My Dad, the Black Cop

I’ve always thought my old man was too smart not to realize that what he’s a part of has done so much irreparable damage.

Courtesy of Nicholas Russell
Nicholas Russell
saturday essay

A good chunk of my childhood took place in the correctional facility where my dad has worked as an officer for 25 years. Back then, he was on the graveyard shift, right as my mom was heading home from her job as a clerk at the municipal court next door. They handed me off when we didn’t have a babysitter. My dad will be the first to confess that his interest in becoming a cop was not dutiful or patriotic. “I wanted a solid career, to be able to provide for my family, and have a stable retirement,” he told me recently. Police departments are known, among other things, for their extremely powerful unions, which negotiate robust pension funds and sometimes steep salary increases over the course of an officer’s tenure. Along with the nation’s worshipful culture around cops comes the perk of a reliable, well-paying job. Still, this reasoning confuses me, because I’ve always thought my old man was too smart not to realize that what he’s a part of has done so much irreparable damage.

Popular narratives about Black people and cops paint a static picture: Black people hate cops and they hate Black people who become cops. Shows like Brooklyn 99 and New Girl might try to mine humor or didactic complexity from this fact, but the reality is far too specific to local histories to be swept away with one large flourish. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin writes, “In Harlem, Negro policemen are feared more than whites, for they have more to prove and fewer ways to prove it.”

My dad started out as a history teacher; he always had a particular interest in Black politics and the Civil Rights movement. When I asked him why someone as well-read as him — not to mention a Black man with his own cautionary experiences concerning police — would want to become a cop, he told me some family history I hadn’t known before. His paternal grandfather had been a sheriff in Arizona for 35 years, and he had cousins and uncles in law enforcement as well. The historical aspects of policing that tend to hinder a lot of Black Americans, he said, didn’t hinder him.

I’m often asked if, because my dad is a cop and because I don’t support the police, whether I hate him.

Growing up, I didn’t have an opinion on what my dad did because I didn’t understand what it entailed. When he came home, he was out of his uniform, gun locked out of sight. It was only when I saw him at the correctional facility, sometimes visiting him with my mom, sometimes hanging in the break room waiting for her to get off work, that I got a sense for the strange, dungeon-like nature of his workplace. I remember the harsh, fluorescent lights; the inmates with chains around their ankles who always made to stop and face the wall when we passed by.

Witnessing my dad in full uniform happened infrequently enough that it always seemed as if he was playing dress-up. Which is another reason why, for the longest time, I didn’t have a problem with what he did. He worked in the jail, which meant he wasn’t responsible for arresting people, which meant he wasn’t able to act on any biases, which meant he was really just doing his best in the role he was given. The stories he’d tell me about larger-than-life criminals who came through — the Russian brothers charged with human trafficking and smuggling who would always try to get him to play chess with them, the eloquent and soft-spoken doctor whose wife was already in prison — made his work sound adventurous, as if he was some sort of spy. Invariably, when we traveled, he’d manage to find some local patrol officer and strike up a cordial, sometimes uproarious conversation with them. It all seemed so peaceful and cool.

Then the same thing that happens to a lot of Black people happened to me: I got pulled over on the highway. I was 16, with a fresh license, on an empty road late at night, going the speed limit. The officer had nothing better to do, gave me a ticket, and went on his way. I was an easy target of scrutiny from the police. I was tall, not just for my age, and I stood out easily. I was stopped another time for driving the same type of car as a suspect — who looked nothing like me — who had supposedly waved a weapon at passersby. The officer told me to get out of my car, drew his gun on me, and handcuffed me on the hood of the patrol car before he reluctantly admitted his mistake. When I lived in New York, where the police are more lax and more aggressive depending on where you are, I’d often be stopped and searched in the subway.

My dad could never successfully answer my questions as to why — if they were all upstanding and well-intentioned people like him — so many cops profiled me without any sense of remorse or hesitation. He simply countered with outrage, demanding their badge numbers, where they stopped me, what time of day. This in itself was a kind of revelation. The issue, I learned, was obviously systemic. But the cases of racism and abuse were piecemeal. Whatever good the police were supposedly doing, I could never see it. But the inverse remains true for those who support the police: they would rather be provided with harsh, irrevocable proof that something bad is happening to people who look like them than pledge true, wide-ranging solidarity.

Last month, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar published a long essay on Amazon called “Black Cop’s Kid,” about how his father’s experience as a black NYPD officer shaped his “complicated” outlook on law enforcement. “For 50 years I’ve been both defending and criticizing the police. I’ve criticized them when their actions reflected the violent systemic racism that resulted in the deaths of unarmed minorities,” he writes. “I’ve defended them when their good works were overlooked. I especially didn’t want all cops lumped together as a monolithic hive-mind, the way so many have done with marginalized people in this country.” Abdul-Jabbar is an old man now, which doesn’t mean he’s not smart, but does mean he believes in a sort of racial centrism and false equivalency that tends to carry weight with white liberals, something along the lines of “Cops can be bad. Trust me, I’m Black, I would know. But my dad was a cop. So it’s not that simple.”

