African-American police officer: Ferguson 'heart wrenching'

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Ferguson, Missouri

image copyrightGetty Images

The killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown led to days of protests in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, and amplified a rift between the town's African-American residents and the police in the region. But what about police officers who are also black?

The BBC's Aleem Maqbool spoke with a black female police officer who works in the St Louis area.

She discussed her take on the controversy in Ferguson and the realities of race on the force. Out of consideration for her job, she asked not to be identified.

Before you joined the police force, what experiences did you have with the police in this area?

Experiences that made me feel disrespected, less of a human being. I have been stopped in my car and accused of doing some things I don't think I'd done.

The tone was different. In some senses, it is almost as if the officers I had the interactions with could not care less about who I was, that I was beneath him so he didn't have to extend a level of respect. I felt personally attacked.

I wanted to join the police to make a difference. I thought I could explain things from a citizen's perspective, and explain things to the community from the law enforcement perspective.

Now do you feel like an outsider among your colleagues in the police force?

I do, very much so. I don't relate with a lot of them, I haven't lived similar lives to them.

It may be a combination of being African American and a woman, but there are certain events I am not included in, or even informed of.

Maybe in their growing up they didn't have a lot of interactions with African-American females from the inner city - they're uncomfortable with it, but instead of trying to address it, they avoid it, even fear it.

So when black people in Ferguson say the issue is not just about Michael Brown, but the way they have been treated as a community, do you agree?

I can completely agree with that. It [the killing of Michael Brown] should be a learning experience.

Quite possibly the officer was in fear, as was the young man. It is sad no one is addressing that. Why was he [the police officer] so afraid of him that he had to use such intense force, and why was [Michael Brown] in such fear that it happened [that] way?

I don't know who is to blame for these perceptions, but it's almost like a fear-based society. You're told this certain type of people behaves in a certain type of way, and it sticks with you throughout your life. They never take the time to find out if it's true.

Race and the police in St Louis

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAs the protests grew, the police responded with increased shows of force and protection, such as these armoured personnel carriers

The St Louis Post-Dispatch conducted an analysis of how the racial makeup of the police in the St Louis area reflects the communities they serve. Some findings include:

  • Ferguson's population is 67% black; the police force is 7% black
  • In 31 communities who participated in the survey, black citizens make up 10% or more of the population. In 30 of those communities, the percentage of black residents is higher than the proportion of black officers.
  • Officials cite a lack of applications from black candidates as part of the problem: one community received three black applicants out of 81 total candidates.

Do you think that is governing how some officers behave when they take to the streets?

I certainly do. And because nothing is being done to force those interactions, it's just grows. It's why communities are divided.

Do you think it makes it easier for some of your co-workers to shoot dead a black man?

I don't feel they would have that same connection or compassion with that individual, so it may make it easier for them.

Do you think what's happened in Ferguson over the last couple of weeks might make some of your white colleagues listen more to the kind of things you and other African-American officers have been saying about their negative dealings with black people?

No, absolutely not. It's actually created that divide and made it larger. It's made it harder for me to want to talk to them about it any more.

They are so disconnected from it. Their rationale, perception and interpretation of the issues are so far-fetched.

The comments they make are very one-sided and show such a lack of compassion and understanding, or even the desire to understand. It's heart-wrenching. It's been very difficult.

image copyrightPool
image captionBoth US Attorney General Eric Holder and Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson were brought into Ferguson in the wake of the protests

What do you mean about your white colleagues perception of what has happened in Ferguson as being "far-fetched"?

[In Ferguson] I see a hurt group of individuals, and they see a bunch of unruly ignorant people.

They are treating it as if this community is full of an angry mob that wants to just tear up everything and they should be satisfied with what they had.

But the point is you shouldn't make such an assumption that they should be happy with what they had. They shouldn't. You wouldn't be.

I know Ferguson is not a group of ignorant uneducated people that are unruly. They are just a bunch of frustrated people who have tried and tried, but have been met with negative results.

You have a few apartment complexes in Ferguson, but there's a lot of neighbourhoods, well kept lawns. Where people work together as a community - they have jobs, work hard every day. They are probably exhausted, they're just trying to build [a] better life for families.

What do you think will make your colleagues realise they need to work harder in their relations with the community?

It's really hard to say. They're not the minority, they're not the ones that need to be forced to understand it. So, as the minority, you've just got to handle it, you deal with it and you move along and accept it.

More on this story