Strengthening the Thin Blue Line: Divides Within Our Agencies
Last year I penned an article about exhibiting the same respect within our agencies that we expect from those on the outside. In it I touched on the various organizations within our respective departments that were initially formed to serve as advocates for the different cultures that exist in said agencies. The article predictably met with a fair amount of resistance and criticism from those who viewed it as an attempt to play the ever popular race/gender card.
Here is what I noticed about the vast majority if not all of the overtly negative responses: None appeared to come from minority officers. Which naturally led me to a few questions. The first question, is why exactly does it bother us as a profession so much to be called out on the carpet? Is that not what we do to our leadership? We can’t very well expect all of the transparency that we say we expect and refuse to exhibit it in our own agencies can we?
I won’t rehash a previous article but one has to admit, this ‘thin-blue-line’ that we love to throw out there at every opportunity looks even thinner when we begin to talk about the cultural struggles that exist behind said line does it not? Understand that I do not consider myself to be an expert on all things cultural diversity simply because I am a minority police officer. I do however have experiences and a perspective that my Caucasian brothers and sisters in blue do not have, plain and simple. Many empathize and are staunch supporters of equal opportunity and even advancement for minority and female officers. There is however only so much you can experience through osmosis.
I’ve read a few articles and watched a few interviews here lately that featured opinions by minority Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs and high-level administrators, concerning their views on law enforcement today as it pertains to cultural interaction. The popular thing to say apparently has been that all is well in LEO-land, and the racial divide that is so widely reported throughout our society doesn’t exist within law enforcement, contrary to popular belief. One can’t help but wonder how many of these agency heads have actually had conversations with the minority officers in their agencies and gotten their input?
Because with all due respect to our administrators, their vantage points are more than a little different from the officers and front-line supervisors that work for them. See minority and female (line) officers don’t have the same assurances that they can say what they think without repercussion. That’s a simple fact. I’ve taken the opportunity to speak with a few officers (both female and minorities) from different parts of the country and will share some of their thoughts on the current state of cultural relations in some of our agencies which not surprisingly has proven to be in stark contrast to the “All is Well” message we get from the heads of agencies.
Understand these are the personal thoughts and opinions of brother and sister officers. Presumably everyone will not agree with what is said, but we must respect the experiences of others, as these are their opinions and experiences. In all honesty I fully expect some to stop reading this article right now. We in law enforcement are some of the worst at being confronted with our shortcomings. Make no mistake, our inability to attack this issue of ineffective intercultural relations is indeed a shortcoming:
From a veteran female officer on the East Coast– “After observing the antics of many of our Caucasian peers, their behavior to me clearly shows that they believe that they are more POLICE then we are, if that makes sense. I’m not sure if they are even conscious of the behavior. It’s like it’s embedded in them. There’s this mentality that ‘we’ can join but just not be better than them. It was evident even when I was in the academy. I had to lead a group discussion on whether it was possible for us to be effective on the streets when often times we couldn’t even speak to those whom we worked side by side with every day! How can your partner trust you with their life if you’ve exhibited signs that you can’t be trusted?
In the academy there were Caucasian male officers who openly plotted against me because I had the highest grade point average and was class valedictorian. In my career I have responded to crime scenes to assume control of an investigation, and even some with a very small time on the force will have a problem in taking direction from a female on what needs to be done.
In all fairness that happens sometimes with my African American male counterparts as well, but not nearly as often. As an African American female, we have to prove ourselves to the Caucasian males, females, and African American males. I worked the streets in one of the most violent districts in our city. If a Caucasian female came to the district, it was a generally understood that she would not be on the street any longer than six months and an administrative position would be found for her somewhere.
By contrast an African American female had to prove herself in the trenches for years to even get an opportunity to get out of patrol. I’ve had majors, lieutenants, and even our a high ranking member of our command staff flirtatiously promise me an opportunity for advancement and when I didn’t accept the advances, try to block me from going to other units. I am a straightforward person and never had a problem with speaking my mind, so I let my work speak for me and after confronting these individuals one on one, I haven’t had a problem going forward. There are obvious signs of discomfort. Many times you can get on an elevator, speak and will hear dead silence in return. I’m the type who will say ‘hello’ louder until there is acknowledgement, but everyone is not that way.
Since there have been an overwhelming number of videos showcasing police use of force recently, there has been a noticeable divide as it pertains to the perception of many of these situations. I belong to an online group with just my peers from my department and heated debates appear to have become the norm across racial lines. My opinion is because there aren’t any ties to the communities that they serve, there isn’t any compassion or concern when officers are clearly in the wrong.
