Black police officers like me are poised to play a critical role in reform
Earlier this month, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion with retired police Officer Howard Saffold. He spoke about the discrimination and intense racism he faced as a Black officer a mere 50 years ago. Today, as a front-line supervisor, I work in an era in which my immediate boss is Black and his boss is Black. For the first time in history the three highest-ranking members of the Chicago Police Department are all African American.
This year has taught me that there has never been a better time in American history to be a Black police officer.
Our nation has faced a critical reckoning in 2020. In every corner of the country the impact caused by COVID-19 has been felt. Loss of employment, health risks, hunger, insufficient access to education and constant uncertainty have been introduced to many who, before this year, had never experienced such pain.
The murder of George Floyd put into full view the centuries-old practice of dehumanizing Black Americans. The marginalization and neglect of the people whose blood and tears seeded the foundation of this great land is not a new revelation. This struggle has been ignored for far too long by large segments of the population. Had it not been for the pandemic lockdown and its removal of distractions, this struggle may have gone unnoticed yet again.
As a Black police officer raised in Austin and a current resident of North Lawndale on Chicago's West Side, I am proud to say I am a member of the community I serve. This gift provides me the ability to view our neighborhoods with authenticity, achieved through the acknowledgment of the vast number of narratives that exist on the South and West sides of Chicago. The lived experiences of Black police officers can play vital roles in police reform. We are positioned in the optimal place at a time when the country is primed to make substantial repairs to its patterns and practices. It is of utmost important that our voices be heard. Now is the time to unapologetically inject Black into Blue.
I grew up on the West Side in the 1980s and 1990s. This was during the height of the crack epidemic and the prime of organized gangs. This was also a time in Chicago when each year we teetered toward 1,000 murders.
The exposure to violence and systemic racism during my formative years shaped the man I would become, but not in ways one would expect. Successfully navigating an environment where each day I could be one decision away from being a victim or an offender required a lot of help. So, when I reflect, it is never about what I didn’t have. It is about all the things I did have that made the difference. As a result, I now carry an asset-based lens into the way I police. A talent among Black police officers is the ability to see ourselves in the people with whom we interact. This commonality through shared experiences ensures that humanity is recognized.
Introducing cultural competency into policing is long overdue. The context in which we pursue police reform must be centered on the people. Decisions that are based solely on fulfilling a mandate or regulation lack the necessary humanity to truly transform.
I appeal to all the men and women of color who have made the decision to wear a badge to now assume the courage to take up a leadership role in shaping the future.
For those Black Americans who are contemplating embarking on a law enforcement career path, I encourage you to join the fight. We are uniquely capable. It is our real-world experiences that give us the common sense, when we’re looking for a way to reach the youth, to confer with the mother figure on the block who opens up her arms and kitchen to young people. It is a no-brainer to develop violence prevention strategies by supporting the restorative justice work of a former drug dealer who has now committed his life to repairing the harm he caused in the past.
There are obvious benefits to relationship building that arise from simply taking the time to get out of a squad car to walk down a block and talk to the neighbors sitting on their front porches. Most importantly, it is the understanding that as police, our role is to work with our communities and use the authority provided by this office to amplify their voices.
Seeing the amazing people in the Black community as an abundant resource that can be relied upon to create the solutions to our nation’s problems is a recipe for sustainability and capacity building. It’s a formula for destroying a system of inequity.
As a member of the community I serve, this strategy for diversity, equity and inclusion is clear. The necessary training for Black officers to prepare us to lead in this evolution process has been taking place since the day God saw it fit to add a darker hue to our outer shells.
The world is watching. I challenge every Black officer to capture this moment so that we can use our voices to inspire the change that will reshape policing forever.
Jermaine Harris is a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Chicago Police Department. This piece was written for the Chicago Tribune.