I can appreciate the desire to weave nuance into a subject one feels is oversimplified, but I’m not sure I understand where Abdul-Jabbar is coming from. For one, it has always seemed misguided to me to identify oneself as “the son of a cop.” It implies an allegiance, a kind of defensiveness that, in my experience and the experience of friends who are also children of law enforcement officers, is never really about policing and more about our family members. People like Adbul-Jabbar, in their attempts to start a subtler and more critical conversation about policing, almost always end up having to concede just how toxic and harmful the entire profession is before saying, bewilderingly, “It’s still worthwhile!!”

The duality of the profession — danger and nobility, a childishly straightforward dichotomy — seems to inspire a kind of challenge in Black cops. They believe they need to be integrated into the system in order to change it. “As an African American officer, you see two sides,” my dad said. “You have the law enforcement side, where you uphold the law. And you have the opposite, where you see officers acting outside their duties. I knew that coming from an educational background, coming from that historical background, I had a lot more to lend as a police officer.”

Abdul-Jabbar echoes this sentiment, but with stakes so high they border on the delusional. Reflecting on the death of 15-year-old James Powell, whose murder at the hands of police incited the Harlem Riots of 1964, he writes: “What if my dad had been the cop on the scene with ninth-grader James Powell? Would Powell still be alive? I decided that yes, he would be. That my dad wouldn’t look at a Black child, who witnesses said was unarmed, and shoot him twice. Had Big Al shown up first, there would have been one less Black kid shot by a cop and no Harlem Riot of 1964. Which is why we needed more Black cops on the force, and the only way to achieve that was for Black people like my dad to endure the daily slings and arrows and do their job well.”

Witnessing my dad in full uniform happened infrequently enough that it always seemed as if he was playing dress-up.

Of course, law enforcement’s issue is not diversity. What people like my dad and Abdul-Jabbar fail to understand is that this is not a problem of individuals, and certainly not of a lack of black individuals. In her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, the scholar Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor clearly illustrates how the presence of Black leaders in law enforcement hasn’t done anything to change the profession’s oppressive funcion. About the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, she writes, “If the murder of Mike Brown and the rebellion in Ferguson were reminiscent of the old Jim Crow, then the murder of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore uprising symbolize the new Black political elite… Even with the involvement of a Black cop, a Black prosecutor, and a Black judge, justice remained elusive for Freddie Gray.”

When I suggested to my dad that teaching history might have been a more socially productive career than being a cop, he reiterated that if he and other Black officers aren’t there to effect change from the inside, the department and the entire profession would be worse off. I’d like to believe him, but rarely do significant numbers of Black cops seem willing to speak out against their chosen line of work, let alone quit in protest because of what they do or are exposed to. Rarer still do they successfully grasp the sprawling systemic nature of their occupation. Individuals are not the focal point of any meaningful redress. In many ways, cops like my dad are far more optimistic than I am about how redeemable policing is. They believe that each position, no matter how minor, has malleable properties, where law and ethics combine to form a powerful sense of obligation to do things right. “I chose this job,” my dad said. “If I left, what’s going to happen when someone bad steps in to fill my spot?”

Which is why this is all so frustrating. Black cops can seem willfully blind to the danger they pose to the general public. They also tend to identify more with their experience as cops over their experience as Black men. When I ask my dad if he thinks incarceration is more effective than rehabilitation, he says that law enforcement will always have an element of incarceration to it before admitting that many of the inmates he interacts with shouldn’t be in jail to begin with. When I push back against his supposition that “95 percent of officers are good, upstanding people,” he concedes that the majority of police in the country are politically conservative and vote against the interests of their communities. When I ask what he thinks of Blue Lives Matter, he scoffs at the hypocrisy and fragility of people who cling to the cause even as they criticize the Black Lives Matter movement. For my dad, it comes down to the fact that, for a lot of people, cops are necessary: they defend America from crime and social collapse. Therefore, they are deserving of support.

I’m often asked if, because my dad is a cop and because I don’t support the police, whether I hate him. To me, this is an absurd question. I don’t hate my dad, but I have an emotional and existential worry for him. It’s true, sometimes I worry that he’ll be hurt in the line of duty, but more than that, I worry that he’ll become unreachable intellectually — that his long career in a profession entrenched in the history of slavery, racism, and government power has tainted his opinion on what is necessary for society to function. Even after all this time, with the doubts and disagreements he’s had with himself and other officers about the scope of policing and its potential detriments to society, my dad still believes in what he does.

But idealistic officers like him are common. No matter their misgivings, no matter their knowledge of and fealty to their experience as Black people, Black cops so often snap back to the belief that what they are doing has the capacity to be meaningful, that incarceration works, that “bad apples” are to blame, that the necessity of force is inevitable. Their belief, even in the most workaday sense, in the irrevocability of their job is too hard to shake.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.