IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Blacks in Blue: African-American Cops React to Violence Towards and From Police

Perry Tarrant has 34 years of experience in law enforcement, and he’s tackled assignments that include the SWAT team and anti-gang initiatives.
Baltimore County Sheriffs officers gather after Baltimore Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was acquitted of all charges in his murder trial for the death of Freddie Gray at the Mitchell Court House June 23, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

Perry Tarrant has 34 years of experience in law enforcement, and he’s tackled assignments that include the SWAT team, anti-gang initiatives and the bomb squad.

Despite all of that, the veteran African-American officer admits that his heart pounds a bit faster when he’s pulled over by a fellow cop, particularly if they’re white.

"I get anxious in those situations, even more so because I’m legally carrying a gun," says Tarrant, an assistant police chief in Seattle, who heads the Special Operations Bureau, which includes Homeland Security. “The potential for things to go sideways makes you well aware of who you are. And I don’t think my situation is unique."

For the nation’s African-American police officers, being both black and “blue” can mean being caught in the midst of a cultural crossfire.

A/C Perry Tarrant Official Portrait
Photo of Perry Tarrant, incoming National President, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) Assistant Chief, Commander Special Operations Bureau, Seattle Police Department.Sean P. Jordan / SPD Photo Unit

America is reeling from a series of tragic public events that have unfolded in the past week: two black men fatally shot by police near St. Paul, Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana — both captured on video — and the subsequent sniper killings of five officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest in response to those slayings.

It all comes on the heels of recent high profile deaths of black men, women and children at the hands of the police over the past few years, which has given rise to the "Black Lives Matter" movement and stirred public debate about the need for policing reforms.

Related: A Search for Opportunities to Unite After 'Gut-Wrenching' Week

As protests continue with hundreds being arrested nationwide, tensions are high and emotions are frayed, both among citizens and those whose sworn duty it is to protect and serve them.

“In 30 years of being a police officer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad,” said Baltimore Police Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of The Vanguard Justice Society, Inc., which was founded in the 1970s to represent black officers in Baltimore.

"I get anxious in those situations, even more so because I’m legally carrying a gun"

The city is grappling with last year’s police custody death of Freddie Gray, which led to unrest and six officers — three of them black — being criminally charged. While two officers have been cleared, trials continue for others, including one playing out this week.

"So much has happened, the Dallas incident was horrific," said Butler. "But what we need moving forward is a meeting of minds between police and the community."

Others agreed.

"I’m feeling a little empty right now,” said Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, the first black chief of the Durham, North Carolina, police department, and one of the few black women in the country to head a local law enforcement agency.

Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis of the Durham Police Department
Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis of the Durham Police DepartmentDurham Police Department

Davis is still processing “not just what happened in Dallas, but yet another shooting of an African-American man,” she said, her voice somber.“And we are asking ourselves: 'What is this?'"

Even Dallas Police Chief David Brown, also black, spoke of the two worlds on Monday.

"I've been black a long time," he said, responding to a reporter's question about bridging the gap between the community and police. "It's not so much of a 'bridge' for me, it's everyday living. I grew up here in Texas ... it's my normal to live in this society that had a long history of racial strife ... we have much work to do, particularly in our profession and leaders in my position need to put their careers on the line to make sure we do things right."

African-American officers comprise about 12 percent of some 470,000 police officers in more than 12,000 local departments across the country, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In 2013, there were reportedly about 58,000 black officers in the U.S., a number that experts believe has remained relatively unchanged in the last few years.

But as cell phones, surveillance video and new apps such as Periscope increasingly capture incidents of alleged police brutality and sometimes fatal citizen police encounters, some blacks in law enforcement say it’s time to adapt new strategies.

Among them are members of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), which was founded in 1976, in part to help ensure equitable justice in all communities. The group has some 3,000 members and 60 chapters across the country and worldwide.

Following last week’s shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., NOBLE’s national president, Gregory Thomas, released a statement which said in part: “Police, citizen encounters of this nature remind of us of our purpose,” while noting the “isolated” incident was not reflective of professionals in law enforcement who serve “dutifully” each day.

When the Dallas shootings occurred days later, Thomas lamented the lost lives of fellow officers and noted that, “retaliatory measures against law enforcement simply cannot and will not be accepted.”

Related: Essay: An America I See in The Distance

NOBLE, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will soon tackle hiring, training and other issues at its annual national conference to be held in Washington D.C. from July 16-20.

“The community has to demand solutions in a very respectful way, in a non-violent way,” says Andre C. Anderson, a veteran law officer who is also special assistant to the national president of NOBLE for the 2016-2017 term. “And the police department has to listen.”

Andre Anderson, Special Assistant National President, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)
Andre Anderson, Special Assistant National President, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)

Anderson is known for serving as the Interim Police Chief in Ferguson, Missouri, following the unrest that occurred after the Michael Brown Jr., shooting in August 2014.

During his tenure in Ferguson, Anderson was credited with introducing community policing and creating better relationships with African-American neighborhoods.

He also worked closely with the Justice Department which had levied a Consent Decree for the city’s "Pattern or Practice of Discriminatory Policing."

“When I came, Ferguson was under duress and a great deal of stress,” said Anderson, referring to the civil unrest. “Initially, I was not welcome by the police department nor African Americans there. People were very leery.”

But he continues, “We talked to people every day, every night. I concentrated on the moms, grand-mothers and pastors. And there were positive community conversations around race relations. Today, Ferguson has a new black police chief from Miami.”

Related: Marc Morial: Raising Expectations for the Men and Women in Blue

Anderson believes there needs to be more “frequency of interaction” between officers and residents. Some police are what he terms “disinterested outsiders,” and that’s a recipe for poor relations.

“You get to know root issues in a community. You listen and care. It’s really not that hard.”

Tarrant, the incoming president of NOBLE, agrees.

“Building trust between police and community is key; with every transaction, you’re making a deposit or withdrawal,” he said. “And you can’t be afraid of the people you serve.”

Tarrant says it’s his belief that most officers are “good people. A small minority lack respect or have fear….and what do people do when they’re afraid? They generally over-react.”

Still, he notes that “police work is a very difficult job. And we are human beings,” he added. “It’s one of those professions where you have to get it right each and every time.”

Davis, who spent much of her career in Atlanta, concurs. To that end, she thinks there should be national standards, especially around racially charged issues such as implicit bias, as well as use of force.

“I’d like to see less lethal methods of defusing situations,” she said, noting that sometimes officers, especially men, may feel a need to show bravado.

“I don’t know that police departments are teaching critical thinking as well as making sure one can shoot accurately ... so how do we teach officers to think, instead of always training them for a physical reaction?”

She suggests that officers should be asking, "'What do I see here? What does this scenario mean?'" she said. Then they should use the least amount of force needed to mitigate a situation.

"Continuum of force is ingrained in us as patrol officers. You can use the nightstick, Taser or spray. You go higher and higher and last one is deadly force."

In her department, she’s stressing to her officers that they focus on critical thinking, eradicating implicit bias, and de-escalating force.

“The community’s overwhelming mentality is that they want to see change,” she said, noting recent meetings in Durham that were packed with residents. “They know the old way is not working.”

Black officers, she says, have the potential to help the nation move forward. “I believe our contribution is powerful. I hope as we come together [with peers] we can help with the discussion. We are in the perfect position to help produce solutions.”