The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black police chiefs express anger and dismay as they try to change their departments from within

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, foreground left, and Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn, foreground right, kneel with others for a moment of silence at a rally in honor of George Floyd on Wednesday in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The day that George Floyd’s cries for his mother reverberated across the country, Chief William T. Riley III walked up to a group of his officers discussing the horror they had seen.

“You know, chief, we already know if anything like that happened with us, we wouldn’t have a job,” one officer said.

Riley, a black police chief who was hired to transform the force in Inkster, Mich., after the suburban Detroit city settled a police brutality lawsuit in 2015, had trouble hiding his delight. But he remained firm.

“You are right,” Riley said. “Not only would you not have a job, you’d be locked up.”

In the past six years, as Black Lives Matter has emerged as a national movement to confront police brutality against people of color, the job of leading a department while black has become far more complex, politically sensitive and personally painful.

Black police executives face the exhausting work of leading organizations that have historically — and often disproportionately — arrested, beaten and killed people who have the same color skin as they do. This amounts to a cruel paradox: Becoming law enforcement officers, for many of them, was a way of continuing the civil rights legacy of their parents. They hoped to change the system from within.

But the violence that has come along with peaceful protests nationwide has provoked anger and dismay from many black police chiefs, prompting some of them to condemn the Minneapolis officers charged in Floyd’s death and the vandalism that has scarred many cities in his name. Both, in their views, are still crimes, though of far different severity. It is a message black police chiefs are delivering, mindful of the distant and immediate pasts of their nation and cities, to departments looking for clarity and guidance.

Chief Carmen Best, who runs Seattle’s department of more than 1,400 sworn officers, calls what happened to Floyd over those nearly nine minutes on the Minneapolis pavement simply “murder.”

“From my perspective as an African American woman, it certainly gave me pause to think that, as much as we have moved forward, we still have some real issues of disparity when it comes to how we address people of color and black people specifically,” Best said.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn, who managed his department’s recent killing of an unarmed black man and weeks of ensuing riots, said “there’s no way you can understand what possibly would make one human being treat another human being like that.”

Hahn himself was arrested at 16 for assaulting a Sacramento police officer. He has run the department for almost three years, including at the time when 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot at 20 times in his grandmother’s backyard in 2018 by police who confused his cellphone for a handgun.

What he saw on the Floyd video, he said, “touches home on two fronts, being African American but also being a police officer, watching somebody that wears a uniform similar to mine doing what he was doing.”

“The callousness that you see on his face and the non-activity from all the other officers, the ones that weren’t on top of him,” he said. “So it’s very emotional when those things happen. But the real issue is day-to-day, for the last several centuries. Since the inception of this country, day-to-day, what is our activity with our community? What is the interaction? What is the understanding? What is the partnership?”

Bonds of fraternity

Presiding over departments that are confronting demonstrators, with whom police executives might largely agree or identify, provokes anguish, rage and internal conflict. It challenges the bonds of fraternity, the executives said, and adherence to policies that are legal but might need a moral and ethical recalibration.

“We train on the legality of policies and procedures, but what we don’t do, but are starting to do, is train on the necessity of it,” said former Denver police chief Robert C. White. “Officers need to understand that just because it is legal doesn’t always mean it is necessary.”

The deadly actions of four Minneapolis police officers have been condemned — and have resulted in arrests. But for current and former black law enforcement leaders, who are often tapped to reform delinquent departments, the ugly episode and ensuing clashes at protests validate their struggle. The work, they say, has barely begun.

Police executives said in interviews that the majority of officers enter the force for noble reasons and perform with integrity. The problem is not simply a few bad officers but systemic societal racism that exists well beyond policing, said Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, who leads a force in suburban Detroit that covers Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

If racism permeates much of our society, Clayton said, “it is impossible and illogical to believe that it’s not also in policing because it’s in every other profession. But there is no profession in this country that is legally sanctioned to take away what we value most in this country — freedom, liberty and your life.”

Protesters have gathered outside Clayton’s office all week with “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police” signs. Clayton, who teaches a course on bias, said he met with organizers to keep protests peaceful. But when one of his deputies was filmed punching a black woman in the head after she allegedly bit him during an arrest the night Floyd was killed, tensions flared. He promised an investigation and to hold people accountable.

But it was a setback.

Days later, Clayton addressed protesters in Ann Arbor with a speech he wrote and agonized over the night before. He began reading it off his phone and talked about 400 years of injustice and the work his force has done for good.

“I think we all agree on Black Lives Matter,” he said, later putting the phone in his pocket and improvising, telling the crowd he loved them. “It was almost like an out-of-body experience because I heard myself say, ‘I love you.’ . . . It was right from my heart.”

Black police executives say they often compartmentalize their emotions to carry out their duties and provide leadership amid adversity. But it is the quiet moments at home or on the phone with their sons and nephews when the heart pangs are hard to ignore.

