Mon, Dec 29, 2014 - Page 9 News List

At home and work, black US cops on the defensive

Some black police officers say they are facing ‘a double punishment’ by feeling the effects of both the police killings and the murders of African-American citizens

By John Eligon and J. David Goodman  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK AND KANSAS CITY, Missouri

Illustration: Yusha

Dennis Shireff, a nearly 30-year police veteran, has never been shy about speaking out against what he saw as brutality and racism among his peers. While serving with the St Louis police, he was even suspended for saying that the department recruited too many “Billy Bob, tobacco-chewing white police officers.”

So after the high-profile killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, New York and elsewhere, Shireff, who now works for a small department outside St Louis, feels the tug of conflicting loyalties: to black people who feel unfairly targeted by the police, and to his fellow police officers, white and black, who routinely face dangerous situations requiring split-second life-or-death decisions.

Now, with the recent murders of two New York City police officers by a man who claimed to be taking vengeance for the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island, his allegiances feel more divided than ever.

“With us being black officers, we get a double punishment because we feel the brunt of what happens to a police officer,” Shireff, 52, said. “At the same time, it’s equally hard for us when we see a young African-American is killed at the hands of a policeman.”

At times they find themselves defending police procedures to fellow blacks who see them as foot soldiers from an oppressive force. At other times, they find themselves serving as the voice of black people in their station houses, trying to explain to white colleagues the animosity many blacks feel toward law enforcement. Life for black officers has long been a delicate balancing act, many people say.

However, in departments across the nation, black officers say that act has become much harder after a season of intense protests against police shootings, followed by the killing of the New York officers. What are black officers who support the sentiments of anti-brutality protests supposed to say to colleagues who blame the deaths of police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in New York on those very same protests?

“Everyone’s almost pretty much walking on eggshells,” said Sergeant Darren Wilson, president of a union that represents mostly black officers in St Louis, and who shares the name of the white officer who shot Brown in Ferguson. “What’s going on in the community today? How are we going to act and respond to it? What’s proper? What’s improper?”

Nowhere is that tension more palpable for black police officers than in New York. Detective Yuseff Hamm, who wanted to be a police officer since he was a child in Harlem, said he initially could sympathize with people protesting the killing of Garner, who died after a officer placed him in a chokehold in July.

However, the ambush killing of the two officers on Dec. 20 changed his view.

“In the beginning you could understand it,” said the detective, who is also president of the Guardians, a fraternal organization of black New York City officers. “But now, actively threatening to hurt a law enforcement officer and actually carrying it out — we’re in a difficult time right now.”

Hamm said the members of his group are often viewed as “troublemakers.” However, since the killings, he has felt greater solidarity with fellow officers of all colors, he said.

“Every police officer looked at that and said: ‘That could have been me,’” he said.

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