Last November’s protests outside Fourth Precinct police headquarters in north Minneapolis were in full roar when a woman’s voice rose above the din.
“You helping them kill us, your own race!” she shouted at one young cop in the phalanx of riot-gear-clad officers guarding the police station. “You’re real low. You’re lower than they are.”
The fidgeting officer, who like her was black, said nothing as the insults grew louder and more profane, according to video of the incident that spread on social media. The woman called him an Uncle Tom whose family should be ashamed of him and encouraged him to commit suicide.
“You and every other black officer around here,” she said to the cop, Lamandre Wright, a native North Sider who only a month before had graduated from the academy.
For Lt. Arthur Knight, it’s just another example of the cultural tightrope that black police officers must walk. Knight, who is black, said the scene left him angry, sad and more than a little conflicted. It’s part of the balancing act that black officers face at a time when police behavior is being scrutinized amid anger fueled by allegations of racial profiling and brutality against people of color.
As a veteran officer who joined the force in the early 1990s — when few colleagues looked like him — Knight sympathized with the young officer. But he also feels for the woman when he thinks back to his childhood in Chicago’s predominantly black South Side, where mistrust of law enforcement was rampant.
“When you look at that young lady who was talking to that officer, she was probably just so tired of everything that’s been happening,” he said.
But even with empathy for the community they’re policing, it’s a day-to-day struggle for black officers.
Last November’s fatal shooting of Jamar Clark during a scuffle with two white Minneapolis police officers sparked weeks of protests like those in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and elsewhere after the killings of other unarmed black men by police.
Clark’s death also rekindled decades-old animosities between the Police Department and black residents in north Minneapolis’ rough-and-tumble neighborhoods. And the department’s black officers often bore the brunt of the protesters’ wrath.
“What happened during those 18 days, several of those black officers, their character was being called into question based on their blackness,” said Deputy Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.
Arradondo, who during the height of the protests waded into angry crowds to try to calm demonstrators, said that being black and from the North Side gave him a certain credibility in the streets that many white officers lacked. He sees both sides of a complicated picture.
Several black officers, who asked not to be named so they could speak candidly, said that they find themselves defending police actions to their black friends and neighbors. They could easily envision circumstances that could place them under the same kind of scrutiny faced by Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg, the two officers involved in the Clark shooting.
For Cmdr. Gerald Moore, the weekslong protests were a dramatic reminder of how far apart the two worlds he inhabits often are.
Moore’s black friends and neighbors often see police as an “occupying force.” But, like most of them, he has also had the talk that most black parents have with their children: about how to deal with the police.
“Why would anyone from the black community want to go into law enforcement having to face that kind of barrage of vulgarity, not only toward themselves, but toward their family?” Moore recalled someone asking him recently.
Change comes slowly
Diversity, several officers insisted, remains a serious problem for a department that struggles to keep up with the city’s changing demographics. Although blacks make up 18 percent of the city’s population, only 9 percent of its officers are black, with several dozen eligible to retire over the next few years, department records show. Only 51 of the 536 candidates who applied to the department last year were black. To better compete for qualified black candidates, department officials said they were stepping up their recruitment efforts by traveling to job fairs and colleges and offering ride-alongs to prospective recruits.
Observers say the department will need to do more to remove the systemic hurdles that blocked young blacks from joining the force. These include stringent background checks of an applicant’s criminal history and credit score and tests that applicants must pass before they can join the force. Some police officials admitted that the department’s recruitment efforts have been hindered by the perception that officers unfairly target black and Latino youths. There has been some improvement since 2003, when a federal mediation board encouraged the department to step up its efforts to recruit and hire minorities and women.
But change has been slow.
Minneapolis still lags behind other cities of similar size and racial makeup such as Fort Worth, Texas or Miami, whose police force is 29 percent black. A recent U.S. Department of Justice survey suggested that the percentage of blacks in U.S. police departments has remained relatively unchanged since before the recession, even as the hiring of other minorities has increased.
“In 23 years, we’ve never had more than seven black female cops in this whole entire department; can someone tell me why is that?” Knight said. “Also, in this police department, we’ve never had more than 70 African-Americans. You should have a police department that reflects the community that you serve.”
In 2010, Arradondo, the deputy chief, and four other black officers, collectively known as “The Mill City 5,” filed a racial discrimination suit against the department and former Chief Tim Dolan, contending that since the late 1980s blacks on the force were subjected to a hostile work environment and disparate treatment. The case was settled two years later for $740,000 but wasn’t accompanied by any major policy changes.
Serving as ambassadors
Last month, the department began participating in a federal pilot program aimed at improving how officers treat other people and one another. One component includes exploring the historical and generational effects of policing.
“One question that someone always asks is, you know what, as a police officer, I’ve never owned slaves, so why do we have to talk about this topic?” said Knight, one of the officers assigned to the program. He said they must explain that to many people of color, the badge represents decades of racial oppression.
While community activists say that having a more diverse police force would go a long way toward mending relations between law enforcement and minorities, there’s little empirical evidence that more diverse departments have fewer complaints. Some studies even suggest that black officers can be harder on black criminal suspects.
Black and white Minnesotans have starkly different views about the police, according to a recent Star Tribune poll, with 60 percent of blacks saying that officers are more likely to use deadly force against a black person, compared with 28 percent of whites.
“My counterparts often get miffed with me as I say it: The institution of policing is inherently biased,” said Lt. Charles Wilson, head of the National Black Police Association, which represents the country’s 80,000-plus black law-enforcement officers. “But the profession of policing has made a number of strides over the last 40 years that I’ve been involved.”
Still, he said, it isn’t easy.
“Unfortunately, with everything else that’s going on, people in the community that I talk to say it ain’t cool to be the po-po right now,” said Wilson.
Blacks frequently serve as ambassadors in their precinct houses, Knight said, trying to explain to colleagues of other races the intricacies of policing in minority neighborhoods.
He recalled one incident early in his career when he was out on patrol with a white partner. They were spotted by a group of black kids, who bolted.
“And I say, ‘You know what? That doesn’t necessarily mean they did something wrong,’ ” Knight said. “When I was a kid, every time we saw the police we just ran. It’s just what we did.”