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Black or Blue, Minority Police Ask Themselves After Capitol Riot

Jan. 13, 2021, 10:00 AM

Black police officers are speaking out on disparate policing practices and the need for reform following the U.S. Capitol riot, which they said highlighted the difficult balancing act of being Black and upholding the law.

Although some previously feared retaliation for challenging the system, former and current Black cops are pushing ahead after the sharp contrast between the police response to Black Lives Matter protesters last summer and the mayhem at the Capitol Jan. 6.

“With the recent actions involving George Floyd last summer, the protesting and rioting around that, and now the breach of the Capitol, has brought a whole new outlook on policing and how people get policed,” said National Black Police Association (NBPA) Chairman Willie L. Williams III.

“But the NBPA and other similar organizations have already talked about the twofold policing system,” Williams said. “You police white neighborhoods and white communities one way, where you police Black communities another, and Black police officers are caught in the middle of the duality of them both.”

The brewing frustration has many Black officers demanding some of the same reforms that civil rights advocates have been calling for. Like those activists, Black police officers say the Capitol riot crystalizes longstanding problems with law enforcement that need to be addressed. They are demanding lawmakers reassess how laws are written and implemented and calling on individual departments to ensure equal treatment under the law is enforced by top brass.

More Than Symbolic

Fed up Black police officers are demanding more than symbolic gestures when faced with systemic racial disparities in treatment.

The Capitol Police Board made a historic change to its leadership Monday, designating Yogananda Pittman as the acting chief. Pittman is the first woman and first African American to lead the agency.

Naming a Black woman officer as Capitol Hill’s acting chief of police, however, didn’t appease fellow Black officers.

“By appointing a Black woman as police chief, it’s a symbolic gesture to appease Black people for the disparate treatment Black Lives Matter protesters received this summer compared to white domestic terrorists on Jan. 6,” Shawn Kennedy, the information officer of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers and former sergeant in the Chicago police department, said.

“White men were the cause of the diabolical insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but now a Black woman is being asked to clean it up and be held accountable if she does not. I don’t know if certain clearances and resources will be denied her to effectively carry out her duties.”

The Capitol Police declined to be interviewed for this story.

Where to Begin

When addressing disparate policing, the best place to start is with the lawmakers, retired U.S. Capitol Police Officer Theortis “Butch” Jones said.

“You talk about reform of the police department. But, I think, first, you have to reform members of Congress because that’s where laws are made and that’s the way that laws can be changed,” he said.

“So if you really want to do it the right way, you start where half of the problem is and that’s Congress.”

Lawmakers have talked about legislative changes on policing since the riot, but whether that comes to fruition and how it trickles down to law enforcement is unknown.

“Getting legislative change is nice to say, but I want to see how you implement it? How do you let it really permeate into the department to truly change the culture of what’s going on?” Williams said.

Williams added that implicit biases start at the top of the department, so that needs to be addressed simultaneously.

‘Voices Need to be Heard’

For decades, many minority officers found it difficult to take a stance on police reform, potentially going against their departments.

“Racism and discrimination have been seen within police departments for years. This isn’t new to Black officers. If you brought up racism or discrimination, you became a target for the department,” Jones said.

“If you did, they would try to bring you out front and hurt you, so nobody else would talk. They would show that they can make you be quiet. So it was very hard to deal with within the Capitol Hill police department.”

Speaking out as Black officers will help drive the conversation around disparate policing, an obstacle that retired Maryland Montgomery County Police Captain Sonia Pruitt wasn’t afraid to tackle.

“I have never been uncomfortable speaking about changes in law enforcement. Powerful and knowledgeable voices need to be heard in the fight for justice,” said Pruitt, who is also the founder of The Black Police Experience, a law enforcement information and education resource.

The hard truth that many Black officers have to understand is that they’re Black before they’re blue, Kennedy said.

“When you come to this job and when you take off your uniform every single day, you are Black. When you retire from this job, you will be Black. You will never be blue. There is a difference between who you are as an individual and what you are doing for your career,” Kennedy said.

“Talk about being blue is a way to brainwash someone to make them feel that we’re all part of this family. But when you step over the line to report one of your own, now they want to ostracize you, because you have just crossed the blue line and you have just outed one of your blue family members. But this isn’t a family because a family member wouldn’t do some of the crazy things that they do.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com

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