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.
Since Dec. 20, the protests against the police have taken on a more menacing cast in his mind.
“Are they protesting for change, or is it just an opportunity to harm another police officer?” he said. “It’s really getting out of hand.”
Many police departments say their efforts to recruit black officers have been hampered by hostility toward law enforcement. For example, the New York Police Department, despite being one of the most diverse in the world, has seen the proportion of black recruits in its police academy classes fall amid growing attention to aggressive tactics in minority neighborhoods: to 13 percent in July, from 18 percent in 2003.
In St Louis, black officers have complained that they have not been afforded the same opportunities for promotion as their white counterparts, and six black sergeants filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Wednesday last week saying the promotions test was unfair by relying mostly on subjective criteria.
Sergeant Harry Dilworth, one of just four black officers on the 53-member Ferguson force, said he has been surprised by the level of vitriol he has faced from black people after the shooting of Brown in August.
On one occasion, when one protester said: “Why are you killing us?” Dilworth, 45, responded by listing three names.
He asked the demonstrator if he knew those people. The protester did not. So Dilworth explained that they were the names of black men who had recently been killed in St Louis by other blacks.
“We’re not killing you; you’re killing yourselves,” Dilworth said he told the man.
At the same time, being black also has helped him to command more respect among protesters than some of his white colleagues, Dilworth said.
During one demonstration, protesters were upset that the officers were standing before them at an angle, as if they were preparing to draw their weapons. That was a stance that officers had been trained to take, Dilworth said, but he told them not to do it because it seemed overly aggressive to the protesters.
Debates over the tensions often follow black officers home. One officer from Brooklyn said that talking about her job with her mother and sister had led to arguments.
“They think they murdered him,” she said, speaking of the officers involved in Garner’s death.
She has mostly stopped discussing her work with her family, she said.
A 39-year-old black officer who grew up in Harlem said his background has helped him differentiate between criminal and noncriminal behavior in minority communities better than colleagues raised in white suburbs can.
However, his police work has also given him a perspective that is not necessarily popular among his black family and friends. For instance, he sides with the officers who were trying to arrest Garner when he died.
“Why don’t you just put your hands behind your back,” he said, referring to Garner. “You know the drill.”
“You get in fights with friends, for sure,” he added.
Both New York officers requested anonymity to avoid possible repercussions, either at home or at work.
Over Thanksgiving, Sergeant Damon Hayes of the Kansas City Police Department said his mother became very emotional when the conversation turned to recent police killings. How could a police officer be scared of an 18-year-old, she asked?
“They’re all murderers,” she said, according to Hayes, 50.
He tried to calm her down, saying: “We don’t wake up in the morning hoping to murder somebody.”
“She was not hearing anything that I said. She was angry at that point,” Hayes said.
Yet he has also found himself looking for ways to help white officers understand the communities they patrol.
As demonstrations in Ferguson gave way to looting and rioting, one white colleague asked him what he thought about the violence.
“I think it’s really sad that business owners are losing their businesses and people feel so hopeless that they think the answer is to vent their anger, and it turns to wrath and they burn and steal,” Hayes said he told the officer.
When the officer followed up by asking if all black people felt angry that a grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson, the white officer who killed Brown, Hayes’ response surprised him.
“Well, the black part of me doesn’t,” Hayes said he responded.
He said he did not feel the evidence warranted an indictment.
Yet some black officers say they are sometimes at a loss to navigate the racial divides inside their own station houses.
A few days after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Brown case, Sergeant Darren Wilson said he was getting ready with other officers to begin their patrols in St Louis when an unexpected visitor arrived.
It was Jeff Roorda, head of the St Louis Police Officers Association, a group that Wilson has not always agreed with. Wilson is the president of the Ethical Society of Police, a separate labor organization made up mostly of black officers.
Roorda told the group that the white officer Wilson wanted to thank them for their support during the investigation of the Michael Brown shooting.
Sergeant Wilson stood silent and slack-jawed. Roorda spoke as if we were working for officer Wilson, the sergeant said.
“We were working to keep the community safe,” Sergeant Wilson said.
Other black officers in the room had similar blank expressions, Sergeant Wilson said, and stared at him.
He felt as though they were asking him: “How are you going to respond?” Sergeant Wilson said.
“Are you going to just let this character stand up and humiliate us like this?” he said. “I felt helpless.”
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