In the past seven months, more than 7,000 people in the Washington region have died of the coronavirus. We'll hear from the friends and families of those lost about how they've coped in a time when the most basic grieving rituals are disrupted.
If you’re black and wear the badge, two parts of your identity are facing off on streets across the nation.
With black Americans at the forefront, hundreds of thousands of protesters are demanding the reform, defunding and even the dismantling of police departments.
But while black officers have themselves suffered from racism on and off the force, they also believe in their profession and take pride in their work.
The past few weeks have made this difficult duality even more difficult for black officers, who are often told by black protesters that they are on the wrong side of the demonstrations.
We examine the challenges facing black police officers, how they perceive this moment in American history and what the future holds for black people in the profession.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In recent weeks, the challenge of being black and blue has been thrown into stark relief. Black police officers watch the video of a white officer killing George Floyd, and wondered with the rest of black America what it will take to stop police violence against African-Americans.
KOJO NNAMDIBut then, as legions of people took to the streets to protest this violence, black officers were duty-bound to take their places alongside white colleagues. They've been tasked with confronting crowds that include people who accuse them of standing on the wrong side of history. Some have even been called traders to their race. Joining me to discuss the struggles of black officers and their hopes for changing law enforcement in the future is Rashawn Ray. He's a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Rashawn Ray, welcome back. Thank you for joining us.
RASHAWN RAYThank you for having me, Kojo. It's always a pleasure to speak with you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Sonia Pruitt, the captain in the Montgomery County Police Department and chairperson of the National Black Police Association. Sonia Pruitt, thank you for joining us.
SONIA PRUITTThanks for having me.
NNAMDICaptain Pruitt, before we begin talking about current events, tell us about the National Black Police Association. Why was it founded? What does it do?
PRUITTWell, that's a great question. I'm glad you asked. (laugh) We were founded in 1972 by a group of 13 black police officers from around the country who saw a need to come together in order, at that time, to fight for their own particular rights inside their respective police departments, such as for promotion, for good assignments in specialized units. And so they were very, very successful.
PRUITTFrom those 13 officers came chapters all over the United States, in the UK and Canada, where we still have sister organizations. And so now we have extended our mission to include being the vanguard for the black community -- all communities, but the black community in particular, because it is the most underserved and the one whereby interaction with police causes the most strife and has, in all honesty, the most tragic consequences.
NNAMDICan you describe the challenges black officers have reconciling their race with their jobs? How difficult has that been for you, personally?
PRUITTFor me, personally, not very difficult. It has been fraught with a lot of obstacles and challenges, but I was clear very early on what my responsibilities and my purpose were. And so I took the challenges on knowingly, and it has been very difficult. I am about to retire in about three weeks. And I hope to continue this work, where I can educate the community about what it is like to be a black police officer. And although we are not a monolith, all of us don't feel the same way, we don't think the same way. Some black officers are more invested in the police culture than some of the rest of us.
PRUITTI am going to be black forever, and it was a career choice to become a police officer. And it is a noble undertaking, but at the end of the day, I would take off my uniform, and I would still be seen as a black woman. And that is how I view myself.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean when you say some black officers get caught up in the police culture?
PRUITTYou know, I was just having a conversation on Facebook today with an officer. I don't know him. He's a black officer in another state. And he, you know, for instance, indicated that he didn't see anything wrong with what happened in Buffalo, or he didn't see anything wrong with what happened in Atlanta with the officers who pulled the kids out of their car. And, you know, I could not -- you know, I'm like, how do you see that and not see the abuse there?
PRUITTSo, there are some people who, you know, for whatever their reasons are, just cannot or will not understand that the black community is taking a lot of abuse, there's a lot of trauma, and that we are in a position to address those issues from the inside out.
NNAMDIYou have sons and I assume you gave them the talk about being black and dealing with police. But, as an officer yourself, did your talk differ in any way from what other black parents typically tell our kids about police encounters?
PRUITTYes. So, because I'm a police captain, I have told my sons, you know, one of the first things I need you to do is to let the officers know that your mother is law enforcement. Just put it out there in the space. If they tell you to be quiet after that, that's fine, but at least you put it out there. So, maybe they know that there will be someone who knows how this interaction is supposed to go. So, I have that extra benefit. You know, and let's be honest, I'm not sure how useful it would ever actually be, because my sons have never been stopped by the police, but they have a lifetime in front of them. (laugh) And so I guess that remains to be seen, whether it's useful or not.
PRUITTBut someone asked the other day, do we give a training, the National Black Police Association, on the talk. And it's something that we have as part of our conversation on what to do when stopped by the police. So, yes, we do talk about it, but it bears having a review to make sure that we're covering all the bases, so that we're giving the contemporary talk, if you will.
NNAMDIRashawn Ray, you have surveyed hundreds of black police officers nationally. What is some general trend that you've documented about how they're treated on the job?
