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Black & True Blue
By Heather Mac Donald
Ask Detective Carl McLaughlin whether the police prey on black people, and this normally ebullient Brooklyn cop will respond icily: "I just prey on people that are preying on others. It shouldn't be a race thing."
A cop's denial that policing is racist is perhaps not noteworthy — except for one thing: McLaughlin is black. As such, he represents an ignored constituency in contemporary policing controversies: black officers who loathe race-based cop-bashing as much as any Irish flatfoot.
As the American Civil Liberties Union and other professional cop haters flood the media with tales of endemic police racism, rank-and-file minority officers, who might be considered ideal commentators on these matters, appear only as intriguing statistics — such as those showing that black state troopers in New Jersey, the alleged cradle of racial profiling, stop the same proportion of black drivers as do their purportedly racist white colleagues.
So I set out and talked to several dozen black cops and commanders from eight police departments, from Brooklyn to Olympia, Wash., about why they became police officers and how they view today's policing controversies. What I found was a bracing commitment to law and order, a resounding rejection of anti-cop propaganda and a conviction that racial politics are a tragic drag on black progress.
The thoroughly mainstream views of these black cops are a reminder that invisible behind the antics of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are many black citizens who share the common-sense values of most Americans.
This is not to excuse the manhandling of the handcuffed suspect in California that has been plastered on television these last days. But while anomalies like that make headlines, the everyday dedication of officers, black and white, is treated as not news.
All black officers, whatever their reason for joining the force, face the same occupational hazard: race-based taunting. "You work for 'The man'" McLaughlin constantly hears in Brooklyn. "I don't work for 'The man'" he says impatiently. "I work for the penal law."
It is their emotional relation to the good people of the community that makes policing such an imperative for these cops. Many come from God-fearing, law-abiding homes where respect for authority was absolute. These officers have seen firsthand the damage done by thugs, and they are determined to stop it. "I will never retreat," vows McLaughlin. "We are the last line of defense against mayhem."
Amid all the anti-cop taunting they hear, they remind themselves, in the words of Officer David Brown, that crime victims "regard you as heroes."
If the law-abiding black poor and middle class are no abstractions for these cops — as they are for guilty white liberals, who condescendingly think they are benefiting black people by promoting criminal-friendly policies — neither is the depravity of young thugs some distant construct to be brushed away for the more gratifying exercise of understanding the underprivileged.
Constant exposure to criminals teaches cops how to recognize them. "Just as we stand out, they stand out," explains Officer Troy Smith of San Antonio, Tex. But being black by no means insulates officers from the racial profiling charge when they arrest a lowlife they've spotted.
Most officers I spoke to reject the racial profiling myth. If you're stopped, they said, it's for a reason — you fit a description or you've done something to raise an officer's suspicion, such as hitch up your waistband in a way that suggests a hidden gun. Statistics that tabulate officer-civilian interactions by race alone grossly distort the reality of policing, many black cops complain.
Unless top management reassures cops that they can count on support in strong enforcement actions, black officers caution, some cops will inevitably back off in the face of racial pressures.
Cops — black, white, Hispanic, you name it — scratch their heads at the seeming priorities of the so-called community. "There can be 50 shootings of civilians, and no one will protest," marvels John Hayward, a fast-talking community-response officer from the Philadelphia department. "If a cop shoots one person, everyone's demonstrating. If you protest against us, why don't you protest against the drug dealers?"
Surely the cops would get more support from the community if their moral authority were not constantly under siege from left-wing activists within and outside police departments. Lt. Eric Adams of the NYPD has made a media career for himself by testifying against the department before every camera he can find, as the self-appointed head of a mysterious organization called One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.
Every time Adams says something negative about the police, observes Wilbur Chapman, the NYPD's chief of patrol during the 1990s, the department loses blacks who are "on the fence," whether as witnesses or potential recruits. "There's no voice to say:, 'This is not the reality,'" says Chapman. (Adams did not return my calls.)
The sum total of these pressures is a police force fighting with one hand tied behind its back, according to many black officers — contrary to black activists who incessantly portray police forces as out of control.
Sadly, the media and politicians never recognize these moderate voices as valid representatives of black officers. The perverse logic of race politics, even within police departments, dictates that the only authentic blacks are angry blacks. And so the supposed spokesmen for black officers are almost always the most radical members of a department, usually unelected, who push a grievance agenda of quotas and lower standards.
The long-running race racket that has so distorted our national discourse shows no signs of letting up, but that is only because we have been listening to the wrong people. There is no inherent reason why only the victimologists should be granted legitimacy as representatives of black interests, especially since so few of them are elected.
Why not at least give equal time to a Wilbur Chapman, say, when he argues that the "biggest impediment to minority advancement is white guilt" and asserts that, whatever the remaining problems in American race relations, "the bottom line is: No one can stop me from getting my piece of the American dream"?
As for the state of policing itself, while my interlocutors don't constitute a perfectly constructed, randomized sample, neither do Adams and his counterparts across the country. And, unlike the cop complainers, these pro-police cops are not seeking benefits or power from their testimony.
I believe that the support for law enforcement expressed by these officers is widespread among black cops. Their voices represent an essential, and wholly overlooked, perspective on current law enforcement controversies, one that should give us hope not just about the politics of policing, but about race relations writ large.
Mac Donald is the author of "The Burden of Bad Ideas"and a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, from whose upcoming issue this is adapted.
©2002 New York Daily News
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