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For black officers, police controversies hit close to home

Black police officers know the challenges of being a cop but also say they aren't immune to the type of incidents that have made headlines in recent months.

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    Protesters confront Chicago police during a Nov. 25 demonstration in response to the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald.
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Vanessa Westley is a 25-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. She is also a single, black mother with an 18-year-old son. And with the recent police shootings of young, black men like Laquan McDonald in Chicago and elsewhere, she worries about her son’s day-to-day activities.

“Do I have to walk the same course as any other mother who has a black son? Yes, I do,” Ms. Westley says. “And it’s a little harder for me because I go to work in the same system that we’re concerned about.”

African-Americans make up about a quarter of the police force in Chicago. But many officers, like Westley, say that the badge does not make them immune to the type of incidents that have made headlines in recent months, most notably the fatal shooting of Laquan. They recall being pulled over without reason by white cops when they’re off-duty and talk about walking the “different lanes” of black and blue.

They have not yet lost faith in either their fellow officers or the ability for cops and the black community to cooperate. But they say there must be a more honest and robust attempt to hire black officers and to reach out to black residents.

“The reality is that race is an issue, not just in Chicago’s police department but in all law enforcement,” Westley says. “I think with all of this chaos, there’s an opportunity to right some of those wrongs, but the roots are still deep.”

Richard Wooten served on the force for 23 years before retiring this past August. He now leads a group of retired African-American police officers that has been calling for reforms in the Chicago Police Department in recent months. He says that while the CPD has some great officers, the policies that govern the department are not up to date.

“You have an African-American sergeant who slaps a kid that’s handcuffed for spitting in his face and he immediately got stripped of his powers and he got charged, convicted, and terminated all within a year’s time,” Mr. Wooten says, referring to the 2012 case of Edward Howard Jr. In contrast, Wooten points to the case of Jason Van Dyke, the white officer accused of killing 17-year-old Laquan in 2014.

“You have a guy who shoots a kid 16 times, and nowhere in our police department training module are we trained to shoot 16 times when the subject is already down. But this person gets removed off the street, put on desk duty, and still draws an income of the taxpayer’s money for a whole year and the case itself almost gets swept under the rug. So when you look at scenarios like that, you say there’s a great deal of unbalance and we need to stop the madness.”

History of black officers

African-American officers have been dealing with racism on the job for decades, says Kenneth Bolton, a professor of criminal justice at Southeastern Louisiana University. Professor Bolton researched the experiences of black police officers while writing his book, “Black in Blue: African-American Police Officers and Racism,” and he says that every black officer he interviewed “experienced multiple instances of racism.” These instances varied from graffiti on lockers to alienating comments made by coworkers about the black officers’ hair or taste in music.

While Bolton says he “found racism to be throughout the institution,” he says that discrimination in the police department and by police officers does not exist in a vacuum. African-American officers face some of the same challenges of racial inequity while wearing a uniform as they do off-duty.

In Chicago, that includes being five times more likely to be pulled over and searched if you’re a black driver than a white driver, according to a New York Times analysis last year.

Officer Westley recalls an incident about five years into her career in the police department when she and another off-duty officer went for a late-night drive in his Corvette.

“We were going to get some ice cream at about 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night and we were pulled over on the West Side,” she said. “My friend said, ‘Why are you pulling me over, officer?’ And he couldn’t answer. It was because he was a black man driving a 'Vette.”

Westley says that the officer let them go when he realized that they were all police officers, but the experience of being on the other side of the badge stuck with her.

“The voice of the black police officer has not been heard – not to the extent that I think it should,” she says.

Bridging the Divide

One way to address the tensions around race and policing, says Westley, is to create more opportunities for conversations between officers and African-Americans, especially young people. She is coordinator for Bridging the Divide, part of the police department’s Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program. In that role, Westley has helped create space for conversations through peace circles and friendly competitions like culinary and photography contests.

An increase in the number of African-American officers could also go a long way to dealing with the challenges of race in the police department, says retired officer Wooten.

“You can complain about not having representation and you can complain about not having black officers, but the fact of the matter is that if you’re not going to take the police test and get involved, we’re always going to be in that situation,” says Wooten, who now runs the Gathering Point Community Council on Chicago's South Side. “We have to start taking ownership, but at the same time the city has a responsibility to provide the necessary tools that is needed to get people engaged.”

Wooten and his group of retired African-American police officers have been calling for an overhaul of the Chicago Police Department’s process of recruiting and hiring officers.

“The recruitment process has always been a way to keep the African-American communities from participating equally and fairly in this process of sitting for the exam,” Wooten says. He says that changes in applicant requirements during the past decade and the introduction of a polygraph test have resulted in fewer African-Americans being qualified to move forward in the hiring process.

Former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a police recruitment drive last November with the aim of increasing diversity in the police force. At the launch event, Superintendent McCarthy admitted that the department had problems recruiting black officers the last time it held a police exam in 2013.

“At the end of the day we didn’t get the numbers we wanted as far as minorities are concerned, and it’s been a dynamic in this department that we’ve struggled with for a long time,” McCarthy said.

In an effort to boost minority recruitment, the mayor said that graduates of Chicago public schools will be given priority in this round of applications, which closes on Jan. 31.

“We want all parts of the city represented in the police department,” the mayor said.

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