RAYMm-hmm. Well, first, I just want to congratulate the captain on her upcoming retirement. I have several police officers in my family. My great uncle was the first black chief of police of my hometown. And my family would, too, tell me when I was stopped by the police to make sure that I say that I had relatives who were in law enforcement. The research that I've done really highlights the saliency of identities for black officers. On one hand, being a police officer, and then on the other hand, being black in America.
RAYAnd it really highlights W.E.B. Du Bois' double consciousness, the sense of always seeing yourself through the eyes of others. And I've spoken to several police officers, even just over the past few weeks, who at protests have been called everything from a sellout to an Uncle Tom, to, on the inside of police departments, have been said that they're too black, that when they comment or speak out internally or externally that they are choosing black over blue.
RAYAnd then, of course, officers who, when their uniform is not on, also have experiences that are very similar to other black Americans. So, part of this is the fact that both of their identities are salient. And I think the work of W.E.B. Du Bois just continues to ring true about the ways that double consciousness manifests in society.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned your great uncle, who was the first black police chief in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which is where you're from. Yet you notice that despite your family's history in law enforcement and the fact that you have a PhD, that when you turned 40, you have been stopped by police as many or more times than your age. Would you encourage your own children to become police officers?
RAYYeah, sure, I still would. I mean, because of my family's history, I actually still have very favorable views of the police. And to specify this, I have high expectations of law enforcement. Law enforcement, they're like pilots. They have to be above reproach. So, what's happening now -- and, of course, I highlighted this in this article you're noting at Brookings, that bad apples come from rotten trees in policing. This narrative about bad apples, that cannot exist in law enforcement.
RAYThat's like saying someone getting in a plane and saying, oh well, every one out of 1,000 times, you know, we're going to have a bad apple pilot. They're just going to crash the plane. You're going to die. No, it can't necessarily happen that way. So, yes, I would encourage my sons to do whatever they would like to do. I have two little, very smart black boys. And part of, of course, them going into law enforcement, if they choose that route, is to help make law enforcement better. Is to be the people who can get in, help serve their communities, and ensure that police officers are treating everyone the same.
NNAMDIHere is Tory, in Washington, D.C. Tory, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TORYJust want to say that the cop that she was speaking with on Facebook that didn't understand what was so wrong with what was going on in the videos that she mentioned, well, those are the kind of officers that need to go, and they need to go now. The second thing is, I'd like to know how much the NRA and police officers, how intertwined are those two organizations. The third thing that I wanted to mention -- well, I do want to mention that I've had trouble with the police in northwest D.C. myself by telling one to slow down that didn't like being told anything by me, even though he didn't have his lights on and he was speeding down a road.
TORYThe other thing I want to say is the video that's going around of the black police officer with the dog. He has a kid on the ground, and the dog is just literally eating this kid's arm. That's unacceptable. That makes me so angry. And I don't think...
NNAMDIOkay. That's about enough. That's about enough. We have more than enough issues to be addressed. Captain Pruitt, do you want to respond to any of those?
PRUITT(laugh) I'm not quite sure where I should start, but... (laugh)
NNAMDIWhere to start. Well, one of the questions that the caller indicated she had, which she did not raise, but which our call screener indicated, is that police unions, she said that police unions should help to remove some of these officers. And police unions are coming in for a lot of criticism for their protection of officers. First, you Captain Pruitt, how do you feel about police unions?
PRUITTI think that police unions serve a necessary function. Without them, I wouldn't have these wonderful benefits that I have as a retiree, or this great pension. However, I think that they have overextended their reach, and they are firmly entrenched in the systemic issues and problems that policing has. They are very powerful for the psyche of especially a young police officer who -- you know, they offer up this family. You know, you are a part of the blue family. You're part of what I call a gang, really.
PRUITTAnd some of their efforts are -- many of their efforts are against what we, as our black police association would say, are in the best interests of the community and in the best interest of police officers, period. As you can see, there's been a lot of pushback from unions since Mr. Floyd's death. There's been a lot of, it's about us, and nobody appreciates us and we won't stand for this.
PRUITTOkay. Are you really paying attention to what's going on out here in the country? Are you really going to stand behind that, Mr. Union, Mr. FOP? Because, if you do, then you're going -- this is not going away. We're not back-stepping. We're not moonwalking. This is serious, and this is real. But again, there's a power dynamic there that is really, really hard to move, but, you know, we're here for the fight.
NNAMDIRashawn Ray, how big a problem are police unions, she said FOPs, Fraternal Orders of Police, in preventing the change that the public is demanding now?
