Even as states and municipalities around the country rush to respond to calls for better training and greater accountability in response to police killings of African-Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, African-American cops warn that little will change unless their agencies confront the internalized racism that continues to distort American policing.
Interviews with former and current police officers, as well as police chiefs and criminal justice professionals, revealed that despite the rising profile of Black police leaders, many are concerned that a systemically racist police culture has actively excluded and persecuted Black officers who speak out against practices that began with the origins of American policing.
“There is a blanket of systemic racism in policing and someone has to acknowledge that we do have a problem,” said Lynda Williams, President of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
“We can’t change the past, but we can understand the past. Even if it comes down to the very foundation of law enforcement being created for slave patrols.”
Williams, a former deputy assistant director of the United States Secret Service, as well as a former deputy sheriff in Augusta, Ga., believes the burden of addressing the problem of racism in policing falls, first and foremost, on leadership.
“If the top doesn’t recognize that there is a problem then it becomes ‘that’s their problem, it’s not our problem,’” Williams told The Crime Report.
Williams’ effort to draw attention to the reality of racism in policing was exemplified when she confronted former Attorney General William Barr with the seriousness of the issue in a closed door gathering of law enforcement officials in 2020. Prior to that meeting, Barr had consistently rejected the idea that racism is embedded in the country’s police forces, calling it an “oversimplification” to apply the biased treatment of African-American communities to an institutionalized problem in policing.
The flat denial of the issues of racism in policing from the chief law enforcement agent of the U.S. government coincides with growing evidence that white supremacists have gained a foothold in a number of departments.
In an unredacted 2006 report, the FBI warned departments of the historical and future threat represented by white supremacist interests who are placing personnel within law enforcement agencies.
Since 2009, police officers in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana have been identified as members of white supremacist groups and more than 100 police departments in 49 different states have had to deal with scandals involving racist emails, texts, or online comments sent or made by department staff.
Most recently, in Georgia, a police chief resigned and a patrolman was fired after the two were caught on body cam video having a “horrifying” and racist conversation about slavery, Black people being shot by police, and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, three police officers were fired after being caught on a police vehicle camera making racist comments about local Black citizens, fellow officers, and the department’s newly appointed police chief.
For Joseph Moseley, a 32-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, incidents like these are commonplace.
Little has changed since he was a rookie in 1983 and fellow white officers wrote “N— GO HOME” across his locker, used racial slurs and told racist jokes in roll call, and openly supported white supremacy among the ranks, he said.
“I started seeing guys in the whole district wearing white buttons, particularly among our plainclothes units,” said Moseley, in an interview with TCR.
“I asked one of the officers what it meant and why I didn’t have one and he said, ‘Joe, we like you, but this stands for white power.’”
Leading up to the election of Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, Moseley recalled when an anonymous officer stuck a ‘Harold Washington For Mayor’ button to a bulletin board that was mocked up to show what they felt the new police badge was going to look like once he was elected.
“The button changed the badge to ‘Chicongo Police,’” said Moseley.
“With a slave ship, slave chains, crossed chicken bones, and big red lips on the mayor.”
Experiences like this continued unaddressed, and even condoned, by both the leadership of the department and his fellow officers throughout Moseley’s career.
“Twenty-thirty years later, when blogs started popping up, I was a sergeant in homicide,” said Moseley.
“We had a guy in my unit who had a blog where he would tell n—- jokes and talked about how ni—- were monkeys. This guy was a detective where I worked, and all the whites knew who he was, but they didn’t tell any of the black officers.”
Culture of Denial
A department leadership that condones or ignores these levels of racism among its officers and fails to establish strict policies against it, or hold officers who break those policies accountable creates a culture of acceptance, denial and inaction that breeds bad behavior, Williams and others told The Crime Report.
“Old habits, old traditions, old structures are hard to break,” said Williams.
“It’s easy when you’re not affected by it to make an excuse for it, deny it, and just turn your head.”
