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What It Is Like To Be A Black Police Officer, Pt.2

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yesterday we began a conversation with three generations of Black police officers. They talked about why they became officers and the tensions they have felt in and out of uniform. Now, our co-host Ari Shapiro continues the conversation, focusing on the moment that we are in now.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Our panel's experiences cover more than half a century of policing in America. When Isaiah McKinnon started in Detroit in the 1960s, there were hardly any Black officers in the city. He became police chief and Detroit's deputy mayor before he retired. Cheryl Dorsey joined the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1980s when it was under a consent decree. She's also retired now. And Vincent Montague started in 2008. He leads the Black Shield Police Association, which supports officers in the Greater Cleveland area. Yesterday, we heard that all three of them have experienced racism within the police force and suspicion within the black community.

CHERYL DORSEY: 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: I hear all three of you saying that there are deep-seated problems built into policing in America. And so I guess a question I have for you is, as thousands of people march in the streets and lawmakers are being pushed to change policies and divert funding, could this be a moment of change, if not from the inside out, then from the outside in?

DORSEY: I don't think so because I think that these police chiefs are being disingenuous. You know, they say what they need to in the moment to kind of calm folks down. They make appointments of, you know, certain folks who may look like me to make the community think that this person will somehow, you know, be someone that you can come to and trust when I say, all skinfolk ain't kinfolk. So there's some black folks out there who are in positions of power who have the ability to make a difference, but they're so wanting to get along, go along to get along. You know, they're the ones who - and this is not unique to law enforcement - who once they make it, they pull the ladder up.

SHAPIRO: Isaiah, Vincent?

ISAIAH MCKINNON: Oh, I'm optimistic because we have young, white people that's involved. Here, think about this, and I think both agree, if this was just Black people doing this protesting, they would say, to hell with them, you know? They're doing the same thing again. You know, you don't see this many young, white students or people involved and now older white people that are saying Black Lives Matter. You know, it's a phrase, but the reality is that people are concerned about what's going on.

VINCENT MONTAGUE: Well, now I see that Black officers are being able - are not afraid to take a stand now, and especially the younger Black officers. They're stepping up because in the past, if a Black woman stepped up, she's the angry Black woman. A Black man steps up, he's just angry. But now I think Black officers are having more of a voice and are not as afraid to say what needs to be said. So I've had conversations with co-workers in regards to the protests, and I challenged them. And it was uncomfortable because I don't necessarily agree with everything they said. And they expect because I am wearing blue that I have to agree with what they're saying, and I don't. I'm like, I'm not you. I'm not Caucasian. I'm not Hispanic. I'm Black, and I see it from my perspective.

DORSEY: Let me say this. Let me say this real quick, Ari. Well, you know, I don't - you know, I hate to be a Debbie Downer. I'm a realist. But let me just encourage my brother to continue to be you, because listen; if this were easy, everybody would do it. And so when I joined LAPD, I was a - you know I was always clear on who I am. And I say this when I speak. I'm a Black woman first. Be clear. 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. I never ever bled blue because every black person knows, no matter what job you have, it's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when they tap you on your shoulder and remind you, in case you forgot, that you're a Black person.

So I say go in being unapologetically Black. So, Vincent, do not ever feel like you need to sell yourself, you need to go along to get along, you need to compromise. You need to at the end of every night be able to look at yourself in the face and look at your face in the mirror and be happy about who you are.

SHAPIRO: Vincent, do you want to respond to that?

MONTAGUE: Yes. And I want to say, first of all, thank you for that, your heartfelt comments. And what you said, I wish I had heard it within my first year on the job.

SHAPIRO: In these protests all over the country, we're seeing people chant defund the police. It's a hashtag. It's on posters. What do you all think of this movement to take some of the funding away from police and give it to people who specialize in homelessness, addiction, mental health, nonviolent interventions?

MCKINNON: Well, I'll start, OK? I don't think it's a bad thought. The phrasing might be wrong. But for all of us who've been in this work for a long time - look; all they're saying is, look; if you're not representing me, that is a city - if you're not representing me, if you're not enforcing the laws properly and fairly, do we really need you to come in and beat us up and kill us and those things? So let's look at another way of doing this.

DORSEY: Let me say real quickly about the defunding because I think that when these young people say defund the police, what I hear is them almost using it as some kind of a weapon against the police. What we need to have done, what officers will understand is when they are held accountable. And I don't know why in all of the conversations that we're having you would think accountability was a four-letter word.

MONTAGUE: I just want to listen more to the community because the community is speaking out. They're crying. And they've been speaking out for years, and no one's been listening. But officers get real defensive when it comes to the change. When you say defund the police, when you say these things, they get real defensive and saying it's going to take money out of our pocket. Then the narrative changes. But at the end of the day, the community, the public worldwide, they're requesting police change whether we want it or not. And so defund the police, it could be a reality in police departments whether they want to or not. They pay taxes for us to serve them, and I think sometimes we forget that we serve the community.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you to all three of you for sharing your stories and experiences and thoughts with us. I really appreciate your time and your candidness.

MONTAGUE: Thank you.

MCKINNON: It's our pleasure.

DORSEY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Vincent Montague is president of the Black Shield Police Association, which supports officers serving in the Greater Cleveland area. Cheryl Dorsey is a retired sergeant in the LA Police Department, and her latest book is "Black And Blue: The Creation Of A Social Advocate." And Isaiah McKinnon is a retired police chief with the Detroit Police Department, and he was also Detroit's deputy mayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSS'S "CHISHOLM TRAIL")

MONTAGUE: And I hope even after this conversation that we can stay in touch with each other so that you can help me through the rest of my career. I only have 12 years on the job, so I'm still learning.

DORSEY: Absolutely, and I would love to stay in touch with you.

MCKINNON: So I - Vincent, how do we get phone numbers of everybody?

DORSEY: I've got it in the group chat.

MONTAGUE: Thanks. I appreciate it.

DORSEY: Vincent.

MONTAGUE: I will stay in touch.

DORSEY: All right, dude (laughter).

MCKINNON: Bye-bye now.

DORSEY: Take good care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSS'S "CHISHOLM TRAIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.