Being Black and Blue

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What It’s Like to Be a Black Police Officer

  • Published on LinkedIn on July 27, 2016 and re-posted here with the author’s permission.
Police Officer Roy Alston, PhD.
Police Officer Roy Alston, PhD.

[Ed. Note:  Roy E. Alston is an experienced law enforcement professional, leadership expert, executive coach, and strategist who also holds a PhD. He attended PERF’s senior management session #59 and is a lieutenant with the Dallas PD. What he says is important for those of us to hear who call ourselves white, and carry or have carried a badge. Can we generously listen to others who have different experiences than we have had and learn from them? How that question is answered is very important to the future of police in our nation.]


Alston as a young Army officer with his mother.
Alston as a young Army officer with his mother. He graduated from West Point in 1989.

‘There has been a lot of discussion about black police officers and how they feel in regards to the chaos that is erupting around us on a daily basis. Specifically, the fact that every time I turn on the news it’s to learn about another protest or, here recently, about the death of another fellow officer.  Myself and other black police officers typically avoid the conversation about police and race at the job. I have previously felt and I believe many black police officers still feel the need to separate personal and professional feelings.  It’s a way to survive all the craziness.

‘I became a police officer in 2003 because I wanted to return to a life of service. I got out of the military in 1994 and had several good civilian jobs where I made a bunch of money, but I felt as if I was not doing my life’s work. Since becoming a police officer, I have been happier, healthier and richer in many ways.  I love being a police officer.

‘In order for you to understand my reality as a black police officer I need to share with you a bit about myself and my upbringing.

‘I grew up on Long Island, NY 1965 through 1983 in both Nassau and Suffolk counties.  The neighborhoods I grew up in were predominately black and/or Hispanic with none of the affluence of the Hamptons or Roslyn, NY. We all looked out for one another.  The neighborhoods I grew up in had crime and drugs but was not violent like what we see today in communities of color.

‘In my community we simply did not call the police. It wasn’t an option. Why? Because my community believed that the police were not to be trusted and when they did show up they didn’t make things better, they made them worse. How? Throughout my childhood I watched the police belittle, abuse and completely disrespect the adults in my community.

‘Fast forward to approximately 2007 or 2008 and my mother finally tells me why she absolutely hated the fact that I became a police officer.  My mother told me about the hateful and ugly acts she witnessed as a child and young adult perpetrated and or condoned by the police in her small rural town in Alabama between 1945 and 1960.  This had a profound effect on my mother and made her very cautious and afraid of the police.  As I listened to her share these stories I felt like someone had punched me in my chest.  With tears of anger and hurt in her eyes, my mother asked me ‘How can you be a part of that?’ I felt the weight of her pain which further reinforced to me that I had to make a difference in public policing, if only for my mother’s sake.

‘Am I conflicted inside?  Yes, I am. I find myself torn between my experiences as an African American and the profession I so love and for which I swore an oath to “do my absolute best so help me God”.

‘I have had experiences that are difficult to defend. I can remember the time I visited a friend’s home town in Pennsylvania and my car was pulled over and I was detained simply because I was black.

‘My friend actually prepped me for the encounter.  Prior to my visit, my friend told me, ‘Ok, when you get to my town, you are going to get pulled over because no African Americans live in my town.  The police are going stop you and ask you where you are going and why.  Tell them you are visiting my family and they will call up to the house and we will tell them who you are and why you are here. Just hold tight, I will come down and get you.’  And guess what, that is exactly how it happened. This was 1987.

“I was shocked, but not surprised.

“As a police officer, I can remember the times I have shown up on calls for service and citizens calling me every colorful adjective you can think of while I still tried to do my absolute best to protect and serve them.  I remember self-coaching myself in the squad car on the way to calls discussing with my partner how we were going to handle the call and how we were going to be the example that diminished citizen’s negative perceptions of the police.

“Many times, I have had to use appropriate force on a citizen.  Only a few times, did I have to ever stop an officer from going too far in their use of force and when I did I was shunned for it, called a coward and questioned about it during the promotional process.  Plenty of times I had to arrest a citizen while their family and or friends cursed me and called me every kind of sell out and Uncle Tom they could think of.  Plenty of times I have had a citizen apologize to me in the squad car on the way to jail for acting outrageous and disrespecting me.  Plenty of times I have had a citizen tell me that I was not like the last officer they encountered because I was respectful, listened, and told then why I was making the decision I was making at the time and what was going to happen next.

“I would be pulled over by the police many more times before I became a police officer and a couple of times after.  Two other times stick out to me.  I was pulled over in Tennessee in June 1989 on my way to Fort Sill, OK.  The officer said, ‘boy don’t you know you were speeding (my cruise control was set on five miles below the speed limit, but maybe it was broken I thought).’  The officer continued, ‘Give me $1500.00 in cash or I will take your black ass to jail.’

“I gave him the $1500.00.

