Editor’s note: This week, The Root will examine the many facets of law enforcement and its effects on the black community with our weeklong series Unprotected, Underserved: The Policing of Black America.
“You live in [redacted], don’t you?” he said.
“What?” I responded, prompting him to repeat the name of the subdivision where I lived. I recognized his face. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“I know where you live,” he responded.
People passed by as we stood at the entrance to the fundraiser for a local organization I realized we are both members of. He went on to tell me that he had seen me at a Black Lives Matter protest. He called it “that black shit.” He warned me that he, and other officers, knew where I resided.
He leaned in close and informed me that I had no idea what police officers experience. He lectured me about protesting while living “around white folk.” I may or may not have responded with an insult that involved a crude synonym for the performance of fellatio. I was mad.
After I cooled off, we eventually shook hands. After all, we were both black men. We lived in the same city. We even belonged to the same organization. But we were in different fraternities.
He was a police officer. I was not.
“Policing is a very closed culture,” explained Police Officer Stan Mason. “It’s almost like the Illuminati ... I’m not saying that it exists, but everyone argues about it. And you all don’t know as much as you think you know.”
There was that word again: “you.”
In our attempt to find out what police officers think about patrolling black communities, The Root examined recent studies, polls and surveys of law enforcement agencies across the nation. We also spoke with two veteran police officers and activists who were willing to tell it like it is.
Stan Mason, a 25-year veteran of the Waco, Texas, Police Department, hosts a weekly radio show, Behind the Blue Curtain, on which he exposes the secrets behind the badge and informs the public about the intricacies of policing.
Officer Stevens, who asked that his first name be withheld, worked as a police officer in the St. Louis Metropolitan Department for more than a decade before leaving to pursue a divinity degree and become a full-time Baptist minister and activist.
Although both men are outspoken about revealing the truths behind the “blue wall of silence,” whenever they spoke about policing and the communities they patrolled, they often defaulted to the same pronouns. They referred to their fellow police officers as “us” and “we.” They described the public as “you” and “they.”
“It’s like being in a fraternity,” said Stevens. “When you button up that blue shirt and put on that badge, you realize no one has your back except your brothers.”
I posed the same questions to both men to see if they, along with the available data (including Pew Research’s nationwide survey of sworn police officers), could offer a better perspective on how cops actually feel about policing black communities.
Why Do People Become Police Officers?
Surprisingly, for many officers, the answer is money. While most people are unlikely to get rich as a police officer, it is still one of the few occupations to offer reliable benefits, pension and decent pay without requiring a college education or extensive training. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median income for people with a high school diploma is $36,344 per year, while the mean income of the average police or sheriff’s officer is $64,490.
Aside from the ability to earn a decent living with relatively low training, both men The Root spoke with agreed that the job is held in high esteem in many communities.
“You take people who—maybe up to two years ago—worked at a Lowe’s or a Home Depot, but today they got a badge and a gun, and everybody’s bending over and kissing their ass,” Mason said.
But Isn’t Policing a Dangerous Job?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t list law enforcement in its top 10 most dangerous jobs. In 2017, killings of police officers were at their second-lowest point in 50 years, partly because overall, violent crime is declining.
Of the 128 cops who were killed on duty in 2017, 47 died in traffic-related accidents, while 44 were killed with firearms, according to the Naational Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s annual report (pdf).
“There is always the potential for danger. You have to deal with a lot of assholes and see a lot of terrible things, which is the most stressful part of policing. But it’s not like what you see on TV,” Stevens said.
Do Black Police Officers Think Differently From the White Ones?
Both men were critical of their fellow cops’ tendency to turn their backs on their communities and “hide behind the badge,” a term Stevens repeatedly used to describe the silence of blacks in law enforcement.
Officer Stevens: The first thing you learn as a black cop is to shut up and don’t say shit. No one cares how you feel inside as long as you keep it inside. That’s what these scared black cops are taught to do.
Stan Mason: I called those officers “Stevies.” The best analogy I can give you is ... do you remember the movie Django Unchained? Do you remember the Samuel L. Jackson character, Stevie? He was coonish to the point that he knew he was coonish, but he had to be that because he knew what was happening to the least. So he somehow convinced himself that his coonishness was an effort to elevate himself. And he didn’t see that he played himself as a fool.
Where is the outrage? A lot of these black officers have contempt for Black Lives Matter and will tell you “Blue lives matter.” But what happens when they take the uniform off? Why is it that black people are 40 percent of the incarcerated and only 13 percent of the population, yet we have black officers who don’t speak up? But when you go home and take that uniform off, you can be Tamir Rice. You can be Alton Sterling. You can be Philando Castile. They can’t see your badge.
