Baton Rouge tragedy puts focus on challenges faced by black officers

Some African-American police veterans see an opportunity for black cops to play a special role in reducing police-community tensions. But ambush killings show the risks that officers of all races face.

Jeffrey Dubinsky/Reuters
Police officers attend a vigil after a fatal shooting of Baton Rouge policemen, at Saint John the Baptist Church in Zachary, La., on July 17.

In the midst of his community’s turmoil, physically and emotionally drained, Baton Rouge Police Officer Montrell Jackson logged onto social media and, like millions of others within the electronic cacophony of American democracy, typed a quick update for family and friends.

“In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat,” the 10-year police veteran wrote in a July 8 Facebook post, reflecting on what has become an issue of sudden urgency nationwide – the sense that police officers face an era of rising risk as they walk their beats.

A black man in blue, a husband and father to a newborn son, and a human being reeling after an unprecedented conflation of violence set off by America’s deep-seated conflicts over race and policing, Officer Jackson wondered whether Baton Rouge, the city he loved, actually loved him back.

“I’ve experienced so much in my short life and these last 3 days have tested me to the core,” he wrote the morning after a sniper in Dallas gunned down five fellow officers in Dallas, and just days after police shot and killed Alton Sterling in his city, resulting in protests where Jackson worked to keep the peace. "These are trying times.”

Nine days later, however, Jackson and two other Baton Rouge officers became the latest victims in this spiral of violence – felled by a man who authorities say was specifically targeting police.

With a second major ambush in the course of just over a week, added atop a mostly peaceful protest movement regarding police use of force, the nation’s officers in blue are feeling besieged, many say.

For black officers like Jackson, in particular, it's not just their personal safety that's at stake, but also their sense of mission at a time when relations between police and black communities are under scrutiny amid a wave of publicized incidents in which African-American men have been killed by officers. Even though most Americans are inclined to rally around those who serve in uniform, it’s a time of heightened stress for officers nationwide.

“It’s difficult for a police officer to do their job if they believe they’re going to be ambushed on calls for service,” says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer.

Yet even so, Mr. Burke continues, “Sometimes tragedy draws people together,” and he sees that happening now because “the very, very vast majority of the community is outraged by these police shootings and realize this is not the way to go about police reform.”

Gunmen in Dallas, Baton Rouge

In two incidents in just over a week, two lone black gunmen, both with skills honed in the US military, ambushed and killed police officers in ways not experienced by law enforcement officials since the 1970s.

Police say the gunman in Baton Rouge was Gavin Long, a former Marine sergeant and decorated veteran from the war in Iraq. Under the name Cosmos Setepenra, a name he took on legally, he was an active online presence affiliated with fringe groups, enamored of numerology, and exhorting others to violent revolution.

In one video, Mr. Long says no words or protests can bring about change. “For the serious ones, the real ones, the alpha ones – we know what it’s going to take. It’s only fighting back or money.” In another he says success can only come “through fighting back, through bloodshed. Zero have been successful just over simply protesting. It has never worked, and it never will.”

For the activists who have been leading the protests against the killings of black men over the past few years, the actions of former Marine Long in Baton Rouge and Micah Johnson, the Army veteran who killed five police officers in Dallas, do not in any way represent the movement.

United against violence

“I think one life lost is too many, and clearly as a minister of the gospel, whenever I hear about someone being murdered, quite frankly I get emotional,” says the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, a Baltimore activist and head of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “We pray for the victims of violence of any kind throughout our country, which is why I think the Black Lives Matter movement is so critical, because I think it lifts up the point that life and humanity itself matters.”

Even so, Reverend Witherspoon continues, “If anything is responsible for those shootings, it’s the lack of indictments and convictions and firings of police officers around this country for violating the public trust, because African-Americans do not feel that the criminal justice system in this country represents us the way it represents the rest of America.”

The eight officers killed in these racially charged ambushes come during a deepening sense of crisis among many police officers. The 31 officers shot and killed so far this year actually isn’t a jump from what’s been seen on average over the past decade, but it is up sharply from the 16 deaths seen by this time in 2015, according to the online Officer Down Memorial Page.

And of these shooting fatalities, 14 this year have come during ambushes – six more than all of 2015.

"As a police officer, you feel the loss of another officer or officers very viscerally," says Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who served as an officer in the Tallahassee, Fla., Police Department for five years. "So even though I can tell you that statistically we are fairly close to average, even now … that certainly isn’t making officers feel any better, and they’re afraid about what happens next."

'No way I can stop being black'

The shooting of Jackson on Sunday, along with fellow police officer Matthew Gerald and East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Deputy Brad Garafola, has deeply impacted a number of other black men who wear blue with pride and distinction, officers say.

Charles Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, says “cops are already talking about how they believe they’re being targeted. They’re already talking about how they feel that their service is being ignored, so of course they’re going to be more nervous."

Mr. Wilson, who served as a cop in Rhode Island and Ohio, says police forces across the nation need to push forward with efforts to improve their ties with the communities they serve. And he sees African-American officers playing a special role.

“Black officers have to be more vocal about these issues, we have to take a stronger stand both with and for the community," he says. “​We know from both anecdotal and empirical research that the presence of black officers in the community makes a difference. We know this. So it’s about trying to ensure that that presence is well-known, accepted and understood."

And Wilson describes the feelings that have run through him amid calls to respond in dangerous situations: “One of the things that black officers have to make up in their minds on is, are you a police officer who’s black, or a black man or woman who’s a police officer? For myself I’m the latter not the former, because at 60 years old there’s no way I can stop being black."​

Problems go beyond race relations

Some experts on race in America say the need now is to stand in solidarity against violence, and also to seek answers to conditions that underlie the tensions.

"Two weeks ago, seven people dying in a week was an attack on all of us.... People are dying, and we have to get to the bottom of it," says Shawn Alexander, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas.

Police-community relations are an important part of that discussion, he continues, but not the only part. "Poverty, joblessness, housing crises, all of this stuff begins to grind on people," he adds. "What are we doing to our veterans? We should make it a broader discussion, rather than a racial discussion."

On the eve of the Republican National Convention, which began in Cleveland on Monday, President Obama urged the nation’s leaders to stay away from divisive rhetoric and actions. He called for a “focus on words and actions that can unite this country rather than divide it further."

Wilson, although now retired, says he relished his work because of the opportunity to make a difference in his community.

“That’s what I tell every young black officer I run across,” he says. “Remember who you are, where you came from, and why you’re doing what you’re doing. It ain’t about being on the job for the excitement, it ain’t about being on the job for the overtime and the extra money. It’s about being there to make a difference. That’s what it’s about being a black cop.”

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