As nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice continue to rage throughout the U.S., many black police officers are facing the intersection of their identity and profession.
Black officers also make up a declining percentage in many police departments throughout the country, which is in part due to years of deep distrust with law enforcement.
Being a black police officer during one of the largest periods civil unrest in recent history is “hard as hell,” says retired police officer Charles P. Wilson, who is now national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.
Wilson served as the first black police chief in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, from 1988 to the mid-1990s. He says the death of George Floyd is “disturbing” and “disappointing.”
“Putting a knee on somebody's neck for more than nine minutes has no place whatsoever in the law enforcement practition,” Wilson says.
But in condemning the Minneapolis police officers, Wilson says he is not surprised by their actions.
“What people have to recognize and accept [is] the institution of policing has been inherently biased against people of color and low income [people], and it was designed to be that way,” he says. “So the actions of the officers are not surprising.”
The video of Floyd’s death and images of protesters clashing with police speak to the deep distrust of police by Americans and arguments that brutality as a form of control is an inherent part of policing, he says.
The police system “was initially started to keep poor people under control to ensure that the rich or more well-to-do were able to maintain their status,” Wilson says. “When black folks got here, they just fell victim to the system.”
Wilson says he understands the struggle among many black officers to manage that dual consciousness of being both a black person and a police officer. He says black police officers “play a pivotal role” in the larger institution of policing through community policing.
“It's an issue of remembering who we are, where we came from and why we're doing what we do,” Wilson says. “Of the 9,000 plus members of our organization, all of us are embedded in our communities. We are very strong advocates of the concept of community policing, fighting against police brutality, misconduct and excessive use of force.”
Wilson helped author a study published by the London School of Economics that found most black officers surveyed indicated that racial profiling does exist among police and that bias was condoned by their agencies.
“So what we have to look at [is] who and how you hire. You have to look at what and how you train. You have to look at how and who is supervising your personnel,” Wilson says. “If you're looking to actually change the culture of the profession, you have to look at the policies that are in place.”
But policy changes can only be effective if police departments hire a diverse workforce, Wilson says.
The number of black officers across the country is dwindling. In Los Angeles, black officers make up about 9% of the workforce, but many of those officers were hired in the 1980s and ‘90s and are expected to retire soon.
Part of the problem is that police recruiting programs “are not properly reaching out to core constituencies in black and brown communities,” Wilson says.
“If you tell me that one of your primary candidates for the job is supposed to be a black female, and you are not also telling me that you're putting your recruiting information in hair salons, fitness centers and shopping centers where every single black woman I know goes at least once a week, you are not recruiting for black females,” he says.
The next step in tackling bias among police officers is implementing policies that encourage officers to report their colleagues who are actively discriminating against black and brown people, Wilson says.
“We have to ensure that those people who are working have ample opportunity and incentive to turn those people in because they're as much of a danger to the law enforcement officer as they are to people in the community,” he says. “It's not as strong and prevalent as it should be, but it is present.”
This segment aired on June 3, 2020.