© 2021 West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Telling West Virginia's Story
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

What It Is Like To Be A Black Police Officer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today and tomorrow, we're going to explore what the national debate over race and policing looks like from the inside, inside the police force and inside the African American community. Here's our co-host Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We invited three generations of black police officers to join us for a wide-ranging conversation about what's changed over the decades, what hasn't, and what they make of this moment in America.

ISAIAH MCKINNON: It should be recording. There we go.

SHAPIRO: First, meet Isaiah McKinnon. He's in his 70s, retired. He served as chief of police and deputy mayor in the city of Detroit. He joined the force in the 1960s.

MCKINNON: These guys would do things to you to literally force people to quit.

SHAPIRO: Next, Cheryl Dorsey. She joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980. She's also retired now after a long career with the LAPD.

CHERYL DORSEY: I'm a black woman first, and I am a mother of four black men second. And then third, I happen to be a sergeant of police.

SHAPIRO: Finally, Vincent Montague is 37 and president of the Black Shield Police Association, which supports officers serving in the Greater Cleveland area. He's been in law enforcement 12 years.

VINCENT MONTAGUE: When I'm at work, it's almost as if you're a chameleon. You have to adapt to the culture of the job.

SHAPIRO: I started by asking the three of them why they wanted to get into police work.

DORSEY: Chief, why don't you go first?

MCKINNON: I decided to become a police officer as a result of a serious beating I received in 1957 as a young boy by a group in Detroit that was called the Big Four. There's usually four very large white officers. I was leaving school, and these four officers grabbed me, threw me up against a car and proceeded to brutally beat me and then at some point told me to get my a** out of there, and I ran home. So I made a decision that evening I was going to become a police officer. Certainly I didn't know I was going to become chief. But that was the impetus for me becoming a police officer in 1957. I joined the Detroit Police Department in 1965.

SHAPIRO: I was thinking about the kind of person that has an experience like that and decides, I'm going to go in that direction as opposed to run away from that. I'm going to become a police officer and try to make change from the inside. And I was thinking what that says about the kind of person you are.

MCKINNON: Well, it was so important for me because I had seen these officers beat up so many people in my neighborhood. We had - I think that Detroit had 5,500 police officers at the time, and probably less than 50 were African American. And it was important for me to try and do something from within.

SHAPIRO: Cheryl, what was your path? And going in, did you have hesitations about joining a police force that had a reputation of hostility towards black people?

DORSEY: No. I was very selfish because I was selfishly motivated. I was a young mother. I had been married and was going through a divorce. I had a small child, and I had bills. And it was strictly a financial decision. I had many friends who I - some didn't want to be friends with me anymore when they found out what I was thinking about doing. I had family members who had interactions with the police. I remember seeing things. Although I grew up very middle class, I never had any negative interactions with police. But it was strictly, I need money, and who can get it to me.

SHAPIRO: Vincent, tell us your story.

MONTAGUE: The school that I went to growing up, I was typically the minority there. So the neighborhood that I grew up in, it was separated from - like, Garfield was the suburb, and Cleveland was the city. So where I live, I was one of the students that they divided the neighborhood up that we had to go to Garfield schools. So Garfield schools are predominantly white. And this was in the early '90s. I was playing a kickball game with some students, and they were white kids. And I gave him a high five, and this white kid just started stabbed me in the back with a pencil.

SHAPIRO: Literally stabbing you in the back?

MONTAGUE: Yes. He thought that I was attacking the white males that we were playing a kickball game with. But that was my first experience with racism. That kind of led me to wanting to become a police officer after that because I wanted to be able to make changes in the community that I lived in.

SHAPIRO: So for all three of you, did you experience tension between your identity in uniform and out of uniform, going from the police force back to your community every day?

MCKINNON: My very first night as a Detroit police officer, and the supervisors, the sergeant and lieutenant came into the room, and they announced roll call. And as they announced the assignments, they announced this one officer's name, and they gave the assignment. Then they said, McKinnon, scout 27. And this officer said Jesus effing Christ. I'm working with the - and he said the racial derogatory term.

SHAPIRO: The N word?

MCKINNON: This was my welcome to the Detroit Police Department. Yes. Yeah. And so I rode with him for eight hours, and he never said a word to me. And it's just interesting because when I went out to the street, the black people didn't talk to me either because I was a turncoat. So it was a very difficult time.

SHAPIRO: So, Cheryl and Vincent, how much of what Isaiah is saying sounds familiar to you, and how much was different by the time that you became a police officer?

DORSEY: Well, you know, I joined 20 years later, and everything that he's talking about was still going on. And my experiences were pretty much similar. I had to turtle up. I had to get a hard shell. I had a training officer who put me in a pain compliance hold. It's called a twist lock. Like we were taught and trained to do suspects when you're trying to handcuff them, this is what my training officer is doing to me with about three, four months in the field. There were several officers in the room, and they're just sitting looking. But one of them was a black officer who had a little time on the job, and he had a little size to him. And he said, hey, hey, stop that. And he made him let me go.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So more than 20 years later, Vincent, you join the police force. And how similar is your experience to what you've heard from Cheryl and Isaiah?

MONTAGUE: Well, I joined the police force in 2008. I think things were - are more covert on how things were handled. I will say, in the police academy, you find out who people really were in that police academy. I would say the academy was very divided. They tried to bring us together, but oftentimes black officers were told you have to have thick skin to deal with this because if you can't handle what they're saying in the academy, you can't handle it on the streets. So that's what we were told. But it was different for officers that didn't look like us. They were not told those same things.

DORSEY: You know, it's really interesting, if I can say this, Ari, that you have - you know, we're almost three generations, right? You've got the '60s, the '80s and the 2000s, and all of our experiences are the same. And folks ask me, you know, well, why would you want anyone to do this going forward? Because if we're not on these police departments, you know, we can't have an impact.While I'm troubled by what I'm hearing, that each of us have gone through this, and you would think that the chief's experiences would have made it better for me and mine for Vincent, not so much. And so that part saddens me.

SHAPIRO: And we'll hear more tomorrow from Cheryl Dorsey, Isaiah McKinnon and Vincent Montague about this moment in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTWIRE'S "SAILING THE SOLAR FLARES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


WVPB is local news, education, music, and entertainment for West Virginia.
Your donation today will help keep us strong and vital.