African-American law enforcement officers balance dual identities
African-American law enforcement officers must balance two identities simultaneously during these complicated times, and each identity serves the other, according to a panel discussion at Arizona State University on Thursday night.
Five African-American men discussed the complexity of race in their experiences as professionals in the criminal justice system in a talk titled “Being Blue from a Black Perspective” at the Beus Center for Law and Society on the Downtown Phoenix campus.
Kevin Robinson, a lecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a retired police officer, said that a student recently asked him: “Are you a black law enforcement officer or a law enforcement officer who happens to be black?”
“I didn’t answer right away, but I came to this conclusion: Being one makes me more acutely aware of being the other,” said Robinson (pictured above), who was assistant police chief in the Phoenix Police Department when he retired.
“As a police officer, I understand what happens to black males at stops sometimes. I get it. As a police officer I understand the concerns that police officers have in dealing with adverse situations. It goes both ways.”
Timothy Woods, a Phoenix Police Department patrol shift commander, said: “One thing I cannot escape from forever is the melanin in my skin.”
“Whether I have the uniform on or have the uniform off, I’m a black man. I’m proud to be a black man. I’m proud of my culture, and I’m proud to serve as a Phoenix police officer as well. It is a career path I’ve chosen,” he said.
The men described the discrimination they have faced on the job. Michael Powell, a former state trooper, deputy sheriff and retired senior manager in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, recalled how he was handcuffed by two troopers for speeding while working as an undercover agent in Miami.
“They didn’t believe I was a DEA agent, and I was locked in the back of the car,” he said. “About 15 minutes later, it didn’t turn out well for them.”
Robinson said that he more often faced racism from fellow officers on an individual basis than institutional racism.
“You have to go right to them,” he said of the racists. “And they were a real motivation for me to take promotional exams.”
Jocquese Blackwell, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix, said he didn’t always have a good view of law enforcement. He worked in military intelligence for several years and then as an engineer before going to law school at ASU.
“I had dreads in law school, and I got pulled over all the time. I had dreads when I worked as an engineer, and I got pulled over all the time,” he said. “We need to address that.”
Cecil Patterson said that, besides being mistaken for a clerk, he also dealt with the “fishbowl syndrome.” He was the first black judge appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, the first black lawyer in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the state’s first black appeals court judge. He also was a graduate of the second class of ASU’s law school, in 1971.
“I had five major jobs in 32 years of practice, and every job I was the first and only African-American in the job. And that lasted a long time,” he said.
“I had the chance to influence, but it was on an individual level and what hurts is not having more African-Americans. If you have more people, you can have a community effort and more lasting positive change.”
Patterson said he has seen an evolution.
“One of the things that I was proud of and that has continued to happen is the presence of blacks in the system — defense attorneys, prosecutors, police officers, probation officers — and the numbers have increased,” he said.
The experts were asked what they would tell the current candidates who are running for president about the American criminal justice system and black people.
Robinson said that the next president needs to work with states to make sure that law enforcement has more training.
“If we look back at all the negative things we see occur in law enforcement with folks of color, it is lack of communication,” he said. “They don’t understand someone else or take the time to listen. You have to understand folks.”
Powell, who now owns a company that consults with law enforcement, said that accountability is critical.
“You have to hold police departments accountable, and it has to be transparent. All the action has to be transparent,” he said.
Woods said that law enforcement has often been on the wrong side of history and is now figuring out how to be on the right side.
“This goes back to slavery. When the slave ran away, who was entrusted to capture the slave? The sheriff was,” he said.
“We’ve had such a long ‘us versus them’ mentality. We’ve gone into a community and called it ‘the jungle’ or ‘the hood.’ We go in and wreak havoc and destroy and leave. But we’re entrusted to serve and protect, and a candidate needs to understand that dynamic.”
He also said that incarcerating people for nonviolent crimes is expensive and unhelpful.
“We need to be restoring the rights of people and if you don’t, you keep them in prison. And if you keep them in prison they won’t have any options to get resources, and if they don’t get them legally, they’ll get them illegally. We have to change that.”
Blackwell said that candidates who supported the 1994 federal crime bill must acknowledge that the result has been increased rates of incarceration for black people for nonviolent crimes.
“If they believed that crime was rampant and that black people and poor people were ‘superpredators,’ they need to own it and they need to apologize for it,” he said.
The talk was sponsored by the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, the nation’s oldest African-American professional fraternity, and moderated by Greg Vincent, president of the international organization and a retired law professor.
Vincent said that the often-repeated statement that there are more black men in the criminal justice system than college is a myth.
“But what is true is that for black men in their 30s, on any given day, 1 in 10 is connected to the criminal justice system, many for nonviolent drug offenses,” he said. And although black men make up 13 percent of the population, they make up more than 30 percent of the victims of police shootings.
“We know there have been bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system, and we think in the next election cycle, we’ll see this issue front and center,” he said.
Top photo: Kevin Robinson, an ASU lecturer and former assistant chief for the Phoenix Police Department, introduces the discussion "Being Blue from a Black Perspective" on Thursday evening at the Beus Center for Law and Society on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now