However, willful ignorance by the leadership feeds a culture that can have dangerous consequences for communities around the country.
According to a recent story by ProPublica, leadership and agency attorneys for the U.S. Capitol police continually denied wrongdoing and failed to provide accountability for the hundreds of black officers who have sued the department for racial discrimination since 2001.
Allegations included white officers calling Black colleagues slurs like the N-word, an officer finding a hangman’s noose on his locker, and reports of unprovoked stops from fellow Capitol Police officers. Officers involved drew a direct connection between the unanswered complaints of endemic racism they experienced and the lack of police response to the riot and storming of the Capitol building by far-right protesters on January 6.
In fact, since the Capitol riot, NPR reports that 30 off-duty law enforcement personnel from various states have been identified in attendance and are under investigation for their alleged roles in the unrest, including a police chief. Numerous officers who were dispatched to defend the Capitol were also caught on camera shaking rioters’ hands, posing with them for selfies and passively allowing them to bypass police barriers and launch their assault.
“You have two different departments,” said Moseley.
“When I went through and came out of the academy, I believed that we’re all in this together. That changed quickly.”
And while racist white officers suffer few consequences for their actions, African-American officers are left with little protection from departments that are far more likely to condemn them for speaking out against racist and violent practices they may witness and stand against.
“I have officers that tell us there’s racism in the HR department, there’s racism in the administrative ranks, but they just can’t say anything about it,” said Howard Henderson, professor of Justice Administration at the Barbara Jordan- Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.
“That’s the shame of it. That you have a situation where officers cannot disclose their experiences without fear of retaliation.”
Henderson, the founding Director of the Center for Justice Research, a research center devoted to data-driven solutions and a culturally responsive approach to mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, explains that African-American officers he often speaks with describe having to be very strategic in how they move and operate through departmental spaces that are dominated by a majority groupthink that is designed to protect the interests of the institution above all else.
“I have a white officer that we work with that serves as one of our advisors,” said Henderson.
“He’s very progressive, believes in community policing, and defends the community. He’s ostracized by the department because they say he’s too community oriented. Now, imagine if he wasn’t white.”
A 2020 report on the culture and practices of police officers in the Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Department details over two dozen instances where white officers engaged in racist conduct, including use of racial epithets and other derogatory language or circulated offensive imagery.
Most of the perpetrating officers received no or minimal discipline. Meanwhile, the report also describes 16 officers of color who experienced retaliation — either the institution of charges or involuntary transfers – many after complaining about the conduct of white officers.
In Columbus, Ohio, four former African-American police officers are suing their department for promoting a culture of discrimination and engaging in retaliation against officers who spoke out against racism in the department. In Easton, Pa, a Black police officer who complained about a squad commander’s order to photograph Black residents while on patrol for a logbook claims he suffered retaliation for reporting that and other racist conduct.
“Black officers have to try and figure out how to fix policing and, at the same time, not ostracize themselves from their white officer colleagues,” said Henderson.
“How do you do that?”
In a 2015 study of smaller Northeastern police departments by the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, 91 percent of 102 officers surveyed said that racial profiling existed within their agencies and 70 percent said that police supervisors and administrators condoned the practice.
A 2020 report for the American Academy of Political and Social Science also found that people are far more likely to engage in discriminatory or aggressive behavior in situations that lack clear rules or norms mandating appropriate behavior or that allow for the exercise of discretion.
In addition, a 2018 study examining how Swedish police officers learn and reproduce informal norms that condition the conversational and working climates of their organization, roughly 100 officers revealed the existence of two dominant narratives in their department: that sanctions will follow if officers voice their opinions, and that one’s behavior must be adjusted in order to be promoted.
The realities of these environments and narratives are a heavy burden for African-American officers who experience punishment more regularly than white officers and, if they want or try to speak out about their experiences and still have a job, are either silenced by their department or confined to narrow avenues of protest that are heavily scrutinized by a prejudiced majority.
“Black officers can only protest in silence,” said Elizabeth Evans, a Black female officer in the Philadelphia Police Department.
