Eric Watson decided to become a police officer because of an experience with racial profiling and his determination to change policing culture.
Sasha Murray decided to join the force because she knew how the trauma of witnessing abuse close-up could lead to trouble later in life.
Abril Washington-Saunders decided to become a cop because she grew up comfortably in Mount Pleasant and wanted to pay it forward by helping those in need.
Reggie Burgess decided to don the blue uniform because, raised a Christian, he knew he was obligated to love and look out for his neighbors.
It was not easy. They were sometimes chastised by family and questioned by friends worried about their safety and the hard-to-reconcile conflicts they were certain to endure as African Americans in law enforcement.
Yet they persevered, some convinced early in life that this was their destiny, others motivated to make change from within a system that has come under increasing scrutiny.
Black police officers sometimes are subject to an uncomfortable balancing act. They are part of law enforcement and must show loyalty to the men and women in blue. They are on the side of the established status quo and are expected to uphold it. At the same time, they are Black people who generally know the effects of the discrimination, racial profiling, and marginalization that African Americans endure in the United States.
These police officers are meant to serve their communities, but often must confront them instead, sometimes with violence, and this can produce a tension that poses challenges to Black cops.
As North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess puts it, “You are either too blue for the black or too black for the blue.”
This is the challenge that African American officers manage each day on the job.
Reimagining the system
When rioting erupted on King and Meeting streets in Charleston on May 30, after a day of peaceful protests against police brutality, law enforcement officers — Black and White — responded. They faced down the unruly crowd, resorted to the use of tear gas and made dozens of arrests. Behind the body armor and plastic face masks were human beings, following orders, and experiencing the event in different ways.
Sgt. Sean Engles of the Charleston Police Department, who is White, runs the outreach unit and oversees a team of three officers: a White man, a Black man and a Black woman. During the riot, Engles moved to the SWAT team while his three officers confronted protesters. Afterward, he asked his colleagues about their experience and learned that one of his Black officers felt singled out by demonstrators who questioned his loyalty to his community.
“It was eye-opening,” Engles said. “The experience of a Black officer can be very different from that of a White officer. It was the first time I thought about it.”
Recruiting African Americans for police work is difficult partly because of historic mistrust in Black communities.
As of September, the Charleston Police Department consisted of 400 sworn officers: 320 are White, 59 are Black.
The North Charleston Police Department has 330 officers: 243 are White, 65 are Black.
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, which currently has several vacancies, is staffed with 278 law enforcement deputies, 31 of whom are Black. (Its 267-member detention staff includes 116 African Americans.)
Community activists have long criticized local public safety agencies for racial profiling and what they consider heavy-handed policing practices in communities of color. Charleston Police published a preliminary racial bias report in September 2019.
The audit team praised the department for its progress and openness to reform, though noted racial disparities in traffic stops, poor data-collection practices, muddled policies on use of force, failures to meaningfully engage parts of the community, and some accountability gaps.
The North Charleston Police Department is completing its racial bias audit. Newly elected Sheriff Kristin Graziano has vowed to initiate an audit quickly and add more people of color to her staff.
Tracie Keesee, senior vice president of justice initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity and a former officer with the New York City and Denver police departments, said the dilemma Black police officers cope with can be mitigated, in part, by diversifying departments so they reflect better the communities they serve. The problem is that few Black people are willing to consider careers in policing. And that’s not only because of the troubling racial history of law enforcement in the U.S.
Officers of color, as well as women, are subjected to more pressure on the job, and are disciplined at higher rates, said Keesee, who is Black.
African American officers are criticized for siding with the White establishment, then criticized for failing to transform that establishment, she said.
“Why would someone want to put themselves in that (position) in the first place?” she asked.
Law enforcement officials contend their work is driven largely by data, not bias.
Pfc. James Fulwood recently joined the North Charleston Police Department’s SWAT team. On a weekly basis, team members serve warrants for serious offenses, such as assault and battery, domestic violence, and attempted murder. Chases are not uncommon.
During a recent sweep, officers visited a home in the city’s Wescott community to arrest a Black man for alleged domestic violence, only to learn the man was at work. So four policemen went to a nearby fast-food restaurant, where they put the suspect in handcuffs.
Fulwood said onlookers easily could jump to conclusions. A cellphone recording of the arrest, for example, would not include the investigative work and warranting process, Fulwood said.
“A lot of people only see where we end up,” he said.
