How Black Police Officers Combat Systemic Racism at Work

The 2014 shooting death of Black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was an early event that propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to national prominence and elevated discussions of race and policing in the United States. In the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning in the U.S. and around the world that further magnified calls for police reform. Consequently, police departments around the country have begun to adopt anti-racist organizational policies, like offering diversity training and increasing recruitment of officers who are members of racial minority groups.

Unfortunately, relying solely on top-down strategies like these is not adequate to effectively combat systemic racism in policing. This is complicated by the fact that individuals from marginalized groups (for example, Black individuals or women) can hold biases against members of their own group and may be socialized to reinforce systems of discrimination and inequity — a point which is particularly pertinent when considering the killing of Tyre Nichols that involved five Black officers.

In light of this, our author team wanted to better understand the bottom-up strategies that officers may use to combat systemic racism. In particular, we were curious about the experiences of Black police officers who, instead of going with the status quo, actively seek to combat racism within policing. Our recent work, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, aimed to deeply understand the anti-racism efforts of Black law enforcement officers who chose to be champions of reform within an institution that has a reputation for perpetuating racism against Black communities.

Our research draws on insights gleaned from 48 interviews with Black police officers who are at the fore of anti-racism. We learned why they joined law enforcement, how they challenged racism as police officers, and how they sustained their anti-racism efforts in the face of continuous racial discrimination both within their organizations and society writ large. Based on our findings, we also outline guidelines for employees in other industries who are motivated to engage in such social change efforts. Although not reflective of the experiences or actions of all Black police officers, our study shows how their anti-racism efforts can foster lasting change for both police organizations and Black communities.

Why do Black police officers join law enforcement?

When organizations or occupations are known for being an unwelcome — often dangerous — place to work for members of a marginalized group, it follows that members of these groups would attempt to avoid experiences of racism by choosing not to work in that organization or occupation. Yet, the officers in our study intentionally chose to join and fight racism within exactly these types of environments — why?

Officers explained that they chose to challenge racism from within policing because it is one of the most prominent societal institutions that continues to perpetuate race-based discrimination against Black individuals. Indeed, numerous officers in our study explained a direct connection between their first- or secondhand experiences of racism from police and their choice to enter law enforcement. As Chief Williams explained, “I made the decision to become a police officer because I was a victim of police brutality when I was 14 … [I told myself], ‘I’m going to try and stop those kinds of things from happening to anyone, regardless of who they were’ … I knew I had to do something to make a difference.” (All names of participants have been changed to protect their identities.)

As this example shows, the direct or indirect encounters with racism in policing that would presumably deter Black individuals from joining police organizations actually motivated many of our participants to enter law enforcement, with the goal of driving change.

How do Black police officers challenge racism?

Fueled by the motivation to combat racism in policing from the inside out, officers leveraged their unique position as members in both law enforcement and the Black community, simultaneously working to reduce racism in policing and remediate the effects of racism in the Black community. This dual approach enabled officers in our study to more holistically combat racism by tackling multiple facets of the system.

Three combinations of organizational and community focused anti-racism strategies emerged in our data as especially impactful in policing.

Educating within and across police organizations and communities.

First, we found that many Black officers believed racism in law enforcement could be attributed to white officers’ lack of knowledge about the Black community. As such, several officers in our study attempted to remedy this knowledge gap by sharing the cultural values and norms of Black communities with their white colleagues.

At times, these efforts were reactive — in response to racist incidents they witnessed or experienced themselves. For example, Sergeant Scott recalled witnessing a white colleague become defensive after misinterpreting the mannerisms of a Black community member as aggression. This was the impetus to educate his colleague about communication norms in the community and positively reshaped how the white colleague interacted with Black community members thereafter. Sergeant Scott explained, “Today if you talk to the Black families that he deals with, they love him. He’s very empathetic … [The white officer told me] ‘I wasn’t always like this. I didn’t understand. It took somebody else to explain it to me for me to understand.’”

At other times, efforts to educate white colleagues were proactive. For example, Lieutenant Allen initiated changes to the police academy curriculum, explaining, “I’ve taken out 40 hours of things that were not necessary and added 40 hours of cultural diversity training … [because] we need to figure out how to communicate and connect with people that are different from us.” These examples speak to the importance of educating colleagues in police organizations — both proactively and reactively — about the Black community.

In addition to educating white officers, participants in our study described how important it was to demystify law enforcement by sharing strategies and principles that underlie law enforcement policies and decisions with community members. Senior Police Officer Richardson made himself available to community members as a resource because “a lot of the people in the community do not know the laws [such as] traffic laws [or] penal codes.”

Promoting and demonstrating respect for Black community members.

Across nearly every interview, officers emphasized the importance of promoting respect for Black individuals within law enforcement and in the Black community. For example, participants frequently described encountering racism in their day-to-day work. In these instances, holding white officers accountable for their racist behavior was critical. Officer Edwards overheard white officers disparaging the lifestyles of Black community members and reported it to his supervisor, saying, “I went to the lieutenant, my lieutenant went to their lieutenant. I brought it up like, ‘They’re over there talking about Black people,’” and consequently, the group of white officers was reprimanded.

Regarding their interactions with Black community members, law enforcement officers in our study took extra care to demonstrate respect through behaviors they viewed as humanizing and dignifying. They shared examples of showing the respect that they felt was owed to each community member. As Officer Miller said, “I feel like I can be nice and still arrest you … I don’t have to be mean or treat you as less than a person to enforce the law.”

Uplifting Black individuals in the police organization and the community.

Finally, the officers we spoke with often described how one of the most powerful and rewarding strategies to combat racism in their workplace was to support Black individuals at work — via recruiting, promoting, and mentoring other Black officers — and in the community by going above and beyond for Black community members.