“If you wear something even remotely in support of what’s going on, you’re looked at funny. They think that Black Lives Matter is a type of terrorist group.”
The Plight of Female Black Cops
A four-year police veteran, Evans’ real name has been withheld at her request, to protect her from retaliation she said she would receive for speaking out. She maintains that African-American officers constantly struggle against racism in policing and that, for Black female officers like her, the situation can be worse.
“We are underrepresented in every aspect of the police department,” she said.
“And because policing is so male-dominated, departments forget about us. They forget to protect us.”
A 2017 study examining the effects of race and gender in a white male-dominated police department found that Black women reported greater degrees of discrimination than white women in the police department, saw themselves as discriminated against because of their race, gender, or combined race/gender, and believed that white women received preferential treatment because they could get someone to make a call whereas Black women were left exposed in an almost exclusively white male department leadership population.
“There’s very few Black females in supervisory roles,” said Evans.
“I feel comfortable talking to my sergeant, because she’s a Black female. I feel she will take it more seriously and actually listen to me because we’re from the same background. But if I went to my captain? No.”
According to data from the Department of Justice, about 88 percent of local sworn police officers are men, compared with around 12 percent who are women, a group in which Black female police officers are an even smaller minority. In such an environment, Black female police officers can often find themselves with little support.
For Larhonda Young, a former Fort Worth, Tx., police officer, the experience made every day a battle.
“As a Black woman, it just seems like they think you have to be superwoman,” said Young.
“The Black female officer ends up hard on the outside and she has to be that way because the department won’t accept her otherwise.”
Barbara Raffel Price’s 1996 investigation into women’s situations in an urban police department found not only that discrimination in the workplace was identified by virtually all black women officers 92 percent of the time, but also that Black women feel they had to demand respect from fellow officers, reported that their bosses did not send white women into crime areas (but, by inference, did send Black women), and reported verbal racial insults more frequently than white women.
Today, very little apparently has changed. When officers like Young and Evans try to report this type of misconduct, departmental racism, or even use of force, they still have to be careful about when and how they speak up.
“When we speak up, we are viewed as the angry Black woman,” said Young.
“It’s not that we have a valid complaint or that we have a right to be upset, we’re just an angry Black woman, or we’re less of a woman than other women, or we can’t have emotions, or we’re not allowed to feel anything.”
And, much like their male counterparts, when Black female officers try to take further action, they often suffer for it.
When former Buffalo Police Officer Cariol Horne intervened to stop a fellow officer from punching and choking an arrested man the officer punched her in the face and she was later fired and charged with obstruction, according to the Buffalo News. When Horne later managed to have her disciplinary case held in public, she was found guilty of 11 of the 13 internal charges and labeled a danger to her fellow officers.
The officer she had stopped was exonerated of all departmental charges and allowed to remain on the force.
“From what I’ve seen, departments don’t take complaints of racism, sexism or prejudice from us that seriously,” said Evans.
“I know several people who have filed complaints about a captain in our department, and he’s still there when he’s not supposed to be and they know he’s not supposed to be.”
And male or female, the danger and struggle for anyone who tries to speak out is only made worse by the lack of support, and often outright aggression, that African-American officers receive from the very organizations that are mandated to protect them: unions.
During the protests and unrest following the killing of George Floyd, when officers in various cities were seen taking knees in solidarity with protesters and their message, the president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) criticized their decisions and warned that any Chicago officers seen doing so risked being thrown out of the organization and brought up on charges.
He also disagreed with claims that police departments are inherently and institutionally flawed and built on racist principles, and that police disproportionately target people of color―in particular Black Americans.
According to a 2019 article in The Appeal, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which represents 330,000 members nationally, regularly targeted and attacked black public figures and police reform advocates including NFL star Colin Kaepernick, when he knelt to protest racial inequality and police brutality, and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby after she charged six officers in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.
