Every day, African-Americans in law enforcement maintain the balance of advocating for justice in their community while promoting the well-being of fellow officers.
Timothy Knight, a retired sergeant with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), realized this when he noticed two sub groups among other African-American officers.
One sub group, he stated, assimilates into the “dominant discourse” or culture in order to grow and move up in rank and opportunities. The other group remains committed to their community and a sense of rightness, regardless of the cost to their career.
Ronald E. Hampton, the immediate past president of the National Black Police Association Inc. (NBPA), shares Knight’s view. He noted that Black officers are often “tested” in their line of work by being pushed to choose “which side” they are on — either advocating for equality within their ranks and justice in the community, or giving staunch support to other officers even when they make deadly mistakes.
“There were times when my white colleagues and even some of the Black ones would ask, ‘Are you Blue or not?’” said Hampton, who served as a police officer for 24 years in Washington, D.C., and has spoken about his experiences in forums around the world.
“The ‘Code of Silence’ and ‘The Blue Code’ are very real,” he added. “When you step out of line with that, then there’s retaliation.”
Hampton stated that he received threats against himself and his family when he reported other officers for acts of brutality and misconduct.
Knight believes that the culture in police departments is largely set by groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a union for officers that heavily influences police policy. Members enjoy reliable support from the FOP, which ensures that the side of law enforcement is fairly represented in any national discussion of policing.
Knight describes it as one of the most powerful organizations in the country and primarily white.
“Members drive the direction by way of vote,” he said. “So if you have an organization that is composed primarily of white males, then you have a white male worldview dominating the direction of police departments. Instead of protecting and serving all citizens, it co-ops government to create a special interest group for white males.”
Although they appreciate the opportunity to serve their community, some Black police officers say that in the 21st century, the environment in police departments is still not equal, despite informal demands for pledges of “blue” loyalty.
“Some police departments have actually had two promotional lists, one for whites and another for minorities,” Hampton said.
Sgt. Vincent Burke, a 26-year veteran with IMPD, said some decisions are made without the concerns of minority officers being considered.
“There’s been issues with promotions, hiring and firing,” Burke said. “I just think that sometimes a little more should be put into the process before anybody is hired or promoted.”
Knight agrees, adding that there has been inequality in how officers of color are promoted and moved into specialized units, irrespective of their educational background, tenure or relationship with fellow officers.
“This places them in a tenuous and oftentimes adversarial position with the very organization that they love, and more importantly, the other officers, as well,” he said.
However, Knight stated he did not let any discomfort keep him from being both an advocate for justice and an effective officer during his 23-year career with IMPD, which included time on patrol, with the motorcycle unit and drill team, homicide investigations and nonprofit community work.
“I decided not to live a life of contradiction,” Knight said.
Preventing deadly police shootings
In recent years, more media coverage has been given to fatal police-action shootings of African-Americans in cities across the country, including the June shooting of unarmed Black motorist Aaron Bailey in Indianapolis.
Many Black police officers carry the same concern about these shootings that other African-Americans in their community have.
Hampton believes IMPD Chief Bryan Roach and other department leaders made the right call by recommending termination of officers Michal Dinnsen and Carlton Howard for not following police protocol that could have prevented Bailey’s death. He hopes the Civilian Police Merit Board approves the recommendation.
Moving forward, Hampton said he believes one of the best ways to prevent police-action shootings is for citizens to become more involved in setting police policies. He mentioned the example of the Toronto Police Services Board in Canada, a group of civilians that sets policies involving conduct as well as hiring and termination of police. In Indianapolis, the Civilian Police Merit Board is involved in each of those functions. It is a model Hampton believes has worked well in other cities around the world and can help reduce fatal police encounters in the United States.
“Police sometimes say citizens don’t understand police work,” Hampton said. “That is not true. Police officers are also civilians; they were not born police officers. They were hired and educated on what the job entails. Citizens can do that, too, and become more involved in the process of public safety.”
Knight cited the work of Stanford University psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, Ph.D., whose research found that officers often tend to pull the trigger more quickly on Black men than on anyone else.
Researchers believe this may come from certain police officers’ notions of who Black people are, their detachment from Black people and not having associations or relationships with African-American people.
“This is scientific,” Knight said. “If you can dehumanize someone (see them as less than human), even on a subliminal level, then it’s easier to pull the trigger on that person.” However, to keep things in perspective, Knight noted that he has seen both Black and white officers resist pulling the trigger, averting hundreds, if not thousands, of potential police-action shootings.
For him, the best way to stop police-action shootings is a “concerted effort to build real working relationships between law enforcement and the African-American community.”
Burke and Hampton believe the fastest way to obtain that understanding is for citizens to get to know the officers who patrol their neighborhoods.
“Remember that the police are paid by the community and work for the community,” Hampton said. “One of the things that helped me get along with some of the most radical people in Washington was coming to everyone with a service approach.”
Burke and Hampton encourage residents to approach their officers, indicate that they live in the neighborhood, and request the officer’s name.
“If I know the officer in my area, then I can go to that officer if something happens and share information without feeling like somebody’s gonna find out,” Burke said. “That is important, because police officers and detectives are only as good as the information we receive.”
Burke also believes stereotypes — the belief among Blacks that many officers are automatically corrupt or racist and the view among whites that African-Americans are content with crime in their neighborhoods — must be overcome. In addition, he says community-policing efforts should be increased, especially among youth.
However, he added, citizens can also help keep encounters with police from escalating by cooperating. If they are stopped by police, for example, motorists are encouraged to cooperate with officers and keep their hands in plain view.
“Often, an officer may simply want to tell you something simple like your taillight is out or you were going a little too fast,” said Burke. “But once you start arguing with the officer, then it becomes a safety issue because the officer has to watch what you’re doing even more. We are also human, so if you’re fussing and cussing with an officer, then the officer will get upset and the situation can escalate.”
If someone disagrees with an officer, Burke advises it is best for the motorist to say they want to see a supervisor, which is every citizen’s right.
More pros than cons
Despite the challenges that come with being a police officer, Burke, Hampton and Knight would all recommend it as a fulfilling profession.
“You’re protecting your own community,” Burke said. “It is a rewarding career.”
Knight noted that police officers not only enjoy positive camaraderie with each other, but also have a unique opportunity to help people in their community.
“Being able to defend the weak, to advocate for the poor, to do right by the widows and the fatherless, the ill and the indigent, to prevent their exploitation and victimization by powerful, unjust and unethical people,” said Knight, “that is the work of law enforcement.”