“A small price to pay to be let free so that I could get to my first duty station as a brand new Second Lieutenant in the US Army.  The second time that sticks out to me happened after I was a police officer.  I was pulled over on a traffic stop just west of the Texas/Louisiana border in 2013.  The officer comes to my window and sneers, ‘Boy do you know where you are?’  I told the police officer I was a Dallas Police officer and the officer looked at my police credentials, questioned their authenticity and stated, ‘they will let anybody be a police officer in Dallas.’  To be honest with you, I was expecting just a little bit of professional courtesy but what I got was a bunch of bias and hate thrown at me.  The officer threw my credentials back at me and told me to get the heck out of there.

“I did exactly that.

“When I called what I thought was the officer’s agency the person on the other end of the line said, ‘we don’t have an officer by that name’ and hung up the phone.  I imagine all the bad stuff that could have happened if that was my brother or sister or daughter or wife on the receiving end of this officer’s bad behavior.  I recognize that my experiences with the police are very minor compared to the experiences of others, but it’s a ‘what-if’ that literally haunts me.

“My oldest daughter is 22 years old, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, and a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force.  I worry about her being pulled over by a police officer.  I know my daughter, but what I do not know is the level of professionalism of the officer.  I have to admit; I wish I had sons, but I am relieved I do not.  I have to admit; I still get nervous when I am pulled over by a police officer in my travels.  I tell everyone to always comply with the directions given to them by a police officer.  The side of the road late at night or really anytime is not the time to adjudicate anything.  To this day, if I had to call the police to my home for any reason, I would hesitate simply because my unique human experiences have taught me to be hesitant when it comes to police I do not know. I recognize this implicit bias for what it is and I also recognize that having this bias does not make me a bad person.  When we are aware of our implicit biases we can control them.  When we are unaware of our implicit biases they will control us. Admittedly, the two times that I have actually called the police in my town where I live, the responding officers were courteous, professional and very respectful.

“I was deeply saddened and disturbed by the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile.  Watching both these men die on video was heart wrenching.  I could not sleep after watching the Alton Sterling video or the Philandro Castile video. Can we all put ourselves in the shoes of Alton’s family, loved ones, and friends for just one moment?  Can we all put ourselves in the shoes of Philandro’s four-year-old daughter who was sitting in the back seat of the car Philandro was driving when he was pulled over and shot to death for just one moment?

“The deaths of five police officers killed in the line of duty in Dallas, Texas recently were completely unnecessary and sad on every possible level. These were fine officers and I cried like a baby as the news came in during the night that we had lost not just one but five officers. Restful sleep may not return to me for weeks. Can we all put ourselves in the shoes of any fallen officer’s family and loved ones for just one moment?

“The shooting of five police officers in Dallas, TX and the shooting death of three officers in Baton Rouge, LA will result in more militarization of the police, initially.  Police departments and individual officers all across the country are investing in military style rifles, military grade body armor, ballistic shields that stop rifle rounds and Kevlar helmets.  Many officers are spending their own money to acquire these items.  Whether this is right or wrong can be debated.  What can’t be debated is an officer’s need to feel safe doing his or her job. What also cannot be debated is any citizen’s need to feel safe exercising their constitutional rights and freedom to go about their lives.

“Black police officers can and often do experience a unique stress as a result of being both black and a black police officer. Many of us have been the victims of racist and bias police officers before and after we became police officers.  Many of us have seen the ugly face of racism inside out own departments and agencies.  Many of us have been downright disrespected by the very communities we have sworn to protect and serve.  I will never forget the stories I was told by black police officers responding to the mass protests in Ferguson, MO.  What white police officers endured was unspeakable.  What black police officers endured was downright horrific and this from members of the black community.

“Black police officers must separate their personal feeling from their professional feelings.  This is how many survive in this profession.  Personally, I feel we do a disservice to our profession, who we are, and the public interest by being silent. When I recently shared my personal police stories with my classmates from West Point, not a single one was put off.  As a matter of fact, to the person they were shocked because these things happened to a person they knew and not just to another random individual that could easily be dismissed as a victim that had something to do with their own victimization.

“With these things in mind I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you. The list is long and the items are in no particular order.

