WASHINGTON – As calls for police reform swell across America, officers say they feel caught in the middle: vilified by the left as violent racists, fatally ambushed by extremists on the right seeking to sow discord and scapegoated by lawmakers who share responsibility for the state of the criminal justice system.
The Associated Press spoke with more than two dozen officers around the country, Black, white, Hispanic and Asian, who are frustrated by the pressure they say is on them to solve the much larger problem of racism and bias in the United States. They are struggling to do their jobs, even if most agree change is needed following the death of George Floyd, who was Black, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Most of the officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation or firing.
“You know, being a Black man, being a police officer and which I’m proud of being, both very proud — I understand what the community’s coming from,” said Jeff Maddrey, an NYPD chief in Brooklyn and one of many officers who took a knee as a show of respect for protesters.
All of officers interviewed agreed they'd lost some kind of trust in their communities. For some, the moment is causing a personal reckoning with past arrests. Others distinguish between the Floyd case and their own work, highlighting their lives saved, personal moments when they cried alongside crime victims.
“I have never seen overtly racist actions by my brothers or sisters in my department,” wrote white Covington, Kentucky, police specialist Doug Ullrich in an Op-Ed. “In fact, I believe that my department is on the leading edge of ‘doing it right.’"
Of course, hardly all police support change. Some are incensed — deriding colleagues as traitors for taking a knee or calling out sick to protest the arrests of some police for their actions amid the protests.
For Dean Esserman, senior counselor of the National Police Foundation and past police chief of Providence, Rhode Island, and New Haven and Stamford in Connecticut, the result so far has been for communities and police to pull away from one another. That will mean fewer personal connections — and more problems, he said.
“Many police leaders who are saying ‘don’t call us' when there are emergencies miss the point," he said. "I delivered nine babies in my career, and I never shot anybody. The community isn't part of the job. It IS the job.”
It’s not the first time that police officers have found themselves caught in the middle. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this decade spawned a “blue lives matter” campaign and the belief among many Americans that cops were being unfairly stigmatized over the actions of a few or split-second decisions during tense situations.
But now, Americans are largely united behind the idea that change is necessary: 29% think the criminal justice system needs “a complete overhaul,” 40% say it needs “major changes.” Just 5% believe no changes are needed, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The long, often dark history of American policing has meant minority communities are treated one way, and white ones another. Floyd's killing cracked open the pain anew, but minorities have long begged for officers to stop seeing them as criminals and to police with equity.
While many activists acknowledge that the problems they're fighting go beyond police departments, they say that doesn't mean individual officers aren't guilty.
“People who try to sell you ‘police reform’ are trying to sell you the idea that you can (asterisk)train(asterisk) the anti-Black racism out of an institution built upon and upheld by anti-Black racism,” activist Adam Smith tweeted.
A culture that allows racism to fester in law enforcement hasn’t yet changed because that would take deep structural shifts, new blood and a lot of time, said Sandra Susan Smith, a criminal justice professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“It’s not just about the institutional mandate to control and confine, it’s also about the views individual officers bring to neighborhoods,” she said.
The difference now is top police officials nationwide are increasingly supporting reform. Patrick Yeos, president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said change must come from the top down — and lawmakers must play their role.
“These issues are not created by officers," he said.
Police don't always have the autonomy their elected leaders claim they do. When NYPD officers were stopping hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Hispanic men a year, top brass said officers were exercising their judgment — and the stops were necessary. But officers testified at a federal trial over the stop-and-frisk tactic they felt pressured by superiors to show they were cracking down. And those stops rarely resulted in arrest.
Cerelyn Davis, police chief in Durham, North Carolina, and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said reform is possible, but there must national accountability standards, and teeth behind them.
“They talk about one bad apple," she said. "In this field we can’t afford to have one bad apple. One bad apple can have grave consequences.”
As the debate has played out, the tensions have led to violence. Officers are accused of harming protesters. And they’re getting hurt and killed, too.
A sheriff's deputy in California was killed and four others officers wounded by an Air Force sergeant with links to a far-right group, officials said. He was also charged with killing a federal security officer outside a courthouse. A 29-year-old police officer was shot in the head during a protest on the Las Vegas Strip and has been left paralyzed from the neck down.
Hundreds of officers have been injured in the protests in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, some critically.
This, too, has happened before. In 2014, after the grand jury declined to bring charges against a cop in the death of Eric Garner, a man angry over the death shot two officers dead in their patrol car. Across the nation, others were targeted.
In New York, where an officer was charged with strangulation Thursday after an apparent chokehold — the same tactic used on Garner — Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said continued reforms are needed and he lauded the push for them.
But, he said: "It’s also a moment in time where it’s a pretty tough time to be in law enforcement.”
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Gary Fields in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.