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Black Police Chiefs Across the U.S. Face Internal, External Struggles

Policing is an overwhelmingly white profession, and reform advocates have been calling for police departments to increase diversity for decades, according to USA Today. In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that just six percent of local police chiefs were Black, though chiefs were much more likely to be Black in departments serving 250,000 or more residents. Increasing diversity in police leadership can have a positive impact on police culture and policies, but it is not enough to solve the deeper issues in police culture, says criminal justice Prof. Jacinta Gau of the University of Central Florida. “We need diversity of all sorts, but we need it, particularly in those higher ranks,” Gau said. “It is not enough to have a Black chief.” When 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was fatally beaten during a traffic stop last month, Memphis police were led by their first Black female police chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis. Davis was initially praised for swiftly firing five officers who were later charged with murder, but she's faced criticism for creating the violent crime unit in which the five officers worked. The SCORPION unit has been compared to similar controversial units in other cities and has since been disbanded. Still, many cities have hired Black chiefs, often for the first time, after facing backlash for similar incidents of police misconduct. In addition to overt racism, new chiefs of color can face intense pressure from communities of color to make significant changes quickly, Gau said.“They occupy the intersection of two groups that have historically had bad relations,” she said. “The police chief is a powerful position, but it’s only one person. Putting that level of pressure, putting that whole bag of expectations onto this one person, is kind of unfair and unrealistic.” After Madison, Wi., faced 180 days of demonstrations following George Floyd’s death, Shon Barnes was sworn in as chief in February 2021. During his first week, he received an email addressing him using a racist slur. As he spent weeks getting to know the community, Barnes said he was often the target of anger and frustration, though he feels his background ultimately helped to calm tensions during the protests. Gau said Black police chiefs looking to make even symbolic changes often face opposition within their departments. Jeffrey Norman, who was sworn in as chief in Milwaukee in 2021 after nearly a year as acting chief, faced backlash when he restricted the use of “Thin Blue Line” imagery. Norman said curtailing the use of the symbol displayed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis during a deadly 2018 rally in Charlottesville, Va., was his way of taking a stand for equity and inclusion. “I got a lot of pushback on that,” he said. “There was a lot of frustration that was thrown to me.” Trying to make more substantial changes — like firing an officer for misconduct or addressing racial bias — can bring even greater internal opposition. “Getting officer buy-in can be a big challenge … particularly, white officers are very likely to get defensive,” Gau said. “You’re up against policy, you’re up against the union, you’re up against any lawsuit that the officer might file if they are terminated.”

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