  1. It’s one thing to see and hear about racism at a distance, abstractly.  It’s easy to unconsciously dismiss the bias and abuse to African Americans as somehow connected to “misconduct” on the part of the victim. Communities of color have legitimate reason to be upset with bad policing BUT must acknowledge the enormous strides policing has made in the last 30 years.  Not all police officers are bad. Do we have a long way to go?  Yes, we do and we need every community’s support, trust, and respect to continue improving. Excellence is a journey not a destination.
  2. Bias is real in policing and it is causing real damage. Every police officer should go through implicit bias training.  As a matter of fact, police departments should invite citizens into the classroom to participate in implicit bias training alongside police officers whenever possible.
  3. Technology is shining a bright light on bad police behavior and the truth is we need to start holding bad police officers accountable for the bad performance outcomes they create.  To some extent, police unions and associates are complicit in protecting bad police officers simply because they are dues paying members.  To some extent, some local governments are complicit in shielding bad police officers because of the financial ramifications of admitting to the actions of bad police officers.
  4. Accountability is missing in law enforcement. If law enforcement leadership and/or the legal system is unwilling to discipline and hold police officers accountable for their actions, then what moral authority does the police possess to function as public servants? If the community knew police officers were being held accountable for their decisions, then there would be a healthier respect for law enforcement and their authority. Instead, to the community, police officers seem to get off “scott-free” when their actions lead to detrimental consequences for the community, families, and individuals. This perceived injustice has frustrated fringe elements enough to take matters into their own hands.  The actions police officers take against a specific individual has repercussions throughout the community. That individual has family and friends that are affected. There are children that are watching and getting social cues on police interaction.
  5. Technology is also shining a bright light on good police behavior. The media needs to do a better job of telling the good stories.
  6. The media should take responsibility for providing accurate reporting rather than sensationalized perspectives. The media is only furthering the gap every time they show the same emotional and heartbreaking coverage. Their portrayal (and possibly betrayal) does not bring us closer together. We each choose to hear the messages that resonate with our experiences and opinions and unfortunately discard the heartbreak and opposite emotions held by others.
  7. The community is not innocent in the citizen/police relationship. The level of disrespect and disregard for any authority in this country is at an all-time high and I fear it is going to get worse before it gets better.  I cannot teach your kids to respect the police, but you can and you should.
  8. Communities and the police cannot let the utterly random acts of violence perpetrated by mentally ill people to steal our opportunity to heal relationships.

“A free and democratic society cannot exist without the police. The police cannot exist without the trust of the community. Great communities deserve great police officers. Procedural Justice and Fair and Impartial Policing increases police legitimacy, the public trust of the police and police officer safety.

“Some continue to get this wrong, but the BLM protest in Dallas, TX was peaceful. Dallas Police officers and DART officers were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing before the shots rang out – allowing people to exercise their constitutional right to peacefully protest. Dallas Police Officers and DART officers did exactly what they were supposed to do after the shots rang out – protecting lives and running towards the threat.  I believe 98% of the police officers in this country would have done exactly the same thing.

“In light of these things, de-escalation is the order of the day. Police officers should always seek to de-escalate situations AND members of the community must respond appropriately to the officer’s de-escalation efforts. To my brothers and sisters in blue, SLOW IT DOWN! Do not become a victim of an amygdala high jacking.

“Outside forces cannot and will not change police culture. Professional police officers and the leaders of this profession have to decide the path forward to reconciliation with our communities.  Let’s start by acknowledging the history of policing in this country and the fact that history plays a large part in police legitimacy and earning the public trust.  Let’s start by eliminating from this profession the bad officers among us and those not committed to policing excellence.  Let’s start by increasing the respect for the police and not telling your child, “there goes the police, they are going to arrest you for being bad.”  We can work our way out of this!

“Some of my fellow police officers would argue that the bad police officer problem is overstated. My dissertation research proves otherwise.  Officers that comment I overstate the problem, I ask, ‘would you fly on an airline that had a 1% or 2% chance of crashing every time it took off?’  I have said this before, and I will say it again, policing can learn a lot from the airline industry on improving after a crisis and making sure fatal errors do not occur.

“I will continue to show up and do the best I can to make this profession great and to exceed the expectations of the citizens I serve.  I am one of the vast majority of cops that are good. I leave my family on a daily basis to serve yours in a manner that is fair, just, right, moral and legal.  I will continue to offer my scholar/practitioner perspective in the hopes that honest dialogue can flow and we do the tough work of transformation in public policing.  I love my family and I want to make it home safe to them at the end of every shift and every time I am away from them.  I will do everything in my power to make sure my officers get home safe, and that the citizens get home safe as well.

“David Couper, a retired chief of police, priest, poet and social activist once stated, we must move toward ‘a re-examination of where our nation’s police are today, where they need to be, the kind of people we need to police our communities, and how police should be educated, trained, and deployed.  This must be done before it is too late.’

“These are my thoughts.  Like them or hate them it does not matter to me.  What does matter is that every human being has certain experiences and these experiences make them feel a certain way.  Very rarely are professionals solely evaluated on just outcomes.  Professionals are evaluated on outcomes AND how people feel dealing with the professional.  You can be satisfied that the doctor did what he or she said they would do, but if that doctor did not listen to you, answer your questions, explain the procedure to you, tell you what to expect, and was arrogant or outright nasty to you, you would feel terrible.  How we, the police, make people feel is incredibly important.

“I invite you to join the discussion in a thoughtful manner.”

Roy E. Alston, PhD

[Ed. Note: A great companion to Alston’s article is this one: [The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility by Anna Kegler in The Huffington Post. It is a must-read for all of us who call ourselves “white”.]