ATLANTA -- When protesters stare down police in the streets of Atlanta, Black police officers don't escape scrutiny.

Calls for prosecution were swift last month after a group of mostly Black officers were seen on video pulling two college students from a car near the scene of a protest and shocking them with Tasers. Four officers were later fired and six charged by the Fulton County District Attorney's Office.

Likewise, a Black Clayton County police officer faced national outrage last month after a video emerged of him pointing a gun at a group of Black teenagers. Bystanders gathered around the officer and filmed part of his interaction with the teens, refusing to leave until they saw the youths walk away unscathed.

In the wake of national protests over the deaths of Black people at the hands of white police officers, diversity in police departments has become a contentious issue. But questions still remain about how to address tension between the larger Black community and Black officers.

"The thing is, no matter what your race or ethnicity, when you go through the academy, that identity becomes second to policing," contends Ronnie A. Dunn, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University. "You become blue."

The incident with the Clayton County officer began with a 911 call about a group of teens playing with a gun -- which police later determined to be a BB gun that looked similar to a real weapon. That context was lacking in the video, which began circulating less than a week after Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot by a white police office and just weeks after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police.

"Adults have every right to protect the children in their neighborhoods, even if that child is not their own," one person would later comment on police department's Facebook post. "It's completely unrealistic to expect people to see a cop with his gun pointed at five kids who have their hands up in the air, and just continue on with their day."

Dunn said the strained relationship between Black police officers and the Black community has existed since African-Americans first donned police uniforms. But statistically, Black officers use force less readily than white officers.

Between 1980 and 2012, Black officers were responsible for just 10 percent of fatal police incidents, he said. The data also shows that when Black officers apply force, the recipient is a person of color nearly 78 percent of the time.

Jakwellyn Douglas, 25, of Alpharetta, said when she sees a police uniform, she instinctively heads the opposite direction. She said she often disregards the officer's race. No matter what color the officer is, she notes, the uniform is still blue.

"The 'blue code' that cops have runs real deep," Douglas said. "If you have a whole bunch of people who are supposed to protect and serve all the people around them, but the deepest connection they have are their coworkers, those are the people they are going to emulate."

For residents like Douglas, it seems that Black officers find themselves at a crossroads.

"Either they give up the job, or the job has to change," Douglas said. "The way that police are set up is to enforce laws that don't want Black people to succeed."

In early America, decades before the American Revolution, slave patrols of armed white men were established in the colonies to keep enslaved people in line, suppress uprisings and return any runaways.

"Slave patrols were the first law enforcement entities that were distinctly American," Dunn said, "so when you look at that it explains the antagonistic relationship that persisted through slavery and through Jim Crow."

As police departments grew, the few Black officers who were hired were recruited to regulate crime in Black communities, Dunn said. He added that often, they would be just as or more brutal than their white counterparts. Thus the chasm between police and African-Americans widened, and Black officers fell directly into it.

That rift, that pervasive distrust between Black Americans and police officers of all races, is not easily crossed. It's made more fraught by the sea of unknowns that batters both the civilian and the officer during each police encounter -- questions of if the person on the other half of the exchange poses a threat, or perceives one.

Marquis Henderson, a 27-year-old Black officer in Lilburn, said he supports the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly because unfair treatment of African Americans by police is still a serious problem. Henderson himself decided to become an officer after repeatedly being harassed by police when he was 16.

"I said, 'I'm going to police my own neighborhood,'" he said.

He tries to serve as an example of how Black officers, attorneys and judges can fight against entrenched racism by helping stamp it out. Still, he often feels judged by Black residents who see him as working for police, which some view as an oppressive. He said he tries to brush it off because he knows he can be part of the solution.

Henderson said if he sees an officer mistreating someone, he stops it.

"If one of those officers (in Minneapolis) would've stepped up and said, 'Don't do this,' George Floyd would not be dead," Henderson said.

Yet young African Americans don't seem to find their way into police work the way Henderson did, said Robert Ford, sitting president of Georgia's chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

"The African American community as a whole, we are not taught to run out and become a law enforcement professional," he said. "We are not taught that police are our friends. Most of the time, law enforcement is used as a weapon when we get in trouble: 'Oh, I'm going to call the police on you.'"

The list of examples of police being used as a form of social control against Black people seems to grow weekly, according to Dunn. In New York, a white woman was fired from her job after a video emerged of her calling the police on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park on Memorial Day. Christian Cooper, the bird-watcher, said the exchange happened after he asked the woman, Amy Cooper, to put her dog on a leash. The two, who happen to have the last name, are not related.

Ford attributes the woman's actions to implicit biases. A law enforcement professional since 1990 and a former GBI special agent in charge, he said police officers are not exempt from having those biases.

"But those biases lead to discrimination and things that we tend to see captured on video," he said. In some ways, Ford said, Black police officers have proven to be more effective when working with people of color.

"Officers of color will go hands-on with Black people and physically subdue them rather than shooting," he said.

When 18-year-old Dimiana Habtemariam saw National Guardsmen behind the fence at Centennial Olympic Park, she wanted to ask them a question. The two Black troops had been called to monitor the park during a recent protest against police brutality toward African-Americans.

Each officer had a riot shield and wore full battlefield dress with a gun on his hip. Habtemariam, a Black woman, wanted to know why they weren't on the other side of the fence protesting.

Both said they had to pay their bills and feed their families. They were on orders to work, to be on-hand in case the protest turned violent. One of the soldiers said he'd love to be protesting with Habtemariam. The other didn't like the young woman's suggestion.

"What job should we have?" he asked.

"I don't know what your passions are," the 18-year-old said.

"Policing," came the guardsman's answer.

Habtemariam rolled her eyes and spun. In a moment, a tear fell.

"I cry when I'm mad," she said.


Story Filed By Cox Newspapers