Black and Blue: What It's Like Being a Police Officer of Color

We spoke to a black LAPD officer about navigating his job and identity, and what can be done to end police brutality.

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Complex Original

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This summer has been a bit of a horror show. With the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, along with the Dallas tragedy that left five police officers dead, Americans have experienced a painful reckoning with out country's history. Unfortunately, it's also caused a major divide.

Bias in policing is nothing new and tension between the black community and law enforcement has always been present, but the advent of camera phones have made these interactions more public. While the beating of Rodney King was more than 20 years ago, it sometimes feels as if very little has changed.

For anyone paying attention to the news, these last few weeks have been painful. For police officers of color, the last few years have been particularly difficult. What is it like to be both black and blue? What is it like to have your community marginalized and victimized by the very people you work with every day?

Complex spoke to Officer Kevin Smith of the LAPD, who works in the South Traffic Division. He is also the president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, an organization that provides mentorship and professional development to black officers and personnel in the LAPD and other agencies throughout LA County. Here's what he had to say:

What made you become a police officer?
I joined LAPD in 1990 when the Black community had very little trust of the police. I knew without a doubt that I could make a difference and the best way to make a change was to join the department and create solutions from within.

How has it been both as an officer and as a person of color?
As a police officer, you place your life on the line day in and out to protect communities. Patrolling South Los Angeles presents a unique set of circumstances because the area has historically lacked the resources required for a community to thrive. As a black man, I understand the delicate history between officers and communities of color. Often times, residents don’t trust those who are tasked to protect them. Unfortunately, many officers who patrol are not from that community. They often have little interaction with the culture outside of policing. However, I know numerous officers of other ethnic backgrounds that treat the black community fairly.  

Every day, I wear this uniform knowing that many in my community view it as a symbol of fear. Once black officers enter the station and join their peers, other hurdles exist as it relates to equality and access to opportunities. Furthermore, many of us know that we could face discrimination when the uniform is off and we drive as civilians in our community. Black officers tackle exceptional challenges on both sides.              

How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement?
I respect the thousands of diverse, young people who are using their voices for change and peacefully protesting…We need to be civil and just listen to each other. 

Do your fellow officers understand where you're coming from?
You will always have officers who make an effort to understand the social dynamics of current events. Many of my fellow officers are extremely supportive of the unique position that I am in as a black officer. And of course, you will have those who couldn’t care less. You embrace them, too, with an open mind and stimulate positive dialogue when you can. 

What do you think can be done to stop incidents like the fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling?
Community policing is a huge part of the equation. I would never say that non-black officers cannot connect with communities of color. However, when you recruit officers from the neighborhoods, they will serve with an intense knowledge and understanding of that community. There is an investment. So many officers enter urban environments having never interacted with people of color outside of the stereotypical images that they see on television. You cannot police from a position of fear. 

So many officers enter urban environments having never interacted with people of color outside of the stereotypical images that they see on television. You cannot police from a position of fear. 

We also have to do better in the way we educate the community on what to do and what not to do when stopped by the police. Officers need to take an extra few minutes and explain to citizens why we do the things we do. Citizens also have to rationally understand that we are not the enemy.

How do you protect yourself?
From a tactical perspective, you continue to train as much as you can. The Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation provides resources to help officers stay protected and prepared. It’s just as important to protect your mental health. With social media, you see so many people furious at the police, making terrible comments. It’s a gut punch because I leave my house every day knowing that I took an oath to put my life on the line. A support system is key to surviving on both sides. 

How does your family feel about your job?
I have two amazing sons and my family prays for my safe return day in and out. I talk to or see my mother everyday just so I can keep her at ease with my job. When you see situations like those in Baton Rouge and Dallas, it places a heavy burden on the shoulders of your family. They see the pain of those families and empathize. 

Are there any advantages to being an officer of color?
Diversity is always an advantage to any police force. Considering Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world, being an officer of color often means you have an understanding of the plight of urban communities. You’re more likely to have seen many of the situations that you will encounter and know what family dynamics may have produced them. 

Are there any disadvantages?
The disadvantage is many people in the community have a negative perception of you before an encounter even begins. You also have issues to deal with inside of the force.    

Do you wish there were more officers of color?
We hear communities cry out about their hatred of the police yet we know that we cannot live in this city without them. The best way to change the dynamic is to join the force and serve as a positive reflection of what a police officer can be. If you think your neighborhood deserves better police officers, then become one. We need to end the stigma of becoming a police officer that often plagues communities of color.  

What would you tell a new officer joining the force?
We all took this job to do the right thing for the citizens we serve. Check your bias. Be honest about whether you’ve had enough interactions with the people who you will be serving. And if the answer is “no,” be brave enough to ask for training. Surround yourself with a support system. Consider joining organizations that can provide professional development and help you excel.    

Check your bias. Be honest about whether you’ve had enough interactions with the people who you will be serving.

Do you have hope?
I know things can improve. I see so many officers suiting up and playing a dual role as police officer and community member. We are leading sensitive conversations. They are tough but we are not veering to safer topics. We’ll continue to be proud of the uniform knowing that we can always make the department better.

The more officers of color, whether black or brown, that join and support the community they serve, then the better things will get. Officers must respect the community where they serve and the citizens should respect officers who come to serve the community.

We can't have our kids growing up afraid of the police. We cannot teach them that the police are their enemies. I want kids to know I'm here to protect them and make sure they are safe.

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