The Challenge of Being Black, Female—and a Cop

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Marilyn Thompson

Marilyn Thompson. Photo by Emmanuel Amido for The Trace

Marilyn Thompson was driving home from a Memorial Day visit with her son in Texas when she spotted a police cruiser parked on the shoulder of the road. She moved to the left to give the officer a wide berth. But after she passed, he pulled up behind her and turned on his flashing lights.

Thompson drew in a breath. A police officer for three decades, she thought immediately of the handgun in her glove compartment. She pulled over, vowing to herself to do exactly what the officer asked.

“People think because you’re a police officer you’re not going to be nervous,” said Thompson. “But Black people are instinctively nervous around police officers.”

The patrolperson told her he stopped her because she had stayed in the left lane too long, a complaint that struck her as odd. Thompson told him she was a police officer in her home state of Arkansas, and that she had a gun in her glove compartment. She asked if she could use her left hand to retrieve her badge from the same spot.

“I made sure he was focusing on what I was saying at all times,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic.”

Thompson, 54, has felt tension throughout her career between her profession and her race and gender. In college, when she told her brothers she wanted to go into law enforcement, they warned that she might be seen in her community as a traitor. When she joined the Little Rock Police Department almost three decades ago, she found herself calculating who would be more likely to back her up if violence erupted, her white partner or Black people on the scene.

While taking leadership training classes at the University of Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute, she wove her experiences into an academic paper. Her research showed that women, and Black women in particular, can be assets on a police force. They are often adept at de-escalating dangerous situations, and show sensitivity when working in diverse communities.

They also face discrimination and bias.

The title of the paper, “Triple Threat: Black, Female, with a Badge,” came to her as she thought back on the early days of her career. “From the moment I finished college and came into law enforcement, I was a threat to my white counterpart,” she said.

Despite the inherent distrust many people in her family, and in the wider Black community in Little Rock, felt toward law enforcement, Thompson’s early encounters with police were positive. She remembers that one summer evening, when she was about four, her father swung at her mother, hitting her so hard he knocked her off the front porch.

It wasn’t the first time he’d hit her — he often did when he’d been drinking. But it was the first and last time anyone called the police. Thompson’s mother considered it a private matter. When officers arrived, Thompson sobbed, and pleaded with them not to take her dad away. One officer, a white man with dark brown hair and a gentle voice, got down on his knees.

“Everything’s going to be OK,” she recalls the officer saying. “I’m taking him down to the jail overnight, just for his own protection. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

The officer’s compassion stayed with Thompson. Years later, when she was 10, Thompson’s cousin convinced her to steal crates from a construction site. An officer drove up in a police car and explained that she was stealing, and also trespassing on private property — both things she hadn’t fully understood. Then he handed her a dollar and told her not to do it again.

From Computer Science to Policing

When Thompson enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, she studied computer science and accounting. But at a career fair one year, she was drawn to a table where a recruiter from the Dallas Police Department was speaking to students. The job sounded rewarding, and the salary and benefits enticing.

The very next day she changed her major to criminal justice.

Thompson was one of three Black women in her class at the Little Rock Police Academy in 1990, and one of only about seven women in the class of 40. She aced her civil service exam, landing her in the “A” group of recruits with top scores. But rather than easing her early days on the force, her college degree and high exam results were a threat to many of her colleagues. If she lost her bearings in an unfamiliar neighborhood, they would say: “You don’t know where you are? I thought you had a college degree.”

Unlike most of the male officers in Little Rock, Thompson hadn’t grown up shooting guns. Her five brothers had learned in the Boy Scouts, and had taken their .22 rifles to hunt quail and squirrels in the woods when they were kids. But they didn’t let her touch their guns, and she still hadn’t held one before she entered the police academy.

“I was like a deer in the headlights,” she said.

In training, Thompson found that she had to negotiate the complicated dynamic of being a Black woman among mostly white male colleagues. She remembers the discomfort of watching her field training officer belittle a Black man who was accused of a minor offense. She stood quietly to the side, feeling like she couldn’t intervene.

