We’ve been hearing lots about policing in relation to the African-American community. We’ve seen graphic evidence of police overreacting to small or even non-existant provocations, ending in the death of black citizens; we’ve also seen, in Dallas and here in Missouri, in the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin, retaliatory violence visited on innocent police officers who were doing their jobs in an unexceptionable and even, as in Dallas, superlative fashion.
In spite of efforts to look at and address the causes of these events in a dispassionate and fair way, lots of folks insist on using them to choose sides: it’s the black or the blue, they seem to say, you can’t be both. The situation becomes even more fraught when you realize that blue is often standing in for white, as in old, white geezers who are scared s***less by black.
But police departments are themselves black and white as well as blue. How they deal with their internal integration issues so that blue trumps both black and white can tell us a lot about the credibility, or lack thereof, of our police when it comes to questions of policing and race.
And the message we’re getting isn’t really that good. In lots of police departments neither the white nor the black police officers trust each other enough to use the same organizations to voice their concerns. That’s certainly the case with the St. Louis Police Department, the dominant PD in my region, where white officers’ views are voiced by the St. Louis Police Officers Association, and black officers are represented by the St. Louis Ethical Society of Police.
In St. Louis, the concerns voiced by the black officers’ Ethical Society reinforce the perception of a department where problems of racial bias persist. The group recently issued a report, the Comprehensive Evaluation of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD), which documented claims that the STL police force is rife “with unwritten, written, and subjective practices that have hindered their [i.e. African-American officers] professional growth.” According to the Ethical Society report, the same biases also result in less effective policing in communities of color – a problem that could be partially addressed by a police force more comfortable with diversity within its own ranks.
If you question the claims of blue-on-blue bias in St. Louis, you have only to consider the behavior of the president of the white officers organization, Jeff Roorda, whose latest breach of good taste was a twitter post blaming Barack Obama for the shootings in Dallas. Roorda has a history of borderline and sometimes overtly racist statements, pitting police against people of color. His leadership role in the STL Pollice Officers Association makes it clear why black officers do not feel that that organization can speak for them or for their community.
I suspect that similar situations may prevail, even if more subtly, in other cities where black police officers feel the need to choose separate representation. And until we have police departments that can effectively deal with the diversity within their own ranks, all officers, black and white, speaking and acting in an ultimately unified fashion, we will not be able to, prima facie, trust white officers who are charged with policing black communities, no matter how diligent and well-meaning any individual officer may be.