2020-09-14 17:10:23 UTC
By John Eligon, 9/11/20, New York Times
Sitting in a church service several years back, listening to
his pastor speak of the obligation to confront what is wrong
in society, Branville G. Bard Jr. thought about being a Black
man and a top police official too.
“I know some of you think you’re helping,” Mr. Bard recalled
his pastor telling parishioners that morning. “But you can’t
actually help and be silent.”
That remark moved Bard to openly confront what he considered
an agonizing truth: He was part of a system “built on
oppression and, structurally, on racism,” he said.
“Not to acknowledge that means a failure to acknowledge the
past,” said Mr. Bard, who became the police commissioner in
Cambridge, Mass., in 2017. “Folks are just going to continue
to resent your failure to acknowledge that.”
As police chiefs struggle to reform their departments amid a
national reckoning over police abuse, those African-American
officers who have risen to the top say they face particular
challenges. The expectations they face are outsize, coming
from those chanting “Black lives matter!” as well as those
subbing out the word Black for blue.
Some Black chiefs have had negative interactions with police
officers while out of uniform, & they are expected to smooth
out tensions between Black residents angry at the police &
officers who recoil at the suggestion that they harbor racial
bias. The chiefs are lauded for trying to change the system,
but also knocked as traitors by some of those in blue & in
the communities they come from. Some chiefs have knelt with
protesters, but they have also overseen officers deploying
tear gas at demos.
“You feel something, as an African-American male, that there’s
extra pressure on you to somehow wave a magic wand & you can
make some of the things go away,” said Kenton Buckner, who
became the Syracuse police chief in late 2018.
“A chief is every day walking a tightrope of trying to please
his appointing authority, Police Dept & the community, & treat
them all as your wives,” he added. “And they’re all extremely
jealous of each other, but you have to walk that tightrope
each day to make sure that you’re in line with all 3 of them.”
The precarious nature of being a Black chief in this moment
was apparent in recent days when the leaders of two depts
announced they would step down.
Chief U. Reneé Hall of Dallas said she would leave the force
in November after receiving heavy criticism for her officers’
response this summer to protests against racism in policing.
And Chief La’Ron D. Singletary of Rochester, N.Y., joined his
entire command in stepping down amid intense backlash over his
handling of the death of a Black man in police custody in March.
Those resignations came about a month after a Black police
chief, Carmen Best, announced she was leaving the Seattle
Police Department because of budget cuts and restructuring to
her force that she felt the city’s political leadership executed
without properly including her.
While Ms. Best received heavy criticism for not reining in her
officers’ aggressive response to protesters, some of her
supporters said she faced discrimination from city leadership,
which can be a roadblock for African-American police leaders.
Ms. Best, the first Black woman to serve as the city’s police
chief, said she could not say whether her race or gender
influenced how the City Council dealt with her.
“I don’t think I’ll ever know fully what was in the hearts &
minds of the various council members,” she said. But, she
added, the efforts to defund the Police Department “without
having a conversation with the police chief, & being highly
dismissive — it does bring one to question what the motive
M. Lorena González, the pres of the Seattle City Council,
said race played no role in the differences she had with the
former chief. Rather, it was Ms. Best’s failure to embrace
transformational change, Ms. González said.
“I know that self-proclaimed progressive police chiefs across
the country pledge fidelity to reform but few operationalize
those pledges or push reform beyond the edges,” she said in
a text message. “That is in part because of the systemic
oppression that pervades policing and even leaders of color
within those systems are not immune from that oppression.”
Through lived experience, Black leaders in law enforcement
can sometimes bring an understanding of the nuances of
community tensions with the police.
Commissioner Bard, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on
racial profiling in policing, is rolling out a record-keeping
system in his department that will allow it to keep detailed
data on police stops & analyze whether racial bias is a factor.
Donny Williams, a native of Wilmington, N.C., who became that
city’s police chief this year, said he tried to limit the
number of officers who showed up to calls. He attributed that
goal to a sentiment he heard coming up in a Black neighborhood,
where people would complain of “carloads” of police officers
showing up in their communities. When 10 officers respond to
a traffic stop in which four would suffice, that can seem
like over-policing, he said.
