Over his 32-year police career in Dallas, Terrance Hopkins has seen tremendous changes in the profession. For rookie Black officers in a predominantly white and conservative field, he said, the prevailing feeling used to be that you were lucky to be allowed on the force.
Now, it is not unusual to see veteran Black officers in top leadership roles. But the issues that plague the profession’s reputation in Black communities — excessive uses of lethal force, racial profiling and routine brutality from officers — have not become relics of the past under diverse leadership. That reality has been laid bare by the beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, and the in-custody restraint death of Irvo Otieno that involved Virginia sheriff’s deputies.
Part of the problem is that too many Black police leaders “walk on eggshells” about addressing bad policing and racism in the force, said Hopkins, the outspoken president of the Black Police Association of Dallas who serves as a tactical special events planner for the city’s department.
“You’re still in a conservative, white male-dominated profession and these guys still have to buy into you. If they don’t buy into you, they’re calling for your job,” he said.
Very few, if any, Black police chiefs believe their mere presence subverts systemic racism in the profession. But as the number of Black law enforcement professionals leading major police departments increases, so do the opportunities to show that diversity on the force can foster better relationships, make policing fairer, and save more Black lives, current and former police leaders told The Associated Press.
“Sometimes it does seem like an unfair burden that, just because (a chief) comes in who is African American, decades of mistrust are just going to melt away,” said Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and a former deputy chief of the Detroit Police Department.
“You’re not going to be able to solve that quickly and, in some cases, if at all,” she said. “But the key thing is that you have to take the time to talk to the community and see what’s going on.”
This weekend, Black police chiefs, commissioners, sheriffs and commanders from across the country will gather in Detroit for NOBLE’s annual CEO symposium. Andrews described it as a typically “intimate setting” where attendees feel like “you’re around family.”
The agenda, spread across Friday and Saturday, includes panels on diversity, equity and inclusion; best practices for mental health responses in policing; and managing the response to mass shootings.
This will be the first national symposium since the Nichols case reignited a national reckoning over police use of force and renewed the scrutiny sparked by massive racial justice protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. The gathering also takes place following the launch of a probe of police abuses in Memphis by the U.S. Justice Department, as well as the agency’s report on police discrimination in Louisville, Kentucky, from an investigation launched after the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in 2020.
The Memphis and Louisville departments are led by Black executives. And there are a number of major city police departments led by veteran Black law enforcement professionals: Commissioner Keechant Sewell in New York City; Chief William Scott in San Francisco; Chief Troy Finner in Houston; and Chief Elaine Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, among several others.
The CEO symposium is named for William Bracey, a former New York Police Department leader who co-founded NOBLE almost 47 years ago. Bracey was elevated to high-ranking chief of patrol in 1979, after 33 years of service in the NYPD.
“I have had no problem with being Black and being a police officer …” Bracey said, according to a biography written by the organization’s New York chapter. “The fact that I do come, in a sense, from two different worlds gives me additional experiences and insights that, hopefully, help me make the right decisions.”
Although modern-day policing in the U.S. has origins in the slave patrols used to control the enslaved population, Black men and women have served as law enforcement professionals since abolition. However, their earliest experiences were far from fair or equal. In Atlanta, the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, the first Black officers began serving in a segregated unit in 1948 and weren’t integrated with white officers until 1969.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were more than 708,000 full-time sworn officers serving in over 14,700 law enforcement agencies in 2020. The percentage of local police officers who were Black has remained the same at 12%, from 1997 to 2020.
Federal statistics show the percentage of Black police chiefs running local departments that serve more than 250,000 residents has increased over the last decade. In 2020, about 47% of major city chiefs were white, 38% were Black, and 13% were Hispanic. Four years earlier, 65% of major city chiefs were white and 19% were Black.
Former Atlanta police Chief Rodney Bryant was drawn to the law enforcement profession over 34 years ago because he wanted to ensure the Black community enjoyed the same level of police service and safety that white residents received. Bryant, 56, grew up in an era of missing and murdered children in Atlanta, in the late 1970s and early 1980s when police did not thoroughly investigate the disappearances and deaths of Black adolescents and young adults.
“When I came into the police department, we weren’t a predominantly Black agency,” Bryant said. “But I am confident that we are now very much a mirror of the community that we serve.”
He became chief of the department in Atlanta following the June 2020 police shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, a case that sparked local protests amid demonstrations over Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. Bryant said that even as a Black leader, without the community’s support, it’s hard to do the job. But the community conversations have been easier because he is Black, he said.
“One of the things that I feel privileged about is that, as a Black chief, it gave me the ability to go into certain communities and homes and really hear people and hear their true plight,” Bryant said. “In some communities, they don’t have that same trust, if the person was white.”
Bryant and Andrews, the NOBLE president, said the community of Black police leaders is still small enough that many of them know each other and will reach out to offer encouraging words in moments of crisis. And perhaps contrary to what the public might believe, seeing cases like Floyd, Nichols or Otieno can be devastating, they said.
“This is not what we want to see, this is not what we signed up for,” Andrews said. “Even if we are no longer in policing, we take it personally.”
Bryant said Black police leaders do have a responsibility to educate the broader law enforcement profession how to interact with “our community.”
“Our history with law enforcement differs from many in mainstream society,” the former Atlanta chief said.
Aaron Morrison is a New York City-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.