NEW ORLEANS - Sergeant Keith Mott has been a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years, including 12 years and counting with the Los Angeles Police Department. He says being an African American cop can be a balancing act.
“When I put on my badge,” he told VOA, “it can sometimes feel like I have to declare allegiance to one of two competing colors: the blue of my uniform or the black of my skin.”
That feeling is particularly true as tensions have boiled over across the United States between African American communities and the police sworn to serve them after George Floyd, a Black man, died while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last month.
Those tensions are playing out on a personal level for officers like Mott.
On one hand, he’s lost relationships with friends and even family members who have called him “a traitor to his race” because he’s a police officer. He’s met women who won’t date him because of his career. On the other hand, people tell him he’s acting against his fellow officers when he voices support for redirecting police funding toward things like mental health services.
Mott’s frustration is palpable.
“Why do I have to pick a side?” he asked. He said he’s a police officer because he wants to serve his community like his father did. “Why does doing that require me to choose between being a Black man or being a police officer?”
When the badge is off
African American officers say those who confront them about their decision to join the police forget the job doesn’t shield them from the everyday challenges of being Black in America.
“I don’t wear my badge 24 hours a day,” said Chris Reed, who has served as a federal agent for more than three decades in roles as varied as patrolling the southern border and rooting out waste in U.S. aid to foreign countries. “I’m Black before I put on the badge. I’m Black while I’m wearing the badge. And I’m Black after I take the badge off. I deal with all the same stuff other Black people do.”
Many minority officers recount stories of being wrongly detained while off duty.
Mott remembers being handcuffed while walking his dog. The officer on duty who confronted him said police were searching for a man who fit his description. Mott was placed in the back of a patrol car. Later, when he was able to show his badge, the handcuffs were removed.
He said the officer’s first response upon seeing his badge was to ask why Mott was in that neighborhood.
“I didn’t know I was only allowed to be in certain neighborhoods,” Mott mused, “and I don’t know of many people committing crimes while walking their dog.”
Reed, now semiretired, has similar stories. He recalls apprehending drug smugglers while working as an undercover agent at the U.S. border when an Arizona state trooper pulled up and asked to see his credentials. Reed had to step away from the suspects to convince the trooper he was a federal agent — and the trooper still called his supervisor to confirm.
But it was the questioning of his 17-year-old son that affected Reed the most.
"My son was standing on a sidewalk waiting for his female friend,” Reed said. A white man approached Reed’s son and questioned him about what he was doing there. The man said he was an off-duty officer but wouldn’t show his credentials.
“He asked for my son’s phone so he could confirm his identity,” Reed said. “But that’s where things could have gotten really bad. How is my son supposed to know the man’s really an officer? What if my son resists?”
Talks with their children
Reed said being a law enforcement officer has not spared him from the need to have the conversations so many Black parents have with their kids.
“We talk to our children about how to interact with the police without escalating the situation,” he said. “This officer didn’t make it easy, but I always tell my sons, ‘Listen. We’ll figure out the injustice later. I just need you to survive this interaction. Just stay alive.’ ”
Reed added, “Now, even though I’m an officer, my son doesn’t trust the police. That’s what these mishandled interactions do to the community.”
Despite such incidents, Black officers like Reed and Mott are hesitant to call fellow officers racist because they understand what it’s like to be labeled for pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Reed remembers bringing a Black suspect to a federal courthouse and having to attach the man to a chain of 15 other men — all African American — who were to be marched upstairs to appear in front of a judge.
“To walk into that cell and see all these men who look like me — I can’t describe how that feels,” he said.
While in the cell, one suspect called him an “Uncle Tom” — an epithet used by African Americans to describe Black people they perceive to be acting subserviently to whites.
“I was upset,” Reed said. “How am I being obedient? I joined law enforcement because I wanted to make things better.”
For Black police officers, challenges have grown since Floyd’s death.
An officer in New Orleans who asked to remain anonymous told VOA of a recent confrontation between the city’s police department and a crowd of peaceful protesters attempting to block interstate traffic.
He said that when tensions rise, Black officers are often insulted by protesters of all ethnicities.
“They’ve called me a pig, they’ve called me a sellout, and they’ve called me an Uncle Tom. They yell at me to take off my badge and join them,” he said. “But, man, it never occurs to them that I already join them.”
The officer said he’d taken part in protests on his days off. “I believe in protesting,” he said, “and it’s also my job to keep people safe when I’m on duty.”
Between two worlds
The New Orleans officer said that every time a person of color dies in police custody, being a minority cop becomes exponentially more difficult. He’s approached, he said, by friends, family and strangers in the community looking for answers.
“It’s like they want me to make a statement on behalf of all Black law enforcement,” he said, adding that he couldn't explain deadly police actions in Minneapolis and elsewhere. “I don’t know why they did it. I can just tell them how I’d have done it.”
Although listening to his community is often stressful, he said he understood that it's part of the job. And, he said, giving in to protesters’ calls to “take off the badge” would only make things worse.
Mott agreed. Minority representation in the police is essential, he said, and repairing the relationship between communities of color and the police department is one of his most important roles.
It’s also one he’s embraced, but he noted that something as simple as speaking in front of elementary school students is challenging these days.
“When I show up in my police uniform, even young kids will fold their arms and shut me off,” he said. “Their parents, rap music — they all vilify Black officers now. They say we’re worse than white officers because we’re killers of our own people.”
He said he now goes into schools dressed in a suit and tie instead. He doesn’t tell the kids he’s a police officer at first.
“They assume I’m a lawyer or something,” he said with a laugh, acknowledging this allows them to have a conversation. They talk about being a good community member and about interacting with the police. He eventually tells them he’s an officer.
“They’re surprised,” he said. “I don’t match what they’ve been told about Black police. They see I’m not a villain. They see I care about my community and being a good officer. I care about both things.”