In many instances we (African American officers) are looked upon in the same way but considered to be the ones who ‘made it out’. I don’t believe we’ve ever truly been looked at as equal to our Caucasian counterparts. I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily the majority, but many exhibit that type of attitude. It’s been proven and I know of officers in agencies who won a lawsuit because African American officers were being punished more severely than their Caucasian counterparts for the same offenses. Some were even fired. There has always been a culture divide but it is undoubtedly more prevalent these days. Please understand, I have made some wonderful connections with many across all types of racial lines. The bonds that I have made in this job are priceless and I wouldn’t change them for the world. I don’t believe for a second though that we are one big happy family as we would like the public to believe.”
From twenty-eight year veteran Sergeant Robert Grant, III, of the Los Angeles Police Department – “Law enforcement in American society and every ethnic group is viewed through the prism that society gives it. Caucasian officers are the standard bearers of right and wrong; they are the image of both SWAT and the racist depending on the viewer. Asian officers are considered thoughtful and intelligent, and docile to a fault. Latin officers are considered tenacious, dedicated workers who are slow to blend with the law enforcement culture, but increasing in numbers and advancing in rank.
African American officers are athletic enough for the operational rigors of field enforcement, but unable to detach from the ‘vices’ of the Black community. African American officers are the only ethnicity criticized for being ‘to close to the community’ and at first blush ostracized from elevation from coveted operational positions until they are known personally. ‘Black in Blue’ is still qualified based upon our verifiable allegiances to the job and against the community.
Law enforcement has entered the period of ‘Integrated Policing’ and all stakeholders are valuable to the ends of operational law enforcement. The distain of ‘Black in Blue’ and the fear of African American officers being too close to the community, needs to be acknowledged and dispelled. African American officers are valuable stakeholders strategically, tactically, operationally, and systemically. Law enforcement has found a way to reconcile the perceived stereotypes of the Caucasian, Asian, and Latin officers. Law enforcement needs to leave behind its concerns about being ‘Black in Blue’.
From a veteran of a municipality in the Southwest-“Minority officers aren’t treated as equals by our Caucasian peers. Anytime we have an opinion that differs from theirs we are labeled as argumentative, angry or less than a team player which in most cases couldn’t be further from the truth. Those of us who tend to think outside of the box and don’t automatically fall into the mentality of the status quo, are outcasts to a degree.
If we’re being honest with ourselves though, often times we are treated even worse by our own senior minority officers who feel as though they’ve had a tougher road to travel than we do now; as if we somehow aren’t deserving for opportunities because they didn’t have them earlier in their careers. It’s a classic crabs-in-a-barrel mentality.
I don’t see conditions improving as long as the majority of our top administrative positions are held by majority Caucasian officers and/or minorities who have the attitudes previously mentioned. Leaders who are doing little more than earning a paycheck. For them it’s much easier to never have to think for themselves or be creative. We need minority leaders who are more than ‘yes’-men/women”.
Whenever I bring up things like race, inequality, favoritism, good old boys club, cliques, etc. I tend to get the same type of questions. “Why do you have to bring that up? That just makes people uncomfortable. Things are much better than they used to be.” That last one usually is what gets the quickest response from me. Because I agree wholeheartedly that things are much better than they used to be. I do not however believe that we have to stop there. There should be representatives of both sexes and all ethnicities at every turn in this profession.
I attended the ILEETA Conference & Expo recently and while I absolutely enjoyed the experience, I must admit I was absolutely floored at how few minority instructors there were in attendance amongst the 760+ attendees. Something else I noticed was that the courses that focused on things pertaining and related to minority relations were those with the sparsest attendance.
Why is that? Easy answer is because that topic and those closely related to it make the majority uncomfortable. At that same ILEETA Conference, “Coach” Bob Lindsey talked to me about how he’d advocated for the hiring of both minority and female officers in Louisiana back in the 60’s. The SIXTIES. Tell me who are the Bob Lindseys now? Who are the influential and respected leaders in our profession out there advocating for change?
My favorite response statement has to be “Why do you have to bring that up? That just makes people uncomfortable”. Well, why I continually bring it up should be obvious. More importantly I believe we (yes I said we) should be uncomfortable. It should make us uncomfortable that we have officers all around this country that feel as though they are believed to be inferior to their peers for no other reason than the color of their skin is different, or the culture they were raised in is different, or they are of a different sex. That should make EVERYONE uncomfortable. Alas it apparently does not. Yet. At least by taking a look at just a couple testimonials it doesn’t.
We deal with cultural and racial strife on a daily basis in our interactions with the public. Can we effectively do our jobs if we are emulating on the inside what we see on the outside? There is a quote by an unknown author that says, “Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; they sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.”
What is it exactly that we must do, for the ‘Thin-Blue-Line’ to truly be for everyone that which we purport it to be to the world? My initial suggestion would be to do some real self-assessments, acknowledge that it isn’t, and go from there.