She wondered if her presence was making the trainer uncomfortable, and whether he might have been even more aggressive if she had not been there.

Which Side Are You On?

“He couldn’t figure out which way I was swinging,” she said. “Was I on his side? As a Black person he automatically thought I was on Black people’s side.”

At the same time, her position as a police officer caused some people in her community to treat her like an outsider.

“Most Black people see me in uniform and they think I’m going to take their freedom away,” she said.

Occasionally they were right. There were times she had to arrest people whom she knew, then bump into their friends or family members at the supermarket that weekend.

Also, it didn’t escape her notice that she received her best job evaluation soon after she came down hard on a Black suspect who had beaten his mother: “I went off on him so bad, he was crying and begging me not to take him in. And all of a sudden, my evaluation just skyrocketed up. It was like ‘OK, you proved you’re one of us.’”

Because she was a woman, Thompson’s male colleagues assumed she would be well equipped to handle sexual assault cases involving female victims. She wasn’t. She fumbled her way through soul-crushing cases, including one involving a toddler. In another case, the victim was a sexual assault counselor, and she gave the young officer some valuable tips about how to sensitively interview people after trauma.

Around the same time, Thompson noticed that a lot of the white women on the force were being protected from difficult assignments in a way that she was not: Her supervisors, she said, “sheltered a lot of the white females. They were OK to be helpless, but we couldn’t [be]. We had to be strong at all times.”

Just over a year after she started in the Little Rock Police Department, Thompson got into a car accident that crushed both her knees, sidelining her for a year and a half. When she was ready to go back to work, she decided she didn’t want to return to that constant stress. A friend asked her to join the force at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he promised she would suffer less anxiety and still have a big impact on people’s lives.

The Little Rock Police Department continues to wrestle with accusations of racism, including a number of controversial police shootings of Black citizens, and an overreliance on no-knock warrants in drug cases, usually targeting Black residents.

Mark Edwards, a department media specialist, said the force has come a long way, and is more diverse, and more sensitive to employees of different backgrounds than ever.

“It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re knowledgeable, you’re going to get the position,” he said.

But the department is 32 percent Black, though the city is about 42 percent Black. Of 553 officers, only 97 are women, and 44 of those are Black, according to a police spokesperson.

Today, Thompson has been working at the University of Arkansas Little Rock for 28 years. She says she knows the names of just about every student whom she sees on campus, and leads community workshops on campus safety and active shooter incidents. She’s the kind of officer who insists on going with a sexual assault victim to the hospital, her chief said, and staying until a family member arrives.

In 2016, she was named the school’s police officer of the year.

At a time when more Americans are questioning traditional policing, Thompson says the profession would be improved by welcoming more Black women. According to her research paper, female officers are less likely to draw their weapons, are more likely to find non-physical solutions, and are better at community outreach.

“Everybody shouldn’t be police officers,” Thompson said. “If your main thing is to arrest people, this is not for you. If you don’t have compassion, this is not for you.”

In Thompson’s early years on the force, some students, called student patrol officers, helped the on-campus police force. One student whom Thompson encouraged in that role, a Black woman named Regina Wade-Carter, is now the campus police chief. Her 30-person department includes about nine women and 20 Black officers and other staff, making it significantly more diverse than the Little Rock Police Department.

Wade-Carter credits Thompson with showing her it was possible.

“She told me the sky was the limit,” Wade-Carter said. “She said you’re going to have challenges. There will be people in the department that don’t even think you’ll be able to make it out of the academy because you are female. You’ve got to prove people wrong.”

Thompson says she hopes she’s inspired students and changed their perceptions about police officers. “When you work on a college campus, you’re shaping young people’s lives, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

 “This story was originally published by The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering guns and gun violence in America, and is reproduced with permission. Ann Givens is a staff writer for The Trace and a juror in the 2020 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting.

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