law enforcement

The Police Official Who Fought Racism and Sexism on the Job

Photo: David Walters/Getty Images

High-ranking police-department official
U.S. South

I was 21 when I started. I was studying criminal justice and, actually, I was going to get a marriage license and I saw where they were giving a police exam. I said “Hmm … I need a job.” The marriage ended, but I got a career.

The police department called me. They said I had to take the physical agility test. I’d just had a child. I said I couldn’t. They told me, we can put it off three months and we’ll call you back — they did, and I got in shape.

When I got into rookie school, I hadn’t completed college so I was going 8–5 to school, and at night like 7–8 twice a week, and I went out on the street to patrol evening shift.

It was tough. There was this stigma, I guess, that women can’t be top of the class. Especially a black woman. There was certain whites that were running the academy, and they started discriminating on a lot of the blacks, trying to get rid of them in the class. They accused us of cheating. It was three of us they didn’t like, all black. They had no evidence of cheating. They had an investigation on it, and they tried to get us to resign. And I’m not resigning, because I knew they hadn’t had any evidence. So they had an investigation. It was all in the news and everything.

We didn’t have a lot of blacks in a lot of highest-ranking-level positions when I came on. And at that time, it was still a male-dominated profession. It was kind of like, females don’t need to be doing this job.

It’s more black in our city than it is white. Now I think the department kind of represents the population. The majority are black males. Then white males, black females, and then white females.

I mainly did my training on evening shift. It was busy so I got the exposure to every type of call, from traffic stops to domestic violence, assaults, disputes, accidents, the whole gamut. I think the ambition started to set in after I saw that it wasn’t a dead-end job. Once I took the test and became sergeant, I started to think, Oh, well maybe I can be a lieutenant. I was promoted to captain and kept rising from there.

In senior management, the part I’m the worst at is the personnel issues where people don’t get along. Being the referee and things like that. I kind of take a no-nonsense approach to it. I call it like I see it and if I have to fight my supervisors, I fight them as well. A lot of times you have a difficult employee and rather than dealing with it, they just hope they go away.

A former employee said that I was harassing her and creating a hostile work environment. I was holding her accountable, and she was just couldn’t take the heat. So what I had to do is provide my documentation to show that that was not the case. It was frustrating because it was kind of like a cat-and-mouse game. People often tell me to back down, but I’ve been around, I’ve been going on with the department about 30 years and I’d worked internal affairs and I have all the background in investigations and doing what it takes to be fair, consistent, but at the same time firm.

So from experience, what I learned to do is have meetings and say, “These are my expectations, have them sign for ’em, and have a discussion and document them quarterly.” If it’s a probationary employee and they report directly to me, I go in and I talk with them, and I had that all documented, so they can’t say I didn’t tell them what was expected.

I recently had a grievance file. It wasn’t against me, it was against a subordinate. We did some personnel changes, and the complainant felt it was done because of his race. I was able to answer and document it through emails. I had to write a response to the personnel board. The personnel board just said back that there was no evidence that we were doing that based on what we’ve provided.

We’ve had some cases where we’ve had to fire some supervisors for sexual harassment, and we had to prove that they’ve done that. We had disciplinary hearings. I sit in on all of the hearings in the police department where there are serious allegations. The chief is at those hearings, but I have to sit in there on them and help decide whether to give them days off, suspend them, demote them, or fire them. Now, I also have hearings where the chief doesn’t have to sit in, that they’re not considered major violations. So we have hearings and they can appeal to our city personnel board if they don’t agree with the discipline that we’ve imposed.

I’ve had an issue like that, where a male accused another, a civilian employee that worked with the police department. But what we did, because we have in our sexual-harassment policy, we can ask them, do you want us to have a mediation meeting? We can do that where they don’t want to formally make it, but we document and then have a meeting where we bring them together to talk about what is being said and that they want that to cease. We’ve had situations like that, but not a whole lot with the men. I’ve seen it where we’ve had light-skinned people say that they were discriminated because of their light skin, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen that. I’ve seen where the males said they were discriminated because of a female supervisor.

When I first come on in like the ’80s, sexual harassment, oh man, it was rampant. I had just came off the rookie car, and I had a sergeant that told me, “Whatcha gonna do for old sarge? I got your evaluation here.” That was straight-up sexual harassment. I said, “Well, do what you feel like you got to do.” And then come to find out he was harassing a couple other ones. There was an official complaint filed on him in internal affairs. They find out he was harassing a couple of other females — he had been running another one around, grabbing at her, groping her. And all of us was married at the time. At that time, you would be seen as a snitch or a rat talking against your other officers. And being a young officer, female officer, that was the most stressful.

Nobody’s trained to be racist. I think racism is something that is learned. Everybody comes from a different background, with different views on life, and I think we all have a bias about something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about race, it’s what our preference are.

I think race relations has got much better. We’ve made great strides. Right now we’re a part of a national initiative on race relations, to find out how the community feels about the department, implicit bias, and all those things, with a lot of training going on in the department with everything that’s happening with law enforcement. It’s weird trying to get ahead of those things.

I don’t think I’m going to end up being chief. I’m looking to wind my career down in a couple years. I’ve considered maybe doing something else. Maybe with the state or maybe doing some consulting work, but nothing full-time chief. I’ve been around here a long time and I’ve seen a lot of them come and go. We had a black female chief about ten years ago. I think she had a harder time. The pension is good. I’ll still live comfortable.

I just don’t know if I want to go back through all that. The higher you go up, the more responsibility that it is. I have no doubt I would have the skills and abilities and talents to do the job, but I think I’m unwinding and want to pursue some other things.

The Police Official Who Fought Racism and Sexism on the Job