Despite the overwhelming evidence that policing in the United States is plagued by structural racism, it can be difficult for some to square that data with the presence of Black police officers. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, is 40 percent Black, yet a Justice Department investigation still found pervasive racism in city law enforcement. Why would Black cops participate in a system that discriminates against people like them? One pundit I debated a couple of years ago even argued that the very notion of structural racism in policing is offensive to Black law enforcement officers.
The first problem with this argument is that it misunderstands systemic racism. To argue that racism is built into policing isn’t to argue that all cops are racist. It’s that policing as we know it today was conceived, developed and honed over a period in our history during which racism was quite literally codified into the law. In much of the country, the police enforced segregation.
It shouldn’t be at all surprising, then, that traditions, customs, policies and institutions that emerged from that era would have racism built into their foundations. To give one example, the doctrine of qualified immunity, which protects police officers from civil liability when they’re accused of violating constitutional rights, was first articulated (or more accurately, invented) by the Supreme Court to protect Mississippi cops who had arrested civil rights protesters.
But the more profound problem with the argument that the mere existence of Black police officers disproves systemic racism in law enforcement is that it fails to account for the real-life experiences of those same Black officers.
Just last month, the Kansas City Star published an investigation into racism against Black officers in that city’s police department. A few months ago, I interviewed more than 20 police officers who told similar stories about racism inside the police department in Little Rock. Last year, the New York Times looked into racism against Black officers in campus police departments. Similar reports have recently been published by police departments in Portsmouth, Va.; Prince George’s County; Columbus, Ohio; and at the U.S. Capitol.
In other recent reports, Black officers have spoken out about the racism they’ve seen from their colleagues against Black and Latino residents of the communities they serve, or about racism they’ve personally experienced from other cops while off duty. One common refrain you hear from Black officers is that they can mostly get along fine so long as they put the “blue” before the Black.
Perhaps nowhere are these fault lines in policing more apparent than the unions. Across the country, the leadership in official police unions is overwhelmingly White, and Black officers say this is reflected in how the unions behave. In some cities, Black officers have felt so underrepresented by the traditional union that they’ve broken off and formed their own. In Little Rock, Black officers told me that while the official union always defends White officers accused of racism, it often actively opposes Black officers who allege discrimination — a sentiment echoed by other Black officers across the country. Notably, while nearly every official police union in the country endorsed Donald Trump in 2020, many Black police groups refused to join. Some withheld dues from the official unions in protest.
Black police chiefs, particularly reformers, have also faced aggressive, often ugly pushback from unions, most recently in Little Rock; Arlington, Tex.; Waterloo, Iowa; and at the Kansas Highway Patrol. Meanwhile, Black, reformist chiefs have been driven from office after union-led campaigns in Denver; Dallas; Portsmouth; Henderson, Nev.; and Lafayette, La.
Polling data also confirms that while Black and White cops may both oppose defunding or abolishing police, and may agree that police officers are overworked and often disrespected, they have wholly different perceptions of racism in their profession. A 2015 poll of Black officers in small departments in the Northeast found more than 90 percent believe there’s racial profiling within their departments. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll of Black and White officers found that 57 percent of Black officers thought fatal encounters between cops and Black and Latino people were indicative of larger problems within policing. Just 27 percent of White officers agreed. About 60 percent of White officers said the police had a good relationship with Black residents in their community, versus less than a third of Black officers. White officers were also more likely to have recently had a physical encounter with a suspect, and are much more likely to say Black people are inherently more violent, while Black officers were more likely to say their colleagues were too quick to act with force before assessing a situation.
So far, while some studies have suggested that more diverse police departments decrease the use of force and/or deadly shootings, the overall evidence is inconclusive. But leadership may matter. One recent study by an economist at Hamilton College in New York found that cities helmed by Black police chiefs had 30 percent fewer shootings by police officers. Fatal shootings by police in cities led by White chiefs were almost 50 percent higher.
It’s understandable why some people might be skeptical that a police department where 20, 30, or 40 percent of officers are Black could still be corrupted by racism. But the experiences of those officers are far more informative than their mere existence, and actually talking to those officers is far more illuminating than simply counting them.