RAYSo, research documents that the Fraternal Order of Police does put up barriers when it comes to dealing with equity, particularly as it relates to qualified immunity. I think particularly as it relates to the protocols put in place immediately after there's been an incident of police brutality or an officer-involved killing, that the Fraternal Order of Police actually has a protocol that allows officers to essentially get their effects in order, and oftentimes, implement something that I've seen nationwide from my research, which is to tell officers to resign, or to stay and fight and then be able to sue the city or the municipality later. You know, I think that, obviously, if the Fraternal Order of Police didn't have these issues, we wouldn't need organizations like NBPA, NOBLE, the Ethical Society in St. Louis. These organizations exist similar to the way that black Greek reorganizations exist on college campuses.
RAYUnfortunately, segregation and racism are still alive and well. The research I've done shows that, internally, black police officers face more sanctions, they're less likely to be promoted, they're more likely to be given grunge work. And then when, they speak out, they further face issues. And oftentimes, the FOP doesn't come to their defense in the same way they come to the defense of other officers. And I have a lot of research documenting that.
NNAMDIYour research also shows systemic racism against black officers across the country, but I wanted to ask you about one local example. It involved a black officer who went to internal affairs to try to resolve a problem within his department a few years ago. What happened, and what does it say about the systemic issues within departments?
RAYYes. I mean, I've had officers tell us a lot of stories. And there are a few in particular, but one that really stands out was an officer who kept trying to report information about another officer who was one of these what he perceived to be bad apples. And after it kept stalling, kept stalling he kept pushing for it. One day he comes into his office and there was, literally, pee on his desk. And even though people tried to say they didn't know who did it, they didn't know where it came from, he felt like he had a really good idea of where it came from. Those sort of things send a very clear message.
RAYThere are other officers like Christopher Williams in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where I'm from, where he spoke up after some kids, elementary school kids were arrested for not breaking up a fight after school. I mean, I just couldn't even imagine this as a parent, or when I was a child going through this. And he was internally sanctioned for that. And part of the sanctions are oftentimes more subtle, like being sent to the farthest district from your house, being put on nights even though they know that people have kids, being put back out onto the streets.
RAYSo, these are the ways that these processes operate. And these organizations, oftentimes these black police unions, are put in place, these organizations are put in place to help officers be able to get promoted, to get on specialty units, because this is where we really see the disparities within law enforcement.
NNAMDISonia Pruitt, in the story that Rashawn Ray just told, he also talked about the fact that there were other officers in the room the whole time while the black officer was away. And when he asked them, all of them said they had seen no one urinating on his desk. Does that story surprise you?
PRUITTNo, it doesn't surprise me at all. And I'm going to speak from personal experience, without going into detail. But what I will say is that people will observe your angst, your challenge, your incident, your issue, and you will find yourself on an island. And, you know, you've got to make a choice. You've got to make a choice whether you're going to continue to take the stand that you're taking. Are you going to seek legal action? Who can help you?
PRUITTAnd I love Dr. Ray for saying, you know, we create these organizations because we need the support. We don't have the support on the inside. And then to make matters worse, and is even more insulting, is when you have leadership that has a black male or a black woman, and they too are like, well, you know, you're just going to have to whatever comes after that, instead of saying, hey, I'm going to stand for you. It is very lonely. It's very stressful. It's very traumatic, and it's very real.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to James in Silver Spring, Maryland. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESYes, thank you. Longtime listener, first time caller. I would just ask for all the callers and panelists to be an informed citizenry. Congressman Bobby Scott, Third District of Virginia, a Democrat, introduced legislation of passing a public law that would bring some context, it was called the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which requires states to report any deaths during arrest or in custody to the attorney general. And I'm reading directly from the congressman's website, June 1st, 2020, the...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Was that piece of legislation passed?
JAMESYes. It was passed as a bill in September of 2014. It's public law. And he's, as I said, a member of...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Okay. Yeah, we're familiar with Bobby Scott. He's a longtime member of Congress and the Congressional Black Caucus.
JAMESMy other thought, Kojo, is that I know there's a big call for new laws to be put into place. Part of being an informed citizen and in an active democracy is that a certain law has already been passed in consideration by this congressman or any other member of Congress. Let's pass the laws -- let's implement the laws that are already in existence. And if the law needs to be reformed, than amend it. But an informed citizen in democracy helps us to address some of these issues. And I would encourage any of your listeners...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, wait, I've got to go, because we're running out of time. But Rashawn Ray, since our earlier guest Senator Will Smith invoked your name, I'm now going to invoke his because he has that kind of legislation right now going into the Senate in the Maryland General Assembly. Correct?
RAYYes, he does. I mean, Senator Smith and others have really been pushing for equitable police reform. As Senator Smith mentioned, there's a subcommittee in the state of Maryland. I've met with them. They are really pushing to ensure equity. And I think one big thing, in addition to having departments do our virtual reality decision-making training that we have at University of Maryland, I think it is also ensuring that we restructure civilian payouts for police misconduct.
