USA TODAY International Edition

‘ I’m in both worlds’

Black police chiefs face pushback from inside the force and outside

- N’dea Yancey- Bragg

John Drake remembers disliking the police during his youth in Nashville, Tennessee. One of his earliest interactio­ns with the Metropolit­an Nashville Police Department was being falsely accused of the brutal rape of an 89- year- old woman, despite bearing little resemblanc­e to the descriptio­n of the assailant. ● Drake is now chief of that same police department. And his story is similar to those of other Black police leaders.

Daniel Hahn, former police chief in Sacramento, California, grew up in the city’s impoverish­ed Oak Park neighborho­od and was arrested at 16 years old. He said he was arrested for assaulting an officer. He didn’t hate police, he said, but when he was in college, he brushed off police recruiters multiple times.

Boston police Commission­er Michael Cox said becoming a police officer had never seemed a possibilit­y to him because there were so few people of color in the department. In 1995, a few years after he joined the force in Boston, Cox was beaten by fellow officers who mistook him for a suspect, an incident that was covered up until Cox won more than $ 1 million in a civil rights lawsuit.

Despite such negative encounters, all three men persevered to lead law enforcemen­t in their hometowns.

“My upbringing prepared me for all of it,” Hahn said. “It gave me perspectiv­e and gave me compassion. I’m in both worlds, and so I can understand fully.”

Drake and Cox agree that their racial identity informs their work as they take on the challenge of repairing police relationsh­ips with communitie­s of color. Still, many Black police chiefs say they face intense pushback from their own officers as they press for reform, and they often see anger directed at them from citizens scarred by a history of mistreatme­nt at the hands of police – tensions again inflamed by the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapoli­s in 2020 and subsequent nationwide protests for social justice.

“I was supposed to solve all the world’s issues, at least the Black issues, with the snap of my finger,” said Hahn, who led the Sacramento department during the protests over the killing of Stephon Clark by police in that city in 2018. “I’d be called a

coon, a sellout, Uncle Tom by the Black community. I’d be discrimina­ted against in many different ways by nonBlack communitie­s.”

Diversity in itself is ‘ not enough’

Policing is an overwhelmi­ngly white profession, and reform advocates have been calling for police department­s to increase diversity for decades.

In 2020, the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the Department of Justice reported that just 6% of chiefs of local police department­s were Black, though chiefs were much more likely to be Black in department­s serving 250,000 or more residents.

Increasing diversity in police leadership can have a positive influence on police culture and policies, but it is not enough to solve the deeper issues in police culture, said Jacinta Gau, professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida.

“We need diversity of all sorts, but we need it particular­ly in those higher ranks,” Gau said. “It is not enough to have a Black chief.”

As with Hahn in Sacramento – where the unarmed Clark was killed in his grandmothe­r’s backyard – having a person of color at the helm does not insulate a department from national scrutiny over a police killing or systemic misconduct.

When 29- year- old Tyre Nichols was fatally beaten after a traffic stop last month, Memphis police were led by the first Black female police chief, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis.

Davis was initially praised for swiftly firing five officers who were later charged with murder, but she has since faced criticism for creating the violent crime unit in which the five officers worked. The team, called the SCORPION unit, has been compared to similar controvers­ial units in other cities and has since been disbanded. Davis was not available for an interview for this story.

Still, many cities have hired Black chiefs, often for the first time, after facing backlash for similar incidents of police misconduct.

In 1992, Willie L. Williams became the first Black chief of the Los Angeles Police Department after video of officers beating a Black man, Rodney King, gained worldwide attention. The officers’ acquittal on criminal charges led to widespread riots.

In 2016, Delrish Moss was sworn in as the first Black chief in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Ferguson was the subject of a scathing Justice Department report that raised concerns about the majority Black community’s overwhelmi­ngly white police force after the shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, in 2014.

In 2020, Yvette Gentry was named interim chief in Louisville, Kentucky, becoming the first Black woman to lead the Louisville Metro Police amid backlash over the shootings of Breonna Taylor, 26, who was killed in her home by police, and David McAtee, 53, a restaurant owner killed by National Guard troops during protests that followed.

Despite some gains, many Black chiefs, including Carmen Best in Seattle and U. Reneé Hall in Dallas, stepped down amid public criticism of their handling of protests in 2020.

“It is lonely,” said Amal Awad, the first woman, first person of color and first known member of the LGBTQ community to lead the Anne Arundel County Police Department in the Annapolis, Maryland, area. “There’s a lot of pressure there, and I’m just me. I’m not Superwoman.”

Black police chiefs met with racism, anger

In addition to microaggre­ssions and overt racism, new chiefs of color can face intense pressure from communitie­s of color to make significant changes quickly, Gau said.

“They occupy the intersecti­on of two groups that have historical­ly had bad relations,” she said. “The police chief is a powerful position, but it’s only one person. Putting that level of pressure, putting that whole bag of expectatio­ns onto this one person, is kind of unfair and unrealisti­c.”

Cox said he questioned whether he wanted to continue being a Boston police officer during the height of the racial justice protests.