What happened to the black officer that detached himself so much from the very condition that many of us grew up in, that we’re scared to say, “I understand,” or “They may be right”? Because we’re so worried about fitting into a culture that demonstrates—certainly not every department, but as a profession—it has demonstrated that it has no concern. They’re not interested.
Most of them don’t even speak to me. That’s why our communities mistrust police. Because I will ask them: “Are you blue or are you black?”
Pew Research: In a national survey of sworn law enforcement officers, Pew Research found that 91 percent of black officers and 95 percent of white cops believe that anti-police bias is a motive for protests.
When They Watch Videos Like Philando Castile or Alton Sterling, What Do Police Officers See Differently?
Pew Research: 72 percent of white officers believe fatal encounters between blacks and police were isolated incidents, while 57 percent of black cops believe that they were symptoms of a larger problem.
Officer Stevens: They see the same thing you see. But that’s what happens when you become a cop. It’s almost like you’re not human anymore. You’re a different thing. If the killer is a cop, you actually sympathize with the murderer. Even when the person they murder looks like you. It’s a weird kind of brainwashing.
Have you ever watched a basketball game and you know the person on your team fouled the man with the ball? You know he did it, but you don’t want the refs to call the foul because it’s your team. That’s how it is. It’s like a sport.
Stan Mason: You all get caught up in trying to prove a case instead of stating what you know. And in trying to prove it, the community stretches and reaches and loses the ability to be legitimate in any conversation on police reform. They never say, “Well, when you all do this, it makes us feel this way.” They just complain. That makes you look like a chronic crier.
Now the flip side of that is, when you see the videos, did something happen in the video that would make you afraid? If it wouldn’t make you afraid, then it wouldn’t make him afraid.
Tamir Rice was executed less than three seconds after arriving on the scene because they said he was a threat. Why would you ride up 50 feet close to a threat? Why wouldn’t you send your senior dispatch notice? Why wouldn’t you use that big P.A. system taxpayers paid for? You have no problem using it with white folks.
Would More Training Help Curb Police Violence?
Stan Mason: We don’t seem to need more training when it comes to keeping white folks alive. That training automatically kicks in. It’s only with black folks and poor white folks that we need more training.
It’s more us vs. them, and it’s time to change that. Even an iPhone will tell you when it’s time for an update. Cultural diversity is not even on the table. If you want to make them nervous, start talking about black issues; start talking about Black Lives Matter and watch them shudder.
Policing is a very brutal, one-size-fits-all concept. It is a “We know better than you” approach. We’re the only profession in the world where we, the employee, [are] not accountable to you, the employer. If you question me as a police officer, I can tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Imagine going to your job and telling your boss that. How long would you have your job? But we can do it because society gives us that trump card.
Officer Stevens: I didn’t learn about subconscious bias until after I left the force. Most white people don’t think they’re racist, and most police officers don’t think they’re biased.
In the academy, you spend so much time on shooting and tactical stuff, they rarely taught de-escalation training and how to defuse a situation—at least they didn’t when I was in the academy. But most police officers never pull their guns. They teach us to yell, but now I realize that it makes people nervous and can create more trouble.
We spend so much time learning how to kill that no one should be surprised when a police officer kills someone. We’re literally trained to do it.
Pew Research: Only 27 percent of police officers report they have ever fired their weapon while on duty.
Mapping Police Violence: Police recruits across the country spend an average of 58 hours on weapons training versus 8 hours in de-escalation training.
How Can We Change the Police Culture to Make It More Conducive to Serving the Black Community?
Stan Mason: More accountability. Put that police chief’s ass on the griddle. See, you guys always worry about sending one officer to jail. Do you think police will not sacrifice an officer? They absolutely will. Yet the police chiefs remain in place.
When black communities say our communities are over-policed, who do you think is sending them into those communities? Who do you think sets the tone for how that community will be policed? The chief does that. But they’re never held accountable.
The chief should set a direction for the department, and the community should know that direction.
Officer Stevens: The first thing we are going to have to do is have a zero tolerance for police brutality. When you look at officers who shoot and kill, I can guarantee you that those officers almost always have other disciplinary files in their jackets. Look at the guy who killed Eric Garner. He was beating and choking people long before that. A one-strike policy. If you hit or kick somebody, we’re gone. You wanna know why?
It’s against the law!
Then what we really need to do is up the standards for police officers. One of the things y’all don’t realize is that most police officers are dumb as fuck. And we give them guns and ask them to solve complex situations. Then we take the smart ones off the street and make them detectives and supervisors. Man, if you see a police officer in your neighborhood and he’s not, like, in his 20s, he’s dumb as a rock. That’s who we put in black neighborhoods.
A 40-year-old mediocre white man with a high school diploma, six weeks’ training and a gun in a black neighborhood. What do you think is going to happen?
Pew Research: While 69 percent of black cops say America needs to continue to make changes, 92 percent of white police officers say this country has made enough changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.