By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (January 7, 2015) — African American police officers who attend Covenant churches and have experience patrolling urban areas say they often feel caught in the middle of what they say are simplistic perceptions of the work they do. Newswire spoke to four current and former police officers who are active in their churches and communities. Each of them say police are working in a reality where racial profiling exists and the poor and minorities are at a disadvantage in the justice system.
“Hearing people talk about ‘police officers’ or ‘police’ like all of us are the same makes me really angry,” says Officer Justin (we are not using real names or name of departments). “Most cops want to do their jobs well. There’s always going to be some who don’t.”
Even if people don’t mean to encompass all officers, the repeated use of the general reference fuels the negative perception, Justin added.
Officer Michael said he wished that more people understood just how dangerous the job can be, as seen in the recent killings of police officers in New York City. “When you leave the house to go to work, there’s always a chance you might not make it home.”
The officers contend that perceptions of what an individual would consider profiling often aren’t. For example, it is standard procedure when two officers make a traffic stop and one stands behind the car of the person pulled over. “A traffic stop is the most dangerous thing a policeman does, so that second officer is going to be looking in the car regardless of the race of the driver,” Justin said. “We do it the same way every time regardless of a person’s race.”
“I’m a policeman so I empathize with the policeman in the (Ferguson) situation, but I’m African American so I empathize with Michael Brown as well.”
Officer Aaron spent several years patrolling a community that is all African American so all the people he stopped and arrested were African American. If a white officer is working the same area and pulls someone over, then they’re more likely to be accused of profiling, he said.
Nevertheless, the officers did agree that profiling occurs and that police of every racial group are guilty of it. Said Ben, a former police officer: “It’s one of the reasons I retired—to separate myself from it.” He added, “I don’t see it getting any better. There needs to be better training.”
Every officer said they believed bad attitudes begin to be shaped at the police academy.
Justin believes it starts as early as an officer’s training at the police academy. “When we go to the police academy, it’s always preached to us that it’s us against everyone else,” Justin said. That attitude can become more ingrained as young officers work alongside more experienced officers who are hardened in that way of thinking. “It can lead to some not-so-friendly contacts with the citizens.”
Appearance does play a major role in profiling. “You were always trained to see who doesn’t seem to fit in,” Aaron said. “One of the most common incidents of profiling is a black man driving a really nice car in a poor neighborhood.”
Several officers said that African American and white officers might approach a situation differently as a result of their cultural backgrounds. For instance, Officer Aaron said he’d probably “have more empathy” for a black man in an urban neighborhood than would a white officer who was raised in a middle-class suburb. “It’s because I understand where they’re coming from,” he said.
“You can hear officers talking to other officers, and sometimes, you’ll hear something that might be insensitive,” Aaron added. “It seems like there’s not always a whole lot of respect or empathy for people and the situations they’re under.”
Officers said the departments have not shown enough concern about dealing with profiling and issues of race. “We never talk about it,” Aaron said.
He added that it’s a hard topic for police officers to discuss. “We might see something that’s racist, but we don’t want to get caught up in it enough to where we have to say something and then you get seen by other police as a snitch,” he explained. “We’re supposed to be all in this together. You look at yourself and think you should say something, but then you just look away. We all get caught up in that at some time. I know there are times when I’ve looked the other way.”
All of the officers said they had experienced little overt racism towards them, however, and tried to avoid working with people they perceived as being racist or too aggressive in the field. Two of the officers suspected some of their white colleagues were extra careful to not make racial comments when around African Americans on the force.
“They start building prisons instead of concentrating on creating jobs. It would be a lot more humane and less costly to create jobs. Somebody’s making a lot of money on prisons.”
Ben emphasized that officers should view their jobs as a public service. “What’s so bad about Ferguson is it’s not just about blacks. Everyone is complaining. We’re not at war with these people!”
Officers did express concern over the behavior of officers such as Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as those involved in the death of Eric Garner in New York City.
“I’m a policeman so I empathize with the policeman in the (Ferguson) situation, but I’m African American so I empathize with Michael Brown as well,” Aaron said. While not passing a definitive judgment on what happened in the moment, he did express concerns that Darren Wilson might have needlessly escalated the situation by backing his car up and engaging Brown rather than waiting for backup.
“Sometimes we make good decisions; sometimes we make bad decisions, and sometimes those are really bad. But we’ve got to live with the decisions we make,” Aaron said. “It’s a terrible situation to be in, and I thank God I’ve never had to fire my weapon.”
Officers should be held accountable and go to jail if it is determined that they have committed a criminal act. Aaron emphasized.
Michael said he was appalled at the behavior of the police in the Eric Garner case and believed a crime was committed. “That could have been handled a lot differently,” he said, adding, “They didn’t seem to be concerned at all about him.”
Several of the officers interviewed participate in community service such as basketball leagues that are designed especially for at-risk youth. They believe it’s important for police to get to know the people in the communities they serve.
All of the officers said the justice system is stacked against minorities and the poor, from the number of arrests to the way cases are adjudicated, and the resources that are available after someone is released from incarceration.
“Caucasians get the benefit of the doubt, and minorities don’t,” Aaron said. “They may see a white person in court and think they’re actually a good person (who needs another chance), but they’ll see a minority and assume he’s a bad person.”
Drug arrests highlight the discrepancies. “African Americans are arrested at a much higher rate than whites because of where the crimes take place,” Justin said. “Crime doesn’t happen the same way in different parts of the city. In white neighborhoods, it’s done behind closed doors. In the African American community, it’s done out in the open, so it’s going to be easier to make arrests.”
They all agreed that the system perpetuates criminal behavior. “Once (offenders) hit the system, what are we doing to rehabilitate these people?” Justin asked. “A lot of times we’re just housing people.”
Aaron concurred, saying, “They start building prisons instead of concentrating on creating jobs. It would be a lot more humane and less costly to create jobs. Somebody’s making a lot of money on prisons.”
topic: church and race