The relationship between African American officers and the predominantly Black communities they serve are complex, and include both positive and negative interactions.
On one hand, Black cops are able to connect with these communities in ways their White colleagues cannot. But Black officers also can be accused by African American residents of profiling when they make arrests.
Patrol Officer Abril Washington-Saunders, 28, focuses on North Charleston’s southern end, known for its higher crime rates and poverty.
One night in November, she began her shift by pulling into a vacant lot to chat with a homeless African American woman. Washington-Saunders has known her for five years.
“You already ate?” the officer asked.
"Yeah," the woman said.
Washington-Saunders, who has tried to convince the woman to move in with her daughter, often buys her meals.
"I don't bother her," Washington-Saunders said. "If that's what she chooses to do and that's what makes her happy and she's not causing a ruckus in the neighborhood, let her be."
The interaction showed how Black cops are able to build trust with people who might be more comfortable dealing with police who look like them.
But sometimes these encounters are more complicated.
During her November shift, Washington-Sanders changed her route slightly to cruise through a community off Dorchester Road that had recently seen an uptick in gun violence.
She noticed a car with a missing tail light and dark tinted windows. She turned on her blue lights to get the driver to pull over.
Four people were inside the car. The driver consented to a vehicle search and all the occupants stepped out so Washington-Saunders could pat them down.
She discovered a handgun tucked in the right waistband of one of the riders, a 17-year-old North Charleston resident, put the teenager in handcuffs and placed him in the back of the police cruiser.
He was arrested in front of his house, his father and siblings standing outside confused and angry.
Washington-Saunders recognized that the group might suspect racial profiling, but she had been in the neighborhood because shots had been fired in the area a week ago, she said.
She has never been in a situation where a suspect was treated unfairly and would speak up if that were the case, she said.
Good days, bad days
Patrol Officer Sasha Murray, 22, is a rookie cop in North Charleston fulfilling a dream. Like many of her colleagues, she served in the military first (she was a cargo specialist in the Army) but has known since high school that she wanted to be a police officer.
Her motivation stems from the trauma of witnessing domestic violence. Cops showed up at her house often. She came to see them as rescuers, and soon understood that that was her calling, too: to help others in trouble.
Now, when she is called to a scene of domestic violence, she tells the parents that what they do today makes a lasting impression on their children.
Murray has received a lot of support from her supervisors and fellow officers. If she is teased, it’s certainly not because of her skin color but rather her youth, she said. These days, she is mostly on patrol, one of two officers driving their cruisers through the central part of North Charleston, sometimes assisting colleagues in one of the North Charleston Police Department’s other five zones. She carves a route through areas known for crime. Her visible presence is meant both to reassure and deter.
She tries to make it clear that she is available. She greets those she sees with a smile and a wave, sometimes stops to chat. Recently, she rescued a dog. A good day. One of her worst days so far? That time when gunshots rang out at the Golden Corral restaurant and she wasn’t sure if she was the target. Or perhaps that medical call, the son worried sick about his mother lying face down, unresponsive, as medics worked on her.
“That hit me hard,” Murray said.
When she’s not at work, she’s dressed in a hoodie, spending time with her girlfriend or her family, thinking about continuing her education at Trident Technical College. But she knows that sometimes she is perceived only as a cop in blue. On one occasion, an African American woman called her racist, accusing her of targeting Black people and minorities.
“Ma’am, I’m Black,” Murray responded. “I have a girlfriend. You can’t use that here.”
But the woman got even more belligerent.
Murray said she gets her information mostly from what's received by 911 operators and entered into a computer system that delivers whatever details are gathered to her cruiser’s laptop. She clicks on the call and responds. That's not the same as racial profiling.
“I’ve never seen anybody get stopped for doing nothing,” she said.
‘Warrior vs. Guardian’
Eric Watson, deputy county administrator in the Department of Public Safety and a former Charleston County Sheriff’s deputy, grew up in the East Side neighborhood and did not have good experiences with the police.
“As a Black guy, walking at night, I was constantly stopped,” he said.
In 1989, when he was 17, Watson was thrown to the ground and handcuffed in front of his home. The cops, one White and one Black, were angry that the teenagers outside together were laughing and not obeying their instructions. The White cop used the N-word, Watson said, recalling how his mother yelled at him from the house: “They’re trying to provoke you!”