Riley said he could not bring himself to watch more than 10 seconds of the video of Floyd’s killing at the office, the sights and sounds smothering him, making him feel like he was choking. His thoughts reeled to his son, his officers, himself, Floyd’s family and Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who has been charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death.

“Not only is he kneeling on his neck in broad daylight, but he has his hands in his pocket and looks at the crowd as if saying, ‘We can do what we want to do,’ ” Riley said. “That’s the attitude. What is wrong with a person like that? We have got to do better.”

Changing the culture

White, the former Denver chief, started his career in his hometown of Washington in 1972. As a child, he was inspired by a Metro police officer who he saw help a lost little girl. But as he matured, White realized his dreams about the kind of officer he wanted to be were not about what occurs in everyday policing, so he set his sights on leadership, where he believed he could effect broad change.

He rose to lead departments in Louisville, Asheville, N.C., and Denver, which he said was the most challenging assignment of his career.

“Most departments I worked with required transformational change,” he said. “But it doesn’t come without a price.”

White’s effort to reform the Denver department drew praise from President Barack Obama for its focus on de-escalation, and he banned officers from shooting into moving vehicles. In the past, he said, police were recognized for their number of arrests, but he wanted to refocus their work toward the prevention of crime and not the reaction to it. White created a Preservation of Life award for those officers who did not take a life, even though it might have been justified under the circumstances.

But he was consistently criticized by union officials and the department’s officers for his communication style and using his officers to serve as a backdrop to Obama’s gun control address. White said he was not as efficient as he could have been, but when he was watching the protests this week, it reminded him of his passion.

“I look at policing as a series of deposits and withdrawals,” White said. “If we engage the community and give them a voice, we make deposits into a bucket of goodwill. But when catastrophic things happen by our making, it knocks the bucket over, spilling out the good will. We need to set it upright again. You withdraw what you deposit.”

Hahn, the Sacramento chief, has programs in place that bring the public, including those previously convicted of crimes, into his department for a better view of an officer’s daily duties. He also takes into consideration the culture and upbringing of the officers that he hires, and knowing his native city as well as he does, Hahn makes sure that patrol assignments fit backgrounds.

“We have to realize we’re hiring police officers from all walks of life,” Hahn said. “And some of them don’t have experiences of working in more of our challenged neighborhoods.”

Hahn said the demonstrations following the Clark shooting in March 2018 were not nearly as violent as those the city has experienced in recent days, featuring vandalism and theft that left much of the downtown business district damaged. The majority of those arrested, though, have been from the greater Sacramento area, just as they were during the Clark protests.

“The difference to me is the people that were protesting during the Clark protests,” Hahn said. “Yes, they were angry. Yes, that was volatile at times. Yes, they were emotional. But they cared about our community and the people that live here. The people who arrived here only at night do not care about this community. They were not here to protest for Mr. Floyd. They were here to destroy our city.”

Best, the Seattle police chief, said the city has about 300 demonstrations each year, the vast majority of which do not require a police response of any kind. But the “weird confluence of events,” the chief said, referring to the city’s early and sustained attack from the coronavirus followed by the Floyd demonstrations, made this moment unlike any other in her decades-long career.

Right now, she said, her goal is to regain the city’s trust by protecting people and property and allowing demonstrators to exercise their First Amendment rights.

“The issues of race and racism probably strike home to me a little more, sometimes even daily, than others here,” she said. “I always say from my first breath from the womb, I was an African American female, and that’s who I am going to be when I go out. So that’s who I am.

“But I’m also a police chief of an organization that I love and care deeply about, and I am working with wonderful men and women,” she continued. “I believe in our work here and that we are working to try to make sure that we have a just and fair response. But right now, we’re under extreme scrutiny and we want to make sure that we’re evaluating and reviewing all of our interactions and how we’re supporting the community and building community trust at really such volatile times.”

The personal and public

Yale University Police Chief Ronnell A. Higgins is a police officer because his dad was a police officer.

In mostly white New Haven, Conn., Higgins’s father was one of just a few officers of color. The younger Higgins was immersed in law enforcement life, going to police picnics, getting to know other police families and hanging out in the police garage while his father worked.

But when his brother was brutalized by those same billy-club-wielding police officers outside a nightclub in the 1990s, his father spoke up about the abuse. He went from interacting daily with the community as a patrolman to manning the front desk.

“He was penalized and retired earlier than he might have,” Higgins said.

Now a police chief, Higgins said he has been in the awkward position of defending police behavior to his brother, who he said is still haunted by the night he was beaten: “That’s the fear when you stand up.”

Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, but trust in police was shattered nationally. As Higgins stood in his father’s driveway to celebrate the 76-year-old’s birthday, he said that police, regardless of background, have work to do to regain what was lost.

Black police executives, he said, “need to show them how.”