For example, Officer Baker recognized that her Black junior colleagues were likely experiencing challenges during the George Floyd protests, such as being suddenly ostracized by white officers, that were unique to being a Black officer. She intentionally reached out to mentor them, saying, “I was able to be supportive … let them know that there is nothing wrong with them and that how they’re being treated by our white partners … has nothing to do with us Black officers.”

Within the Black community, officers often reported also going above and beyond in their service to support the community members. Officer Pierce told us that he stops to help citizens with flat tires whenever he can because this shapes community members’ perceptions of police: “Now that woman has a totally different attitude about police officers … she didn’t really like police officers in light of everything that’s been going on. I threw off her game because she wanted to hate us.” These efforts not only helped Black community members have a greater sense of trust in law enforcement, but also created a sense of reciprocity wherein these community members were willing to help officers do their jobs more effectively by, for example, sharing information that could help solve an investigation.

In all, these efforts were especially effective in officers’ eyes because they performed two simultaneous and necessary functions: They moved toward fostering police officers’ respect for Black community members and toward repairing the Black community’s trust in law enforcement.

How do Black police officers sustain their anti-racism efforts?

Unsurprisingly, Black officers encountered significant roadblocks and backlash for their efforts.

First, by virtue of entering an organization that has a history of perpetuating racism, Black officers were likely to suffer through the negative consequences of racism while also working to combat it. Officers reported racial slurs from colleagues, getting left on the side of the road in dangerous weather by white officers, and being informally prohibited from sitting with the white officers at mealtimes.

Second, officers described that by entering law enforcement, they experienced stigma from Black individuals given the institution’s reputation for being deeply devastating to the Black community. For example, officers remembered being called a “traitor” or a “sellout” by Black community members because of their profession.

Third, officers experienced retaliation for their anti-racism efforts in both overt and subtle forms such as explicit acts of bullying — like having tires slashed — or career advancement opportunities that were inexplicably delayed. These challenges tended to be particularly pronounced in the wake of police-related mega-threats (negative events that are both related to an identity and command significant media attention, like the murder of George Floyd) that brought police brutality toward Black community members to the forefront of national attention.

The combination of being rejected at work and in the community was extremely troubling, with officers experiencing significant stress, isolation, and even suicidal thoughts. In fact, many endured periods of time when they seriously considered quitting. This raises the question: How did these employees persevere and continue combatting racism in law enforcement?

There were two key factors. The first, counterintuitively, was the very racism that was causing the stress. Officers explained how these experiences highlighted that their efforts were very much still needed. As Detective Coates explained, “I know that I’m needed … I know that I can’t change a lot of these people’s minds, but I can change [some] through my actions.”

The second factor was seeing glimpses of evidence that their anti-racism efforts were making a positive impact. For instance, Officer Pierce successfully advocated to recruit new officers from Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); Chief Davis described receiving an apology email from a white officer who had said something offensive to him in the past; and Lieutenant Allen wrote an open letter to a racist officer and shared it within his department, causing the officer to resign. As Senior Police Officer King noted, “I stay motivated and encouraged seeing change being made for the better. I’ll stay motivated and encouraged knowing the fact that a simple thank you, a simple gesture, a simple conversation is changing someone’s life for the better.”

Beyond the changes taking place in law enforcement, the officers also described instances of positive change in their communities. Senior Corporal Adams bought lunch for a Black citizen who was nervous interacting with a police officer, explaining, “It totally took his guard down … He was talking about fishing and hunting and all that stuff after that.” Detective Coates shared how citizens would share tips and information when they trusted that the information would be dealt with fairly. In a particularly poignant example, one officer responded to a call for a young Black woman experiencing a mental health crisis, and after he and his partner stayed in touch with her, she eventually invited them to her high school graduation.

For these officers, combating racism drove their entry into law enforcement, shaped their choices each day, and led to glimpses of transformation that provided them with a better understanding of their impact — this played a critical role in sustaining the anti-racism motivation needed to continue this work.

What can we learn from Black police officers?

Policing is, of course, different from other work settings in many ways, and not every experience or lesson will transfer. Yet, we believe that some of the strategies that motivate Black officers to engage in and sustain anti-racism efforts within policing can help other historically underrepresented employees and their allies fight for change in their own organizations. Although it is incumbent on organizations to address racism and other systemic issues at the policy level, we see three key ways that their strategies can be especially useful to those aiming to drive change in other work settings.

Clarify your “why.”

The officers in our study had a clear purpose, which not only guided their choice of policing as an occupation, but sparked motivation during challenging periods. This clarity of purpose is likely to be similarly powerful across occupations for those passionate about driving social change, meaning that a sharp focus on such motivation — “Why is this meaningful to me personally? Why is this important for society more broadly?” — is a worthwhile starting point and a critical touchpoint as the work continues.

Leverage your unique set of identities.

Our research participants recognized how being both Black and a police officer uniquely positioned them to drive change in ways that others could not. Though at times contentious, their simultaneous membership in the Black community and the police organization prompted others’ receptivity to their actions. Having a footing in each of these worlds also enabled officers to address the problematic behavior and support those most impacted by it. Carefully considering one’s unique position and access to stakeholders may similarly unlock effectiveness in other occupations.

Anticipate setbacks and celebrate progress.

It was clear to officers that there are significant roadblocks to enacting change. They described sustaining their anti-racism by having a plan in place to navigate roadblocks, reframing mega-threats as indications that their work is greatly needed, and celebrating glimpses of the changes they were aiming to create. Anticipating the backlash and envisioning what small steps toward success will look like may similarly enable those driving for social change in any occupation to sustain engagement in the face of challenges and setbacks.

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