OKLAHOMA CITY – Black police officers find themselves torn between two worlds: They feel the pain of seeing yet another black man killed at the hands of fellow officers, yet they must also try to keep the peace during angry protests fueled by that death.
Those feelings, familiar to many blacks in law enforcement for years, have never been more intense than in the days since George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, died after a white officer jammed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes as other officers watched.
“My emotion, my fervor is no less than those people on the streets,” said New York City police Detective Felicia Richards, who is black. “I stand in this uniform, and I understand what my obligation is to this uniform, but I can't compromise my humanity.”
Richards, president of the NYPD Guardians Association, a fraternal organization, said she was horrified by the video that captured Floyd's arrest and final moments. She struggled to understand what could possibly have warranted such “brute force.”
Black police officers who saw the footage “let out a sigh of disgust and abandonment right there,” Richards said. “When we saw that man was not moving, we have to answer to the community.”
Richards, a 34-year veteran of the NYPD, said the toll on officers' mental health runs deep. They cannot grieve with the rest of the black America, and many of them must meet a seething public.
The National Black Police Association was blunt in its assessment of Floyd's death and how law enforcement has historically treated black citizens.
“Let's speak truths: In America, it is clear that the humanity of black people appears invisible to law enforcement,” it said in a statement. “What other explanation would there be for (Minneapolis Police Officer Derek) Chauvin to lean on the neck of a handcuffed black man until he dies?”
The group cited recent images of armed white men converging on the Michigan Capitol to protest stay-at-home orders intended to curb spread of the coronavirus.
“Armed white men are allowed to stand on the steps of government buildings and protest that their liberty is being stepped on, unchallenged by law enforcement. But too often, when unarmed black citizens are alleged to have committed minor violations, freedom is no longer at play, and the door opens for death at the very hands of those who should be protecting and serving,” the organization said.
Since police killings gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, police departments have sought to better diversify their ranks. But minorities remain underrepresented in many agencies. For example, of the 36,000-plus officers in the New York Police Department, 17,000 are white, while 5,500 are black.
Some have sought to bridge the divide between demonstrators and fellow officers. In Florida, Fort Lauderdale officer Krystle Smith was lauded after a video went viral of her chasing and reprimanding a fellow officer after he pushed a protester to the ground who was already kneeling.
Officer Jasmine Nivens spoke with a group of protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina, to ease tensions. She told them that she could not defend the officers in Minneapolis. But when she's on the job, she does her best to hold her fellow officers accountable and has told some of them to “ease up.”
“I'm hurt the same way you hurt. ... I understand your pain,” said Nivens, part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's “constructive conversation” team, which makes a point of talking with the public during demonstrations. The unit was created after protests erupted in that city following the 2016 police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott.
Cities weigh cutting resource officers
An increasing number of cities are rethinking the presence of school resource officers as they respond to the concerns of thousands of demonstrators – many of them young – who have filled the streets night after night to protest the death of George Floyd.
Portland Public Schools, Oregon's largest school district, on Thursday cut its ties with the Portland Police Bureau, joining other urban districts from Minneapolis to Denver that are mulling the fate of such programs. Protesters in some cities, including Portland, have demanded the removal of the officers from schools.
Minneapolis suspended its school resource officer program Tuesday. Districts in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Denver are considering doing the same. Protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, have made the end of the school resource officer program in their district one of their demands.