He also does not allow his officers to wear armored vests as
an outer layer or other militarized-looking apparel when it
is unnecessary because he wants his officers to appear
approachable, not like soldiers, he said.
His friends & family still have “brutally honest conver-
sations” with him about their issues with the police, he said.
“That’s one of the things that I can see from the perspective,
especially of the Black community, it looks like we just come
in as a military force in the Black community,” he said.
When he was still a patrol captain
in a predominantly Black neighborhood, Chief Williams said
he noticed that the officers had no bond with young people,
who seemed to have few organized activities.
“I was one of those young Black men,” he said.
So he started programs that brought children and the police
together. He recalled that he became interested in the
profession when he got to know officers who worked in the
public housing project where he lived; they took him on his
first trip outside of the city, to the zoo in Asheboro.
As a Black woman who is from Phoenix, Jeri L. Williams, the
city’s police chief, said community members sometimes had
more patience and trust with her to get to the bottom of a
critical incident before casting judgment. She built that
capital with the community through years of meeting with
residents for “very painful” listening sessions about policing,
she said. They have prepared her for this time when there
are huge demands for change.
“Because I’m true to my faith, I’m true to blue, I’m true
to Black, it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and really
take care of the police reform issues that need to be taken
care of,” she said. “My unique perspective also reminds me
that more work needs to be done.”
This moment seems to have increased the demand for Black
leadership in law enforcement.
After just a few months on the job, the white police chief
in Portland, Ore., stepped down in June and handed over the
reins to Chuck Lovell, a Black veteran of the department
known for his deep community ties.
“Part of it is representation, who’s at the table, who’s
there when decisions are being made,” Chief Lovell said.
“One of the things that’s helpful being a Black chief is you
can have some different conversations with folks in the
Black community. There’s a feeling that you can be a little
In Louisville, where the killing of Breonna Taylor in a
police raid has sparked unrest, the mayor appointed Yvette
Gentry, a Black woman & former deputy chief, as the interim
chief of the department this week. In an emotional address
during her introduction, Chief Gentry, moved to tears at
times, spoke of the need for broad systemic changes in
racial equity across the board, not just policing. She told
a story of her son moving into a neighborhood only to have
neighbors call in drug dealer complaints against him days
“I served 20-something years willing to die for a city that
wouldn’t even make my son feel welcome,” she said during the
news conference. “Our city is going to crumble if we don’t
start telling truths.”
The renewed focus on racist policing followed the death of
George Floyd. The department is headed by a Black chief,
Medaria Arradondo, who has faced enormous challenges as
street protests have grown violent and his officers have
been criticized for abusing and mistreating Black residents.
Amid the tense moment in police-community relations, Chief
Arradondo continues to enjoy broad support from Black
residents, who see him as one of their own in the city
where he was born and bred. Since Mr. Floyd’s killing sparked
massive calls for reform and a pledge by a majority of the
City Council to dismantle the Police Dept, Chief Arradondo
has worked with Mayor Jacob Frey to pass several reforms,
including a revamped use-of-force policy.
But Black chiefs do not find themselves spared from criticism.
Chief Hall, who is leaving the Dallas Police Dept, won early
praise from some activists when she came on the job 3 years
ago, said Changa Higgins, the lead organizer for the Dallas
Community Police Oversight Coalition, an activist group.
She engaged with community members, revamped the complaint
process & worked with organizers to create a new police
oversight office & board, Mr. Higgins said.
But Mr. Higgins said he felt that her tone started to shift
last year when activists were removed from the first oversight
board meeting. She did not seem to support the board once it
was created, he said. Relations deteriorated after the Police
Dept used what some local leaders and activists felt was
unnecessary force on protesters in late May and early June.
Mr. Higgins said he understood that as a Black woman, Chief
Hall had to endure racism and sexism in a male-dominated
profession that could have hampered her efforts to effect
change. But he said he was nonetheless underwhelmed with
“I think it’s very important to have police chiefs who
understand their community and get the pulse of what Black
folks feel about police,” he said. “But even more important
than that is having police chiefs that understand what to do
about it. Just because you’re a Black police chief doesn’t
mean you’re the best-suited person for that job to be a
reformer and to transition out of something old into