Date: Wed, 8 Sep 1999 20:38:09 -0400
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Subject: [BRC-NEWS] For Black Cops, Trust Hard to Gain
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For black cops, trust hard to gain: Diversity doesn’t close credibility gap

By James Hill <>, The Chicago Tribune, 19 July 1999

In recent decades, police departments in Chicago and other large urban areas have recruited minorities in earnest, partly out of a sense of fairness, sometimes under duress, but also in hopes of improving relationships with and services in the communities they are sworn to protect.

But if there was an expectation that increasing the diversity of the force would help break down barriers between police and the minority community, those efforts have had an unexpected effect.

Some African-Americans say that while white cops are at times abusive and insensitive, black cops sometimes seem even worse. Meanwhile, black officers say they have been put in the difficult position of straddling the line between personal and professional allegiance when dealing with people of their own race.

The statement I hear all the time is ’I would expect that from a white officer, not from a brother,’ said Officer Isaac Lee, a 10-year veteran of the Chicago police and part of a special unit that patrols the hot spots in the city’s public housing developments. Like what, I’m suppose to overlook your crime because we are both black?

I personally think black officers are held to a higher standard because as blacks policing blacks, oftentimes there is the feeling from black civilians that since they have been so historically downtrodden by white police, we should go easier on them… . We should understand their plight.

The often strained relationship between black officers and black civilians has brought daily tensions. But in recent weeks, the situation has become even more difficult in the wake of two fatal shootings by Chicago police. In both instances, the victims were black. So were the officers involved.

The shootings have sparked protests outside City Hall and police headquarters. They have prompted cries of brutality and questions about police tactics. One of the shootings—that of 26-year-old LaTanya Haggerty—prompted Police Supt. Terry Hillard last week to recommend that the four officers involved in the June 4 incident be dismissed.

Customarily, such incidents also would have brought questions about whether they indicated an inherent racism in the Police Department because the officers typically were white.

Yet the circumstances surrounding the fatal shootings by police of Haggerty and Robert Russ—a 22-year-old Northwestern student—have put black community leaders in the unusual position of criticizing police conduct they can’t simply attribute to a racist culture in the Police Department.

Rev. Jesse Jackson said the two incidents amounted to police resorting to an excessive use of force.

It is so easy when you are on a job where oftentimes the civilians are as well armed or better armed than the police to get in a defensive mode, Jackson said. But once you get yourself in the mode where you feel like you have to defend yourself against the people instead of protecting the people, you need a break… . Those types of people are too quick with the stick and the trigger finger.

Your fears cannot justify breaking the law, even if you are the police, Jackson said.

The Russ shooting, which remains under investigation, initially was ruled justifiable because officials said the officers feared for their lives. Earlier this year, two officers were fatally shot in separate incidents following traffic stops.

Still, the Haggerty and Russ shootings widened the credibility gap Hillard said exists between blacks and the police in Chicago, making the difficult job of law enforcement that much tougher, particularly for black officers.

Sometimes, people in the black community are suspicious of me. I prove myself to them, said Sgt. Doris Byrd, a 23-year veteran of the force. A lot of members of our African-American community have been mistreated at the hands of African-Americans.

For black police officers, trying to balance personal and professional loyalties can be perplexing. Though sworn to protect public safety, they also are working in a system that often promotes the perception that minorities—particularly blacks and Latinos—are criminals. And they’re working in a profession critics allege systematically and unfairly targets minorities for harassment and brutality.

Your supervisors, who are mostly white, are watching you to make sure you are not just going easy on your own people, while your own people are looking at you to see if you are a sellout, doing the ’white man’s’ will, said Marcus, an African-American officer who patrols the West Side and did not want to give his last name.

The problem of police credibility, particularly in the black community, is not limited to Chicago. According to a 1997 national poll on race relations conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that deals with black issues, 81 percent of blacks and 83 percent of Latinos agreed that police, no matter what race, are much more likely to harass and discriminate against blacks than whites. Even 56 percent of whites agreed.

There’s more than one force directing the traffic when you are a black officer working in the black community, said Dr. Carl Bell, president and CEO of Chicago’s Community Mental Health Council, who frequently deals with gangs, black-on-black crime and the police.

You’ve got the community perception that ’Uh oh, here comes the police, and it will be more trouble than help.’ Sometimes you have community people who say, ’Here comes a brother, and maybe I will have a connection that I wouldn’t have with a white person.’ The problem is when the policeman, who is a brother, comes, he’s aware of the perception and the stereotypes and doesn’t know if he is going to get the negative or the positive attitude.

And if you are a black officer on that stressful middle ground … sometimes you have to be harder on your own people because you know the dangers.

But sometimes black officers buy into that dichotomy that there’s the police and there’s everybody else, and the only people you can trust is other police.

Patricia Hill, past president and current board member of the African American Police League in Chicago, said that attitude is instilled in officers at the police academy.

Hill said black officers, black teachers or blacks in general may be harder on fellow African-Americans because of psychological conditioning.

You’re carrying out the agenda of the dominant culture and working against your own best interest, Hill said. We have to believe and identify positively with our own people.

Tyron Samuels, 18, hanging out with friends on a recent afternoon near Augusta Boulevard and Long Avenue in the Austin neighborhood, said he figured African-American officers would relate differently to minorities than white police, but that is rarely the case.

Black or white, if they’re a cop and you’re black, especially young and black, hanging on the street, they automatically think you’re a gangbanger or dope dealer, Samuels said. Sometimes the black (officers) are worse than the white ones … I don’t know why; you’d think brothers would understand.

A key to bringing about such understanding—besides personal experience—lies in the way police officers are trained, Bell said.

The problem is there is not a good degree of leadership offered by the Police Department about how black officers ought to deal with their unique situation; they have to be in both worlds, Bell said. The leadership (the department) offers is not a conversational form of leadership. It’s your sergeant or lieutenant gives you an order and you say ’Yes, sir.’ You translate that leadership style in a public situation where it takes good people skills and you’ve got a disconnect.

One officer, Darrell, who would not give his last name, patrols near the South Side area known as the State Street Corridor, where rows of Chicago Housing Authority developments line the streets. He said he does his best not to perpetuate stereotypes.

All black people and Latinos and other people of color are not criminals, just like all white people aren’t innocent, Darrell said. Likewise, all black officers aren’t your friend and all white officers aren’t your enemy. I know that. And they should know that. Which is why a lot of times we have to prove ourselves to (black) people.

Sgt. Kevin Glover, a black officer and 15-year veteran who works in the Prairie District, said he tells his officers not to let race get in the way of doing their job, and he advises civilians to do the same.

If an officer is in the community, black or white, they are looking out for that community, Glover said. If they do a good job, people love us. If they do a bad job, well… . But people have to give us a chance. They shouldn’t stereotype us, just like we shouldn’t stereotype them.