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For some Black police officers, the election is a personal referendum on their work

Officers look within as frustrated voters look to completely overhaul policing in America
Image: A police officer waits to cast a ballot while the spotlight in the shape of a police badge illuminates him.
Black officers who spoke with NBC News said that when they vote, they’ll have to consider the ways citizens interact with police right now.Matt Williams / for NBC News

While most of the 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the country typically stay out of politics, some police unions and individual officers openly endorse candidates. For many Black officers, the choice between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden isn’t just a typical presidential vote. It’s also a personal referendum on their careers.

Black officers who spoke with NBC News said that when they vote, they’ll have to consider the ways citizens interact with police right now — often under civil unrest — as well as calls to overhaul policing and address racism more broadly.

“That’s always going to be an issue because of the racial makeup of some departments,” said Terrance Hopkins, a 30-year law enforcement officer who is a senior corporal with the Dallas Police Department and the president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas. “We personally don’t endorse presidential candidates. That’s more a dog and pony show” for departments that do, he said.

As of 2018, about 12 percent of police officers in the U.S. were Black, and 65 percent are white, according to projections by the U.S. Census. Half of the sworn officers for the Dallas Police are people of color.

But police in every state are facing tough questions about racial bias and brutality, to the point that it has become a key campaign issue for some voters in 2020. The idea of seeing a radical shift in policing is not new, as calls for transparency and accountability have grown louder and stronger in recent years. More frequent use of body cameras and having police answer for their actions haven’t seemed to temper the criticism.

“We have a tough enough job as it is, but people like to paint with broad brushes, but we all should have a problem with bad policing,” said Hopkins, who declined to say who he is voting for.

The definition of “defunding” police has also become muddied over time. Some advocate for total abolition of police departments, making the interaction between police and citizens virtually nonexistent, while others prefer a less radical approach involving shifting assets and personnel to causes that better serve communities.

“There is a disagreement and rigorous debate about defunding. It raises issues of improper funding that has become an issue over time,” said William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association. “Those that want to totally get rid of policing, it’s because they think it is put in place to control, and an effective way to see that stops is getting rid of it entirely.”

Neither Trump nor Biden say they support defunding law enforcement agencies. Though Trump has proposed some plans related to police reform, he has called the defunding movement a “fad.”

"There won’t be defunding,” Trump said during a June meeting at the White House with law enforcement officers. “There won’t be dismantling of our police, and there’s not going to be any disbanding of our police. Our police have been letting us live in peace, and we want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there.”

Trump’s stance, in part, secured him endorsements from both the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York.

The Fraternal Order’s national president, Patrick Yoes, said his organization endorsed Trump because he “has shown time after time that he supports our law enforcement officers and understands the issues our members face every day.”

Biden has also said he is against defunding the police, while promoting a list of actions he would take to reform policing and criminal justice.

“What I support are the police having the opportunity to deal with the problems they face, and I’m totally opposed to defunding the police officers," Biden said during the first presidential debate.

Still, Hopkins says the candidates’ messages don't affect what police departments like Dallas do on an everyday basis.

“There is a heightened sense of awareness — the animosity you see in the protests around the country is not toward Black officers,” Hopkins said.

That may be the case in Dallas, but Detective Felicia Richards, president of the NYPD Guardians Association and one of 5,200 Black NYPD officers, said it is a far cry from what happens in New York.

“We get called Uncle Tom and sellouts from Blacks and the vilest things that I can’t repeat from others,” she said. “We, meaning Black officers, must maintain our professionalism. The actions of one of us stains the department, because if something happens, I am being asked questions about another officer’s behavior.”

Capt. Damien Butler, of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department in Atlanta, shared a similar sentiment with NBC News last week.

"They see the uniform, not the person," he said. While on patrol during protests, Butler said he and his colleagues were also called names. “I understand their anger. It's not easy to see officers consistently harming unarmed Black men. I don't condone that."

After the ballots are counted on Nov. 3, some in law enforcement and politics say supporters of the losing candidate could take to the streets to protest the result. In that case, a heavy burden would be placed upon those Black officers who show up to work just to do their jobs.

“We as Black people have to answer for all the ills of society, because the perception is that we created them. It always comes back to color,” Richards said. In any case, she said, “we are individuals in the police departments and we can vote for who we want to.”

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