Soon, guns were drawn and Watson was face down on the pavement. His mother quickly intervened, calming things down.
“It was a pivotal moment in my life,” he said. “I had no ambition to become a cop ... but, in that moment, I recognized the system was broken.”
He witnessed enough harassment in his neighborhood, including foot chases, frisking for no good reason, and constant arrests.
“It’s natural for the Black community to have resentment,” Watson said. “Law enforcement, historically, has been used as a tool to suppress that community.”
For a long time, law enforcement has grappled with what Watson called the “warrior vs. guardian” dilemma. On one hand, police must catch criminals, control violence, stop dangerous behaviors. This requires confrontation. On the other hand, police are tasked with keeping the peace, protecting communities, assisting civilians.
It’s a dual role, Watson said. And, too often, here and elsewhere in the country, the default is warrior when it should be guardian. The guardian should be trained to become a warrior only when it is truly necessary, he said.
Those with military backgrounds bring valuable experience to policing: a good sense of structure and discipline, for example. But they would benefit from retraining in order to trade certain military habits for civilian ones — and for that guardian mindset, Watson said.
Black officers can find themselves caught between their loyalty to the force and their feelings for their community, he said. After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by a White police officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck as a Black officer stood by, Watson received many calls.
“Black officers cry silently,” he said. “They’re afraid to show empathy.” And they were upset because local leaders failed to address their feelings, perhaps failed to recognize the inner conflict in the first place. Instead, they were ordered to don riot gear and confront protesters downtown on May 30.
“They’re going to do their jobs,” Watson said of his Black colleagues in law enforcement. “They’re loyal, they’re professional, but they feel no one is listening to them.”
Kristin Graziano said she is listening to them. She’s the new Charleston County sheriff with decades of law enforcement experience and a concern for social justice. She said many White people in law enforcement don’t realize their Black colleagues might be harboring pain or frustration, or quietly cheering on the Black Lives Matter movement.
She said it’s critical for cops to become more aware of racial issues since they are expected to serve all kinds of communities, urban and rural, and depend on help they receive there.
Ultimately, she said, “people don’t respect uniforms; they respect people. You’ve got to be part of the community.”
Doing right by people
North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess is a reform-minded leader. Now three years in the top position, he has helped diversify the department and shift focus away from petty crimes. Citywide, nonviolent offenses such as larceny, burglary and auto theft are down 41 percent.
He meets regularly with social justice activists, pastors and others concerned about policing practices and has demonstrated respect for their views, Jason Jones, director of the local social justice group United Front, said.
Burgess's own interest in policing stems from TV shows featuring SWAT teams saving the day. He found that thrilling, he said. But his athletic prowess dictated a different path at first. He played football, baseball and basketball and ran track, attended Morgan State University on a football scholarship and signed with the Toronto Argonauts. But his athletic career didn’t work out, he said, and soon he was back home in North Charleston wondering what to do.
His stepfather, an Army veteran, had worked at the Westvaco paper mill. He had interacted with all kinds of people in the military and on the job, and he taught his sons to be flexible with others.
“He wanted us to be versatile in our thinking,” Burgess said.
The young athlete took this lesson to heart, and it helped him feel comfortable in all kinds of situations. It helped set the stage for policing, he said.
So did his encounters with racism and bias, such as the time his mother was accused by Burgess’s fifth grade teacher of stealing the nice clothes he wore.
Or the time in the 1990s when, as a young cop, he answered a call only to encounter a White family uninterested in dealing with a Black man.
“Thank you for coming,” they told him, pointing to the door. “We’ll call for another person.”
Or the time he responded to a call from a predominantly Black housing project and met an incredulous family surprised by his appearance. They preferred a White officer with whom they were familiar over this untested and unknown Black policeman.
”I got it from both sides,” he said.
Informed by these experiences, and many others, Burgess has been trying to change practices and, in turn, attitudes. For instance, he insists that “there is no such thing as a ‘crime-ridden neighborhood.’ It’s always a small number of bad actors.” He also knows that members of the community view most cops, whether Black or White, as blue, and that this is a reason to ramp up the kind of community-based policing that encourages casual interaction and fosters trusting relationships.
He’s also aware that his White officers often worry that any Black person they stop might jump to the conclusion that he is being profiled according to race, and that this requires White officers to work harder to show goodwill.
He knows police officers are only human, harboring unconscious bias and capable of mistakes, but trust is a two-way street.