RAYPart of what happens now is that officers are essentially ameliorated from any sort of culpability on the civil side. And if we make a shift to police department insurances, this will, all of a sudden, allow police chiefs and leaders like the captain to be able to have a record, to be able to evaluate officers who are these bad apples and get them out. Because the blue wall of silence extends from police departments to prosecutors' offices to courtrooms. And everyone knows who the bad apples are. It's just difficult to do anything about them. And we need legislation to help law enforcement make changes that they also want to see.
NNAMDICaptain Pruitt, you heard Rashawn Ray mention earlier that whatever career his children chose, he would support them, even if they chose to become police officers. Last year, you became the first black female captain in the Montgomery County Police Department. Tell us why you became an officer. Why you joined the force 28 years ago, and what, if anything, has changed for black police officers since then?
PRUITTSo, I became a police officer, not to save the world or anything. I just wanted to get outside and be around people. (laugh) My father was a police officer, actually, and so as I began to navigate the police department, I realized that, you know, this is something that I'm really committed to. And there are reasons why I should be here and why folks like me should -- you know, should see a black female's face, and why we should be representing the communities that we serve. It's really, really important.
PRUITTWhich, you know, I'm glad that you mentioned I was the first African-American female captain in the Montgomery County Police Department. But that have never been celebrated, which is part of the problem. And it took me forever, despite all of my experience and my background and the training and all of that, my education. That meant nothing in the face of the fact that I was a black female. And so we need to really be honest about these things, because this is what will help move the reform along. You know, again, another very, very real thing for black police officers in America.
NNAMDIHere now is Ruth in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Ruth, your turn.
RUTHHi, Kojo. I have two comments. I am personally starting to believe that every police force should be demilitarized. There is no need to have tanks and military-grade weapons to go against ordinary U.S. citizens. Second comment is, I think the police force should be downsized, and those savings should be channeled into programs and education that will help young people better themselves. You don't see educated people holding up at gunpoint and breaking into homes. I think that would save a lot of problems.
NNAMDIWell, Rashawn Ray, on the question of demilitarization, the D.C. Council yesterday ran into a snag when it was argued that police officers need to be ready to render assistance in the event, say, of terrorist attacks. And so they were not able to include that in the legislation that they proposed. But then the caller, Ruth, also raised the issue of the education level of police officers. Rashawn Ray?
RAYSo, we find that education does matter, that officers' demographics matter. Oftentimes, the experience comes along with education obviously. But, starting out, it really is something that the more educated officers are, it helps them with their communication. On the demilitarization front, I think there is a lot of evidence suggesting that that becomes important. And what people have to realize about this history is that when President Lyndon Johnson enacted the part of the Civil Rights Act that put in place fair housing after MLK was assassinated, what people also don't realize is that he also put in place protocols and legislation that allow for the further militarization of the police.
RAYAnd while, in a place like D.C., they might have different sort of stipulations that they need to be guarded by in other places, what we really have to look at is whether or not that's necessary within the police department. Across the world people are dealing with terroristic acts and we do not see police officers killing people at this level. We do not see this level of violence, and we do not see them having to carry around this type of weaponry.
RAYAnd so, part of it, we have to look at the fact that the United States is an outlier here. And we need to get onboard with what the rest of the world is doing, particularly as it relates to lowering the likelihood of officer-involved killings.
NNAMDISonia Pruitt, we only have about 30 seconds left. You're set to retire next month. What is your retirement going to look like?
PRUITT(laugh) I'm going to be getting in contact with Mr. Ray, here. (laugh) We're going to be doing some work together. Listen, in all seriousness, I believe in criminal justice reform. I believe in social justice, and so that's where I think that my energy will be directed.
NNAMDISonia Pruitt is a captain in the Montgomery County Police Department and chairperson of the National Black Police Association. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRashawn Ray is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the fellow in governance studies at the Bookings Institution. Thank you for joining us.
RAYThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis segment about African-American police officers was produced by Lauren Markoe. Our conversation about police reform was produced by Cydney Grannan. I'd like to take a moment to wish a very happy birthday to Kojo Show producer Richard Cunningham. Richard is great at his job, and he's easygoing, but he turns cartwheels for this show. And I mean that literally. This is a grown man who can still do a graceful cartwheel. Happy birthday, Richard.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, in 2017, 2nd Lieutenant Richard Collins III, a young black man on a visit to the University of Maryland, was killed by a white man while waiting at a bus stop. We'll sit down with the lieutenant's parents to talk about their son's legacy. Plus, antiracist literature is high in demand at local book stores and libraries. We'll discuss reading as a form of activism. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Maryland lawmakers are beginning to draft and debate police reform legislation. Are these changes what activists and protesters were looking for?
We talk with local skateboarders about how race and gender affect D.C.'s skateboarding scene.
Mario jumps. Pokemon goes. The candy explodes. But how?