There needs to be dialogue and action after recent shootings and protests, officers say
"It hurt me ... I told my wife, I can't do this job anymore," one officer says
Even before five fellow Dallas officers were shot and killed earlier this month, and before a shootout on Sunday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, left three officers dead, Morris Pope was already in sorrow.
Like much of the country, the senior corporal had seen the police shooting deaths of black men in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge on video.
“It hurt me when I saw what happened in Minnesota. I told my wife, I can’t do this job anymore. I was that hurt about what I’ve seen,” Pope said.
The shootings by and against police caused double despair for the 12% of local police officers across the United States who identify as black and wear blue uniforms. Now, in the aftermath of a tragic first week of July, CNN asked several of them to reflect on what it’s like to be part of two communities in pain.
“When you’re a black officer, you have a very unique perspective,” Pope said.
Many officers were hesitant to open up about the recent tragedies for fear of losing their jobs or jeopardizing their safety. But Pope and others argued it’s more important now than ever to encourage dialogue.
“I hope people look at the Dallas shooting and realize that, wow, we have a problem,” said Anwar Sanders, 27, a black police officer in New Mexico. “And we have to think long term to fix that problem, or history will keep repeating itself.”
While reflecting on the shootout over the weekend in Baton Rouge, Sanders called the violence “horrible” and “unfortunate.” But he doesn’t think the Black Lives Matter movement should be blamed for recent violence against police.
“I’m a cop and I believe all lives matter and blue lives matter,” Sanders said. “But to bring these other issues to the forefront of a movement sparked by questionable police shootings of black men is down-playing the entire movement and the racism that is still prevalent. Everybody’s lives matter, but it’s true that black people are more likely to get shot by police than others.”
Spotting the fear
Indeed, issues around race, gun violence and policing in the United States are not new.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned police brutality in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Later, the videotaped police beating of taxi driver Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 led to riots. More recent videos showed the police killings of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Eric Garner in New York; and then last week Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
“It’s the same thing that’s happening over and over again, and it’s just different names, different places and different people,” said Reginald Cotton, 33, a black Illinois police detective.
After watching videos of the violence last week, Cotton’s first thought was, “There’s so much anger out there.”
He said, “People are scared of police and the police are scared of people.”
To fix the problem, Cotton begs for police departments and the communities they patrol to band together. People need to know what police see on the street, he said, and police need to know what residents are feeling.
“We need to eat at the same table and break bread and talk and get things out,” said Cotton, who’s also the founder of the Charity Contributors of Chicago, which raises money for nonprofit groups to help minority communities. “We have to educate our officers on how to develop trust within the community and how to become a part of the community.”
Black officers in Dallas also said the relationship between minority communities and police departments is struggling.
“Unless we get to have a serious dialogue and be honest about a relationship that sometimes doesn’t even exist at all, we will always be at this point where everyone loses,” said Pope, an officer of 29 years who serves as parliamentarian of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas.
Malik Aziz, deputy chief at the Dallas Police Department and chairman of the National Black Police Association, said in an email, “I think what (a) sad state that we are in. Us versus them is never a good place to be.”
Sanders, the police officer in New Mexico, said if white officers policing a black community don’t make an effort to engage and nurture that relationship, they might make judgments based on fear, misunderstanding and stereotypes.
For example, if an officer views residents of a mostly black community as more violent or dangerous, then that officer might be more inclined to use force when interacting with them, leading to headline-making shootings.
“Some people don’t even know they think that way,” Sanders said.
“I see it all the time,” he added. “I was at the gym and a white woman saw me walk in. She got off her machine and moved her bag so that it was away from me. … She didn’t realize I’m a cop. She just saw me as a threat.”
“If you’re afraid to go talk to an African-American female or male or a Mexican male or female because they’re not white like you, take the uniform off,” Jones, an officer of 20 years, says in the video. “You have no business being a police officer.”
The true meaning of blue
Building a relationship with the community is what being a police officer is about, Cotton said.
When he first became a police officer, Cotton said he thought the job was all about catching the typical “bad guys,” maybe drug dealers or car thieves. Over time, he realized the most important aspect of the job is being part of the community.
“I remember getting a random call about a woman who couldn’t light her pilot light. I was 24 at the time,” Cotton said.
“I walked into the home, and it was this 80-year-old lady who said that she didn’t have any family members in the area and if she bent down to light the pilot light, she might not get back up,” he said. “That really struck a chord in my heart, and I thought, wow, this is what it’s about. For a year straight, I asked her, ‘Are you alright? Everything OK?’ “
But police see the negatives in a community, too. “I just saw two dead babies in a triple homicide last week,” he said. “These things change people.”
Still, if more officers focus on the positives, it might strengthen ties between people and police, Cotton said.
“The reason why I became a police officer was to make a difference in people’s lives. I knew what it was like to have a parent on drugs. I knew what it was like to watch people be picked on and bullied on,” Jones, the Ohio officer, says in the Facebook Live video.
“I wanted to make a difference. … I am my brothers’ and my sisters’ keeper. That’s why I’m going to keep this uniform on.”
Similarly, Sanders values his ties to the community he polices. As he spoke to CNN on the phone, a young man approached the officer and said, “My brother wants to be a cop. … What should he do?”
“Just go online and apply, buddy,” Sanders said.
Starting the dialogue
Meanwhile, Cotton plans to organize a panel discussion for his community about the recent shootings and protests. He wants to include police officers, city officials and residents.
“It’s about keeping the conversation open,” he said, “and actually talking with each other and not to each other.”
Aziz, the deputy chief in Dallas, suggested taking the conversation to the national level. He wants the president and Congress to convene a national conversation on race and police brutality, and to make sure local officials are involved.
“The issues of the color line and the history of policing needs to be center stage,” he said.
Thomas Glover, a Dallas police lieutenant and president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, said dialogue needs to be followed by action.
“In order to make progress, we have to put some concrete things in place,” said Glover, who has served 35 years with the department. He called for federal laws that would make police misconduct illegal.
“A lot of people say we already have those, but we don’t see a lot of people prosecuted under them,” Glover said. “We ought to have some type of permanent outside review for police officers and police action set up all across this country. … But No. 1, we ought to have a dialogue.”
CNN’s Scott Glover contributed to this report.