The FOP also demanded the resignation of Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot after he announced plans to stop prosecuting certain low-level offenses, such as criminal trespass and theft of necessities.
Police Unions Offer Little Protection
Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that even as they abandon and condemn black officers, police union leaders have continually protected white officers accused of violence and racism with a fervor, crafting employment contracts that make it nearly impossible to terminate or discipline them, and weakening internal-affairs units and civilian review boards that also try to hold bad officers accountable.
“I’ve seen the FOP fight tooth and nail for white officers who should never have been on the job like they’re a gift from god,” said Shawn Kennedy, an information officer and spokesman for the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.
“Meanwhile, Black officers will actually spend their own money for a private attorney just to get the kind of representation they feel they deserve and that they won’t get from FOP.”
A retired Chicago police sergeant, Kennedy and his organization recently came to the defense of two female officers, one Black, one Hispanic, facing internal FOP union charges that included “a lack of promoting fraternalism.”
The charges stemmed from complaints lodged by fellow members after both women had decided to kneel in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. He claimed that the narrative of fraternity and patriotism that the FOP was using to defend the charges was designed to distract from the racism at their core.
“They found a Black member of FOP to make the complaint against the Black officer, and a Hispanic member of FOP to make the complaint against the Hispanic officer, to make it seem like there’s no racial prejudice,” said Kennedy.
“It’s a joke. They have no interest whatsoever in helping with the diversification of our departments besides increasing the number of whites and decreasing the number of blacks.”
According to an analysis by The Marshall Project, in many cities, police officers are more likely to be white than the people they are sworn to protect and serve. But this is especially true of the presidents of their unions, where among the 15 largest departments in which a majority of officers are people of color, only one has a union leader who is black.
And in a 2017 Pew Research survey of nearly 8,000 police officers nationally, 92 percent of white officers believed the U.S. has already achieved equal rights for Black people, while only 29 percent of Black officers did. Only 27 percent of white officers believed that protests against police violence are motivated at least in part by a genuine desire for accountability, compared to roughly 70 percent of Black officers.
Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association (LAAPOA), charges that unions perpetuate the problems caused by a majority white-male police population and the culture it creates in their departments by making all the decisions on issues that affect African-American officers as much, if not more so, than their white counterparts behind the closed doors that almost no minorities are allowed through.
“The saying goes if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said McClain.
“And whether it’s diversity or reform, if the real goal is to make a better environment and a better police department, then you do need to have everybody at that table.”
A 24-year California policing veteran and senior lead officer with the Los Angeles Airport Police, McClain warned that bringing Black officers to the table is an uphill battle, and points to the history of the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and his own department as an example of the stubborn and often racially motivated resistance that major departments and their unions can present to reform and inclusion.
“In the 1980s and early 1990s, the actual marketing campaign for the LAPD was the image of a 6’4”, blond, blue-eyed, imposing white male,” said McClain.
“Just over 80 percent of the LAPD force during that time was male and white. As a result, black or brown people looking for a job in Los Angeles law enforcement would literally be diverted to the airport.”
McClain says this racially biased diversion of minority applicants to the LA airport police was partly a result of then-LAPD police chief Darryl Gates and the culture that he maintained. According to NPR, from 1972 to 1992, Gates ran a department that was especially hard on communities of color and openly denigrated Black and brown people over their radios.
Even after he left, the effects of his racist doctrine lingered as the rank-and-file refused to accept his replacement, Bernard Parks, a former Los Angeles City Councilman who, despite joining the force as a rookie patrolman, was distrusted not only because he was an outsider, but because he was black.
Ironically, the exclusionary culture of the LAPD benefited the airport police, whose ranks swelled with the Black and brown applicants that Gates and his department seemingly wanted little to do with, McClain said.
“Under the Gates regime, at one point, the airport police population was nearly 60 percent African American,” said McClain.
“We were one of the most diverse agencies around because Gates wanted the six-foot-plus white male.”
But along with that diversity, came consequences.
