, it's 2 AM and the neighbor has to be up for work at 6 AM. So to answer your question, unfortunately, it depends on the dynamics of what you consider to be a "normal" interaction with the police.
Murtaugh: That is strictly based on how people are raised and taught to perceive the police. White people teach that they work for the people. Black people are taught to run, or not talk to them, 'cause they will lock you up or kill you.
Lowrey: Race and classification play a huge role. For example, an area like Highland Park or Barrington Hills, which are predominantly white and upper-class [and which have more residents with] wealth and jobs and education, would welcome and praise police for what they endure. As for a place like Englewood or Gresham in the city of Chicago, where it's predominantly black and lower-class, [people] feel as if they have nothing due to that lack of jobs and closing schools. Some children grow up thinking the only way out is a life of crime. So of course this life of crime often leads to confrontation with police. Sometimes the confrontation may be warranted; other times the subject is unfairly and unjustly targeted, which leads to a very negative reaction to law enforcement. The media reports subjects getting killed by law enforcement almost on a monthly basis. These situations cause certain communities to be biased in how they treat/view police.
If you were a police superintendent, what would be the first thing you would change about how police officers go about doing their jobs?
Knight: There needs to be more personal accountability from civilians, going back to what I said about one's "normal" interaction with the police. If you have a young man or young woman who has a rap sheet filled with violent crimes, and that young man or young woman is arrested for the 15th time for said violent crime, why does it come down to the officer who made the arrest is "just picking on that person" or is "thirsty"? Why is there never any talk about that person making the conscious decision to commit the crime? I know that isn't an answer to your question; however, there needs to be a mutual understanding from both the police and the citizens, and being held responsible or accountable for your actions from everyone is a good first step.
Murtaugh: I would make it mandatory that officers must have worked in a penal institution prior to working on the street. [Also,] you don't learn to depend on a gun when you don't have one. Officers would be required to walk their beats when weather permits. The communities will help you if they know you.
Lowrey: Weed out dirty cops. Because of the actions of a few, departments nationwide are under scrutiny. There are some awesome police officers, chiefs, and departments out here. The more you learn your community as a department, the less trouble you have. Community policing is key! v