PHILADELPHIA, PA — Over the last couple weeks, the messages from younger Black police officers have been frequent — each one a missive of “despair.”
“I’ve never been more ready to walk away from a career,” read one. Another told her, “We’re not OK. Blue doesn’t acknowledge us because we’re Black, and Black doesn’t acknowledge us because we’re blue.”
The Philadelphia Police supervisor who shared the messages declined to be identified because she is not authorized to speak to reporters. But she said she urges those officers to stay in the department and be agents of change.
Yet as protesters have marched through the city, chanting “no good cops in a racist system” and decrying the police killings of unarmed Black people, Black officers feel caught in the middle — simultaneously dealing with what they see as the justified anger of the Black community and the realities of a workplace where racial animus often goes unchecked by supervisors, Internal Affairs, or the police union. On Facebook, when Black police post “Black Lives Matter,” some white officers respond, “What about blue lives?”
“We’re all hurting,” the supervisor said. “We’re pretty much in between. You feel like you’re the red-headed step-kid, because you really don’t fit into the police department and you really don’t fit into the Black community because of your career.”
Some of Philadelphia’s 2,040 Black police officers say the protests have heightened tensions in a department that has a long history of allegations of racism and that is currently fighting several discrimination lawsuits, including one by three Black officers who allege abuse by some of the department’s highest-ranking officials.
Historically, the Guardian Civic League, which represents Black officers, fought repeated legal battles in the 1980s and ’90s to increase minority hiring and eliminate discrimination in exams given to determine promotions.
But the department remains, as it has for the last few decades, majority white with only 31% Black representation, in a city that is 44% African American. Even at the lowest rank, police officer, the majority of staffers are white — and at higher levels the diversity problem grows worse. Only about one in five detectives or captains is Black (though that is a notable improvement over just five years ago, when The Inquirer reported 87% of police captains were white).
Former officer Bryan Turner said there’s a reason Black police stay quiet: “If you speak out about anything in the department — racial issues, sexual issues, and it goes against the grain — they will make life miserable for you.”
In 2017, Turner took to Facebook to support Black Lives Matter and decry the fatal shooting of David Jones by then-Officer Ryan Pownall. He believes that effectively ended his career.
A few months after that Facebook post — and after settling a federal lawsuit alleging official retaliation for reporting a lieutenant’s racist comment — Turner was fired and charged with falsifying paperwork over what he said was a clerical error. He was acquitted at a jury trial last year, but still lost his job. His discrimination claim is now before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
In recent years, racial incidents have regularly roiled the department, from a 2009 lawsuit alleging discrimination in connection with postings on a website, Domelights.com, to last year’s controversy over the Plain View Project, which unearthed racist or problematic Facebook posts and caused 15 Philadelphia officers to resign or be fired.
“We understand the impact that the recent (and historical) events have had on communities of color (which include members of our department). To that point, as was the case in the wake of the Plain View Project findings, we have continued holding internal listening and healing sessions with our members,” Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a department spokesperson, wrote in an email.
He said increasing diversity in the department is a priority for Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, but could not provide specifics.
The Philadelphia Police Department last year settled more discrimination lawsuits than any other city department, including several claims of hostile and “dehumanizing” treatment of Black female officers.
Three Black officers are currently suing the department in federal court claiming they faced retaliation for questioning narcotics supervisors’ instructions to falsify reports. One of them, Capt. Laverne Vann, also sued separately, alleging one of department’s highest ranking officials, Chief Inspector Anthony Boyle, assaulted her as she was trying to make an arrest shortly after the first lawsuit was filed. She alleged it was part of a larger campaign in which he “whistled at her like a dog,” excluded her from meetings, and forced her to undergo bike training even though she was not a skilled rider, resulting in injuries.
The supervisor who was fielding complaints from other officers said there are more instances that never make it into court, such as her own recent encounters with an official who was “targeting Black people, Black female supervisors, especially,” circumventing their authority, refusing to speak with them, or accusing them of falsifying paperwork.
Even so, those complaints represent a fraction of the Black officers on the force.
Lt. Willie Williams, regional president of the National Black Police Association, said he’s proud that Black officers are often at the forefront of community engagement.
“It’s my calling,” he said.
He dismissed the notion that the police department has a particular problem with racism, or that the protests had brought conflicts to the fore. However, he said, some colleagues have been emboldened during the Trump administration to express racist views: “That’s where a lot of it comes from: People think it’s acceptable.”
A look at zip codes where high concentrations of Philadelphia Police officers reside shows they are often highly segregated. In Northeast Philadelphia, the 19154 zip code is home to 566 cops, 85% of them white. Across town, in Overbrook Park, 19151 is home to 142 officers, 92% of them Black.
Lamar Birch, who retired from the department in 2018, said that at times that divide could cause problems in enforcement.
He recalled patrolling with a young white officer in a primarily African American neighborhood. The rookie was ready to jump into action over what sounded like an aggressive fight that turned out to be only a boisterous debate over Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James.
“He didn’t understand the culture,” Birch said. “He actually thought it was a fight. Had I not been there to tell him to stop and listen, who knows what it would have turned into.”
Out of 21 police districts in Philadelphia, eight have majority-minority populations but a police force that is majority white, an Inquirer analysis of 2019 data found.
David Fisher, a retired police officer who heads a Philadelphia chapter of the National Black Police Association, said his frustration is that he spends hours organizing backpack giveaways and basketball games, trying to mend community relations.
Now, the protests have only reaffirmed the suspicions and anger that have simmered for years.
“It’s all for naught,” he said. “We’re all lumped into the same conversation of being part of that system that basically is being protested in terms of racism. And I think when I talk to officers I think that’s the drawback, the disappointment, that no matter what we do as Black officers we’re still going to be seen that way.”
As protests roiled the city, Lt. Jonathan Josey posted a public Facebook video describing the tension of being “ostracized from two sides — your career and your community.”
There’s a dissonance, he said, between going to work on the police force, and going home to teach his Black children how to avoid antagonizing police lest it get them killed, “Although I wear a badge and have for almost 30 years, I’m a jurisdiction away from being George Floyd.”
Josey, a longtime Philadelphia police officer, has had his share of headlines. In 2018, Josey lost a lawsuit filed after he was passed over for a promotion for captain, a decision the city said was connected to a video showing he hit a woman at the 2012 Puerto Rican Day Parade. He was acquitted of simple assault.
He said he was wary of speaking out but felt compelled, and in response to his Facebook post, he said he’s received hundreds of comments and calls from Black officers thanking him. “Those officers had a heavy heart out there, keeping the peace and knowing their heart was truly with the protesters,” he said. White officers called him, too, saying, “Dude, I never thought about that.”
Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, who was previously a police officer and the head of the Guardian Civic League, said she hears those concerns from officers all the time.
“They want people to do know that they …. do not agree with the fact that unarmed Black men are being killed. They want to do their jobs. They want to remain on the force. They do want to see things change. But I say some of them need to step up and speak out when they see their colleagues doing something wrong,” she said.
“You may most likely be targeted because you stand up and speak out but I say you gotta do it anyway,” she added.