Melissa Morgan, is section commander for the Community and Youth Outreach Division for the Newport News Police Department in Virginia. As a Black woman wearing a badge, she often finds herself forced to navigate dual identities.
This is her story, as told to Chandra Thomas Whitfield.
I’ll never forget this day; I’d just wrapped up a speaking engagement at a Boys & Girls Club in Newport News, Virginia. Afterward, a young African American girl approached me. She stood there sizing me up until, finally, she blurted out: “I didn’t know there were Black female police officers, like you.”
She said it real matter-of-factly and it was heartbreaking to learn that this Black girl had lived 12 years on this planet and had never seen anyone who looks like herself in law enforcement. She literally didn’t know someone like me exists. Moments like that inspire me daily and confirm for me that what I do for a living matters.
It’s a tough job. As a Black cop, especially a Black woman cop, you’re caught between two worlds that seem at odds, particularly lately as Black Lives Matter protests have erupted in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor cases. The first time I viewed the Floyd video, I burst into tears seeing that officer kneeling into his neck. It pierced my soul, as a mother, to hear a grown man scream out for his mama. Heartbreaking. That could have been my baby brother, my dad or, heck, me. The badge comes off. My Black skin, not so much. As a cop, it hurt to see that there was so much time for those officers to make a different decision. It’s shameful none of them did.
As for Taylor’s case, my sorrow was also met with confusion. I have served warrants, and there are very specific guidelines. I wondered how these officers got a supervisor to sign off. It seemed so reckless, and as a result a young woman lost her life. The fact that there’s no bodycam footage of the raid seems inexcusable. My department has been using bodycam for more than 10 years. Situations like this give cops a bad name and destroy the positive efforts and hard work legions of law enforcement officers put in every day.
Someone's Black daughter, sister, mom
My career with the Newport News Police Department has been challenging, exciting and rewarding. But some friends and family members have disowned me because they’re angry and frustrated with law enforcement. They can’t fathom why I’d want to do this. To that I say: Who I am is exactly why I need to do what I do for a living. It hurts because, as a woman and person of color, you often have to fight your battles within the force, too; you’re not always immediately accepted as “one of the guys.”
I’ve worked as a street cop, a detective, and in property crimes. I’ve also been a sergeant, leading others. Now, I’m a lieutenant overseeing community outreach. It’s a huge honor I’ve worked hard to earn. But, at the end of the day, I’m reminded that I’m someone’s Black daughter, someone’s sister, and I’m also mom to an 8-year-old little Black boy in America. Those distinctions help shape how I view the world and policing, and they are an asset on the job.
So, when some say “Black Lives Matter” and I hear, “well, blue lives matter, too,” my response is that, for people like me in law enforcement, it’s not necessarily that simple. I’ve been a police officer for 14 years, but I’ve been Black for 37. When I’m off duty and out and about, the world sees a Black woman. When you walk into my house, you can't tell what I do. When you pull me over, you can't tell what I do unless I'm in uniform. Unfortunately I understand, firsthand, why many Black people feel that Black lives don’t matter to cops, but that is not a belief held by everyone in the industry.
Having more diversity would help. Ensuring the nation’s police forces better reflect the makeup of the communities they serve should be a top priority. Having a diverse team, especially those in leadership, sitting together at the table having those “courageous conversations,” would be impactful and help bring about much-needed change.
To the Black community and others concerned about police brutality, I say press on, because that should never be tolerated. However, I also ask that you consider the tough job we face. On any given day, I can walk out of the office with my gun on my hip and be forced to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. I would hope that my 14 years of training and experience would kick in. But one thing rookies learn quickly in the 21-week training academy is that there are so many variables to account for in real-life situations.
I’m not saying cops should be absolved of consequences when we get it wrong. After all, we all take an oath to protect and to serve; that should be extended to all citizens. Hindsight is often 20/20. Still, I cringe when I hear people say things like, “Why didn’t they shoot him in the leg?” like Joe Biden suggested at ABC News Town Hall this month. My answer: It’s not a movie, and that’s not what we are trained to do.
Know what you expect from police
So, if better training is the issue, speak up and demand those changes be made in your community. Remember, we work for you; you are our bosses. Whether it be policy changes, relationships with different parts of the community, race relations, gender differences or how one community is policed versus another, raise your voice and be clear about what you expect. Focusing on anger and resentment and things beyond anyone’s control is not the answer.
To my brothers and sisters in law enforcement, it’s time to listen and seek more understanding about some of the very valid frustrations and concerns that many in the Black community have about how policing does – and has – disproportionately impacted communities of color and those living in poverty. That will help build trust, so that we may move forward together.
Also, instead of a knee-jerk reaction, consider that the so-called defund the police movement is not necessarily a negative thing. It’s a titillating term that, unfortunately, has not been thoroughly explained. For many, “reallocation of funds,” is a more accurate term. It’s about communities redistributing resources to social service agencies that already handle mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and assisting people with autism and other challenges. You know, the stuff we first responders are left to manage, often times without proper training, I should add, when those calls come after 5 p.m. when many support agencies are closed.
Imagine if those calls were handed off to trained professionals, so we police officers could focus on our primary function; handling criminal matters. For example when a call comes in to dispatch regarding a noncombative person experiencing, say, a mental health episode, a mental health provider would be dispatched and police officers would serve as second responders, hanging back on the scene just in case the situation turns dangerous. The Seattle Police Department is currently considering a “community-led” force and a similar model has been in place for 31 years in Eugene, Oregon. We should study it and learn more.
The good news is that change is happening and in the Newport News Police Department it’s thanks to a very progressive-minded leader. Chief Steve Drew has implemented several major mandates, including requiring that all officers make a point to have at least one positive interaction with a member of the public, especially youth, during every shift. He also recently added two more weeks of de-escalation training to our police academy, including training on how to better interact with people on the autism spectrum and with related challenges.
Additionally, before the Floyd case our officers had a “duty to report” misconduct in the field – and I watched our chief literally sit in a corner and type this up after the Floyd case – now our officers also have a “duty to intervene.” I am also assisting our public information officer with a campaign to recruit more women and minorities to our department.
Maybe it’s because of my current role, but I have hope – I have to – that we can work this out. It’ll require more listening, an open mind and making a sincere commitment to positive change, but I believe it can be done. When we take the time to embrace the value of all life – Black, brown, white, blue, and that of woman, men, LGBTQ, straight, and everything in between – society is better for it and policing is too.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is a 2019-20 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow and host and producer of the podcast In The Gap.