Fighting for Respect—and Equal Pay
Dating back to 1946, the Los Angeles Airport Police started out as an ambiguous law enforcement group originally consisting of six armed guards and one supervisor, who were charged with protecting the airfield. However, while their numbers grew throughout the years, as well as their responsibilities, they weren’t even considered a fully fledged police force until 1984 when the city hosted the Olympics.
They were not granted full peace officer authority and policing power under California law until 2014. In 2016, they were still negotiating for equal pay.
When McClain became president of the LAAPOA in 2009, he was shocked to find out about the things that the airport police were still fighting for and how stubbornly the LAPD and their union were resisting them.
“Things that police unions and police officers should already have, we didn’t have them,” said McClain.
“I would get pushback for equal pay, equal benefits, the same protections that the LAPD already had.”
Long considered to be a lesser law enforcement agency in the eyes of the LAPD, some of the reasons for the airport police’s ambiguous status and slow evolution towards gaining official rights and recognition were starkly exposed to McClain whenever he sat down to negotiate.
“When our union would go in and sit at the table, our reps were all minorities and the reps for LAPD were all white,” said McClain.
“You couldn’t paint a better picture of what was going on.”
Such stark contrasts make clear why African-American police voices are rarely heard.
Last June, Julius Givens, a rookie Chicago police officer, wrote a letter to the FOP calling out their lack of Black leadership, accusing them of failing to represent the values of African-American officers, admonishing them for endorsing Donald Trump, and requesting termination of his membership.
In Philadelphia, Black police officers spoke out against multiple unions that endorsed then-President Donald Trump without their consent and despite their vocal concerns over what they perceived to be his racist remarks, support for white supremacist groups
In both cases, the unions stood their ground, changed nothing, and denied any wrongdoing.
“When you have white supremacy, you want to maintain your status quo at all costs,” said Kennedy.
“And this is an institution that is based on white supremacy and white male domination.”
But as the calls for a reckoning with U.S. racism have exploded in street protests and demonstrations around the country, Black officers have also found themselves trapped between their departments and an increasingly confrontational public.
In an article for the Washington Post, black officers assigned to George Floyd protests in states around the country recounted being called “Uncle Tom,” a “sellout,” a “traitor,” or a “Black Judas,” by African-American protesters who targeted them for their perceived role in upholding an unjust system.
During a protest in Washington D.C., a white demonstrator singled out a black officer and berated him extensively, calling him the N-word and a piece of sh*t.
In Louisville, Ky., veteran officer Andre Bottoms retired from his post after writing on Facebook about the uniquely difficult experience of being both black and a police officer.
Finding Common Ground with Protesters
“People just assume you fall into the same category as these other stupid cops that are putting knees on necks and shooting people,” said Elizabeth Evans.
“As a Black female officer, and someone who grew up in west Philadelphia as a Black woman, it’s disheartening to hear that come from your own people even though I understand 100 percent why they’re protesting and would protest with them.”
And while the past year has seen a marked surge in condemnation from the public, Black police officers have always had to fight against the stigma of policing, even as they have tried to change things for the better.
“I was fighting the systemic and institutionalized racism in the department, fighting to make sure that people who look like me were treated equally by other people in uniform, and then when I went out on the street I was fighting people because they thought I was against them,” said Larhonda Young.
“I was fighting to keep my head above water.”
However, many of the officers interviewed for this report say the voices and experiences of Black cops will be essential to long-term change in U.S. law enforcement.
“American policing is broken,” said Howard Henderson. “The Black officer has an opportunity at this time to help reform it.”
“The more that we can engage Black police officers in a safe space with the community, where they’re not ostracized, and help the community to understand that these Black officers also empathize with them, that they haven’t forgotten about being Black, the better we’ll be.”
Isidoro Rodriguez is a TCR staff writer and editor of the TCR Justice Digest. In Part 2 of this series, he will look at the changes needed in law enforcement to increase diversity, tackle racial bias, and improve accountability to better protect African-American officers and the communities they serve. He welcomes comments from readers.