On Being African-American in Law Enforcement

The color of my skin has a significant impact on how I am perceived on the job, & sometimes presents an opportunity

By Stephen Harper  |   Nov 29, 2016
A lot is projected onto a black cop, and therein lies an opportunity.

From a historical standpoint, the law enforcement profession has primarily been composed of non-blacks. Traditionally, enforcing the law of the land meant policing by those in dominion. To those who were oppressed, the law lacked legitimacy. Sometimes the laws, and some enforcing them, were downright wrong and immoral.

In some African-American communities this view has persisted and become pervasive despite the best efforts of many in police and government over the years to break down barriers and build trust. And that perception has consequences: the members of varying communities who are, or deem themselves to be, oppressed shun the organizations they believe to be oppressive. Rightly or wrongly, many blacks don’t trust the police.    

But of course speaking in abstract generalities ignores reality. There are many African-Americans who respect the police greatly. And they view me, a black police officer, with pride and gratitude. Unfortunately, we don’t hear that side of the story often in today’s discourse.

Many Communities

Being an African-American in the law enforcement profession is a position difficult to describe. In essence, it’s about balancing the differences between groups—projections and perceptions. Being accepted by those various groups is a relentless challenge.

I’ve worked in corrections and on patrol. Working with the African-American community in this role, I can honestly say, there are no constants. My experiences fluctuate; opinions are always changing. A significant percentage of the people I encounter are unsure as to whether to accept an African-American figure upholding the law. Some impugn me and my position. Others will venerate me. Either way, it’s an awakening. Each day, I learn more about myself, as much as I learn about others.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been viewed as a traitor in the public eye. I’ve been made to feel as if the profession I have chosen is a sign of betrayal to the African-American community.

From an investigatory viewpoint, gleaning information has too often been less than pleasant. Some will not cooperate simply because they view my position as a law enforcement figure as a “sell-out” to the community. Consequently, this segment of the population refuses all the police have to offer—including my (and our) much needed help.

Conversely there have been many times when people wanted to tell me everything they knew and more. The information gained was pure and precise, without dilution. In such an instance, I found that what some regarded as betrayal or improper association was viewed by others as a source of pride and devotion. They felt comfortable that “one of their own” was in a position of law enforcement. They were proud of me and wanted to see my success.

Obviously, when you as an officer are held in esteem the job is that much easier. It creates a union for the fight against wrongdoing and injustice. Because this I know: Every victim of crime and corruption wants the same thing—justice and peace in their communities.

When welcomed by such a cooperative group, being an African-American officer makes me more efficient at information gathering and conflict resolution. Many in the community will seek out the help of the African-American officer as a source of understanding and commonality. They seem to think that I will give them a fairer deal than my colleagues of other backgrounds.

In this profession, we wear many hats. I have responded to a significant number of calls where I was expected to be a temporary parent for obstreperous children. In such instances, I’ve found that because of my race, and where I work, the character fit the role. When dad was missing, I stood in. Although the results are temporary, in that moment my presence had a substantial and positive impact on the household. I could lend guidance to those kids and hope that something of it will last.   

Moreover, when it comes to dealing with matters of race, I have learned that members of the African-American community are put more at ease with a familiar face. Rapport comes easier. For some, I am a reliable source of protection. For others I’m a fascinating glimpse into the world of criminal justice; how we police officers think, feel, and act.

I strongly believe that with this career, the African American officer has a great opportunity to improve lives in the communities we serve. Whether through changing other’s paradigms, building relationships and trust or effectuating an arrest, African-American officers can make a huge difference. In today’s law enforcement climate, black officers are not only held to a higher standard than ever before, but we are expected to exude more compassion and patience on a whole. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility.

Conclusion

It’s quite the experience to be in such a position, being held in derision or pride, depending on the character and mood of the encounter. But I serve with dignity and pride always. To me each contact established is one more positive step in forming a unifying bond between people—law enforcement and the African-American community.   

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Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper began work in detention in 2003. In 2011 he started on patrol in a busy urban area. He has been awarded deputy of the month, as well as a life-saving commendation, in addition to other awards. Harper has a bachelor's degree from Lynn University in psychology and has nearly completed a master's degree in criminal justice. He lives in Palm Beach, Fla., with his wife and children.
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