What It’s Like To Be A Black Cop In The Age Of ‘Black Lives Matter’

What It’s Like To Be A Black Cop In The Age Of ‘Black Lives Matter’

As a black police officer, I found myself stuck in a balancing act from the start, like walking a tightrope right between two perennially warring foes.
Edward Johnson
By

I am a three-time Army veteran of Afghanistan and a former law enforcement officer. I am also black. Every male in my biological family has been to jail or prison at least once. I’m the sole exception, unless you count the many times I’ve escorted others to jail.

On my mom’s side—the ones I grew up with—that’s all four of my uncles and my two younger brothers. On my dad’s side—the ones I met later in life—that’s my dad (jailed once as a teenager for taking wood pallets from dumpster areas behind commercial buildings and selling them), at least two older half-brothers, and the youngest, my step-brother. Every one of them has experienced some degree of overreach with law enforcement officers they’ve encountered, from unlawful entry of residence to unlawful search and seizure to false charges to physical brutality.

As a black police officer, I found myself stuck in a balancing act from the start, like walking a tightrope right between two perennially warring foes. I belonged to both sides, but being in the middle put me at odds with each.

We Feel Racism in Our Souls

One motivation for choosing to become a state law enforcement officer was the poignant memory of my younger brother being pistol-whipped in the head by local law enforcement and knocked unconscious after he refused an officer’s demands (in front of other officers) to engage him in a fist fight. As the oldest brother I was accustomed to being the responsible one and the one to call on when my brothers needed me. It was the first time I encountered a blatant wrong and injustice, and I felt utterly powerless to help remedy it. Who could I call—more police? I cannot articulate the depths at which that kind of wrong hurts a person. It is felt in the soul.

My initial response and warning to my younger brothers was the same I see from so many today: “If you don’t break the law, you won’t encounter the cops in the first place and none of that would happen to you.” I had little empathy. I didn’t fully buy into racism at the time because I had been largely insulated from it, thanks to well-integrated schools, so I believed instead that the odds were against me because I was Christian and God was watching. What racism I did witness seemed largely avoidable by doing the right thing and was mostly from people raised on the black side of town.

My response was practical, and it addressed the way things are. Yet it simultaneously dismissed and therefore permitted the wrong in the way things are. I lived my own life by that same code. Be at least twice as clean as the other person in order to get the same treatment as that person. Be so clean that your reputation for it precedes you. That was normal survival for me, and it was effective. But that doesn’t make it right.

For example, a few years ago, one of my uncles robbed a bank and got away. Later he decided to turn himself in, and sought me out to escort him to do so. He was prepared to be justly punished for his crime but he was also prepared to be unjustly punished, via an officer’s personal vengeance, without my presence. When you live in this world where this is your common experience with the ambassadors of the law, it affects your incentive to respect and obey the laws—the same ones that don’t protect or respect you.

A Vicious Cycle of Disrespect for Law

It is clear how this quickly devolves into a self-destructive cycle. Lost respect for the law increases the likelihood of breaking it and disrespecting its ambassadors (cops), which increases the likelihood they will act harshly and outside the scope of justice, which reaffirms and increases loss of respect for the law, and so downhill it goes. No members of my family expected justice, at least not at first contact with the law. Similarly, I knew I was more likely to be treated harshly during encounters with law enforcement if I was on “the black (or impoverished) side” of town. This is the crux of the problem, and it eludes many who have never witnessed this alternate but very real world, and therefore it is difficult for them to conceive.

In fact, I told none of my biological family when I applied for the law enforcement job, and told none when I joined the academy. I knew what their reactions would be. When I graduated (with top honors), I told my grandmother that I was a police officer. With no emotion on her face and in a tone of thinly veiled disappointment, almost under her breath she replied, “I don’t know why you wanna go do that for.”

My brothers showed little reaction but wanted to be happy for me. My mother was more ambivalent. I broke the news to my father by raiding his house one night with the blinding lights of my patrol car flashing out front as I banged on his door, demanding in my disguised voice that he come outside. I had intended to tackle him to the ground as soon as he opened the front door before he could realize it was me, but when I saw the defeated look in his eye and in my stepmother’s face as he opened the door I immediately lost heart and just hugged him instead.

My adoptive family, who is white, by contrast was ecstatic and celebratory, along with my friends who did not grow up on the “black” side of town. Friends bragged about my achievement to other friends, wanted to see my badge when we went out to eat, and paid for my meal. The party was on that side of my dual universe. I understood both reactions. In this side of the universe, uniformed officers are highly esteemed daily heroes out battling the dark forces on behalf of the greater good. That is the version of law enforcement they regularly encounter.

The prank night-raid I pulled on my biological dad would never begin to succeed with my adoptive dad and family. I knew that, otherwise I would have pranked them, too. If officers came beating on their door at night, my adoptive family would be concerned but eager to open the door and welcome the officers in to figure out what the mix-up was. They would rest fully confident that their innocence would quickly exonerate them before any harm came to them.

My biological dad, despite being equally aware he had done nothing wrong, informed me later that he fully expected to be tackled to the ground, roughed up, and hauled off to jail before his innocence would prevail and exonerate him. This difference, difficult to articulate across sides, is what people miss when they make comparisons on what they see, often heard in statements that sound like, “If they would just do what I do in that scenario, there would be no problem.” I know because I am guilty of it.

Walking Around in My Skin

It took me a long time to understand my biological family’s point of view. I have worked hard to overcome the circumstances of my life and to succeed, and therefore am unlikely to turn around and act like a victim or perceive slights when there are none. Not only did I think police overreach was a serious issue, I also did not really experience racism.

Unfortunately, my experiences in Army boot camp permanently removed my racism blinders forever. It was only the beginning of continual exposure to racism that slapped me in the face no matter how hard I or other people around me wanted to deny it. I might be writing for the better part of this summer if I attempted to summarize all the accounts of racism and perceived racism I encountered between graduating high school and becoming a law enforcement officer and since. It reared its ugly head even during the law enforcement academy. I wish I had the time and space to share, because it was all meaningful and illuminates the realities of the alternate world where racism thrives.

The wonderfully integrated world I lived in prior to that point in my life was sadly a dream not yet realized. Walking around in my skin denies me the luxury of living in that world anymore. While racism happens primarily as headlines to those raised in the world of my adoptive family, it happens to me as small, not uncommon, often subtle acts that directly affect the course of my daily life and life at large. It colors the lens through which I must view the world around me, for better or worse.

Edward Johnson is a student at Oral Roberts University and is completing Officer Candidate School in the Oklahoma National Guard, where he has served since December 2000. He has served in combat deployments to Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and as a state trooper on the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

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