“There was so much rhetoric around poor policing and how bad the police are and how much damage they’ve done in the world that I was even questionin­g, ‘ Why am I in this profession?’ ” Cox said.

Ultimately, he said, it motivated him to continue working with the community.

After Madison, Wisconsin, endured 180 days of demonstrat­ions after Floyd’s death, Shon Barnes was sworn in as chief in February 2021. His first week on the job, he received an email addressing him using a racist slur.

As he spent weeks getting to know the community, Barnes said, he was often the target of anger and frustratio­n, though he believes his background ultimately helped to calm tensions during the protests.

“I met with members of the community and had them literally scream at me about the history of police,” he said.

Barnes said some members of his department criticized him for spending so much time with residents, but he felt it was crucial to building trust.

“It is tough being a chief in this time, and it is doubly tough doing it as a Black man,” he said. “They don’t understand the amount of implicit bias that goes on in this position where people are questionin­g your expertise.”

Black police chiefs face internal pushback

Gau said Black police chiefs looking to make even symbolic changes often face opposition within their department­s.

Jeffrey Norman, who was sworn in as chief in Milwaukee in November 2021 after nearly a year as acting chief, said he faced backlash when he restricted the use of “Thin Blue Line” imagery.

Norman said curtailing the use of the symbol, which was displayed by white supremacis­ts and neo- Nazis during a deadly 2018 rally in Charlottes­ville, Virginia, was his way of taking a stand for equity and inclusion. “I got a lot of pushback on that,” he said. “There was a lot of frustratio­n that was thrown to me.”

Before becoming chief of police and emergency management for Denver’s public transit system, Joel Fitzgerald was police chief in Waterloo, Iowa. He faced pushback when he suggested the Waterloo Police Department change its insignia – a green- eyed, red- bodied griffin, which some in the Black community say too closely resembles a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon.

Opponents not only framed the effort as an attack on officers but also criticized his personal life, such as his wife deciding not to move to the city. The city council later voted to remove the symbol from police uniforms, one of many changes Fitzgerald said he is proud of.

“I’ve had those battles … just because of who I am and what I look like,” said Fitzgerald, who was the first Black police chief in three other jurisdicti­ons before Waterloo and Denver. “My hope is that more chiefs of color share their experience­s and share the obstacles that they faced to get things done.”

Trying to make more substantia­l changes – like firing an officer for misconduct or addressing racial bias – can bring even greater internal opposition.

“Getting officer buy- in can be a big challenge … particular­ly, white officers are very likely to get defensive,” Gau said. “You’re up against policy, you’re up against the union, you’re up against any lawsuit that the officer might file if they are terminated.”

In 2018, when RaShall Brackney became the first Black woman to lead the police department in Charlottes­ville, Virginia, she was tasked with bringing legitimacy and transparen­cy to an agency that had lost the community’s trust after the white supremacis­t rally.

She said she spent months meeting with residents, conducting an extensive review of the department’s policies and practices, and bringing in groups like the Anti- Defamation League to train officers.

Brackney said some officers were “extremely vocal” opponents to the changes, and the backlash intensified when she fired popular officers and disbanded specialty units, including the SWAT team, after uncovering thousands of inappropri­ate videos and text messages threatenin­g her and making racist remarks.

“It was extremely unsettling,” she said. “I literally at that point start walking out of my police station with my weapons readily available and in my hand in case I have to respond to a threat from my own officers or officers that I’d terminated.”

Brackney was fired in September 2021. She said she filed complaints with multiple agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunit­y Commission, before filing a $ 10 million lawsuit against the city and several current and former officials. Her lawsuit in June 2022 claims she was terminated because of race and gender discrimina­tion. A federal judge dismissed her suit in January because there wasn’t sufficient evidence of discrimina­tion, conspiracy or malice.

Brackney said it’s unlikely she’ll be welcomed back into policing after her firing in Charlottes­ville. She said she worries about how many leaders like her have been pushed out of the profession.

“We need to create opportunit­ies and off ramps for individual­s to be successful in going about the work differently. And maybe chief is not the space to be in. And maybe it’s in education. And maybe run for office,” she said.

“Maybe we all have to think about giving up some of our policing powers and give those back to the community.”

“It was extremely unsettling. I literally at that point start walking out of my police station with my weapons readily available and in my hand in case I have to respond to a threat from my own officers or officers that I’d terminated.” Rashall Brackney First Black woman to lead the police department in Charlottes­ville, Virginia

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 ?? RICH PEDRONCELL­I/ AP; GEORGE WALKER IV/ USA TODAY NETWORK; STEVEN SENNE/ AP ?? Former Sacramento police Chief Daniel Hahn, from top left, Boston police Commission­er Michael Cox and Metropolit­an Nashville police Chief John Drake experience­d negative encounters with the law and went on to lead.
RICH PEDRONCELL­I/ AP; GEORGE WALKER IV/ USA TODAY NETWORK; STEVEN SENNE/ AP Former Sacramento police Chief Daniel Hahn, from top left, Boston police Commission­er Michael Cox and Metropolit­an Nashville police Chief John Drake experience­d negative encounters with the law and went on to lead.
 ?? JOHN C. CLARK/ AP ??
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