Black Police Officers Explain Why ‘Change From The Inside’ Tactics Aren’t Working

Systemic bias in policing has prompted protests, uprisings, and calls for change, with a significant push from the Black Lives Matter movement over recent years. Officers say, though, that the problem is deeply ingrained, and that even those who might think they can change the system from the inside find that racism is a powerful force against change.

Black officers: racism makes change from inside hard
PORTLAND, OREGON, USA – JULY 21 : Federal officers fire tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators in Portland, Oregon on July 21, 2020. Over a thousand people, including a large march of mothers, demonstrated for racial justice and against Donald Trump√Ęs insertion of Federal officers in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Black police officers about their experiences. The overwhelming response was that they face so much discrimination themselves, within their jobs, that it’s a serious barrier to reform.

Detective Luther Hall, for instance, was working undercover at a protest when he was rushed by fellow officers. Before he could identify himself or respond to demands to get on the ground, he was body-slammed, punched, kicked, and beaten with batons, until a SWAT team member happened to recognize him.

Sgt. Willie Davis, who sued his department in Arkansas, saying that the environment was one of racial slurs, harassment of Black citizens, and discrimination against Black officers. He said his experiences make him uncomfortable encouraging young black men to consider law enforcement careers.

Then there’s San Francisco Police Department Captain Yulanda Williams, who thought she could improve police relations with Black citizens. She’d been on the force nearly thirty years before she filed a lawsuit against her city and department for discrimination, including a supervisor telling her she’d have to pick one identity or the other: Black, or police officer.

Retired officer Charles P. Wilson told WBUR that policing while Black is a hard experience, but that increasing the number of Black officers is a necessary part of improving community policing. Still, he describes a “dual consciousness” in balancing the identity of a Black person, and that of a police officer. The other necessary factor, he says, is a system where it’s safe to report discrimination within the department.

When NPR covered three generations of Black police officers in one family, in 2017, they detailed the difference between the experience of Clarence White, who joined the force in the early 50s, when police cars were actually segregated, and he wasn’t allowed to arrest white men, and that of his grandson, Rodney. However, all three generations say that there’s still discrimination that makes the work of a Black officer that much more difficult. The other significant change is that, while Clarence hoped his children would avoid law enforcement work, Rodney sees more Black officers as the key to change.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police was the impetus for a renewed round of protests across the nation. Four officers have been charged in the homicide. One of those four was a Black officer — Alex Keung. Keung’s brief law enforcement career began with idealism and the notion of change, before ending so inauspiciously with his firing and arrest. According to the New York Times, before training to work in law enforcement, Keung had seen a sibling arrested, and felt there was mistreatment. During a protest against police brutality, his mother recalls him saying the work needed to be done from inside.

It’s not clear what happened between that moment and the day that Keung participated in an arrest that would result in death. Though he’s far from the first to enter the police force with a stated intent to change things, his story might be the most stark example of that aim going horribly wrong.

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