As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the U.S. and conversations about racial equality in America take place in all quarters, black police officers find themselves in a unique position. In their uniforms, they are members of law enforcement. Out of their uniforms, they are black men. It’s a tough position for the so-called “Black and Blue,” but not a new one for Chief Mitchell Davis of Hazel Crest, Illinois, a small suburb of Chicago.
Chief Davis has been an officer for more than three decades. He’s a proud cop and believes police work is necessary but acknowledges the system’s flaws. He’s also been on the other side of law enforcement and has had frightening encounters with police since joining the force.
Chief Davis often tells a story from the late ’90s, when he’d been an officer for eight hears. He and his wife stopped at a 7-Eleven. The shop was on the border of the suburbs, including the town he worked in. As he stepped out of his car, a squad car pulled behind him and turned on its overheads. At first, Chief Davis thought a fellow officer from his department was playing a joke on him. That wasn’t the case. It was a notoriously racist white cop from the next town over.
This cop scoffed at the fact that Chief Davis was an officer and asked for his license. Chief Davis refused and walked into the 7-Eleven. The cop followed him and continued to yell at and berate him inside the shop. Davis, knowing exactly who he was dealing with, kept a cool head and paid for what he needed.
Back outside, the cop continued to scream at Chief Davis and demand his license. Chief Davis told him that if he didn’t get his hand out of his face, he was going to break his finger. Eventually, the cop called one of Davis’ supervisors. After a few minutes of discussion with said supervisor, the cop finally left.
When he got to work the next day, Davis typed up a complaint. Nothing was ever done.
About five years ago, after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, Chief Davis told this story to students at DePaul University. After he finished, a young black man in the audience said to him, “You’re telling us this story, but we couldn’t have done that. If we’d [acted up], the cop would’ve shot us.” Davis responded, “You’re right. You’re right.” Now when he tells that story, Davis prefaces it by telling kids not to do what he did.
Chief Davis knows that black police officers certainly have powers that black civilians don’t. But he also knows that doesn’t mean they are immune to the same kind of prejudice.
Fatherly spoke to Chief Davis, who is a father, grandfather, and the National Recording Secretary of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), about systemic racism within the police force, experiencing discrimination on the job, what’s needed to enact real change in police culture, and what rules he tells his grandchildren to follow when they encounter police.
On his department’s messaging around the murder of George Floyd…
I was one of the first people to put out a statement about George Floyd. I actually had a few chiefs who said it was too premature. I said “What’s premature? What am I waiting on? What would I wait on?”
I had to tell them that people are tired of hearing “We gotta wait until the investigation runs its course” and all this. I said, “Let me tell you something as your friend: Under any circumstances, do not go to your community talking about, ‘We got to see how this all plays out first.’ Because it’s gonna be bad for you.”
On the size and scope of the recent Black Lives Matter protests…
We’ve never seen this before. Never, ever has this happened.
One of my sons has been involved in a few of the marches and my kids know that there are good police officers out there. But they also know that they’ve been victims of adverse situations. They’re black men. They called me up. I have to remind them that the same stuff happens to me.
On the racial bias shown by police…
I was in what’s called a shadow phase. It’s the last part of your process. Your training officer wears plain clothes and basically allows you to do everything to see if you’re ready to go out on your own. They only interject in life-or-death situations.
I stopped a drunk driver and it was a white guy. I went through all the field sobriety tests, called a tow truck and I was going to arrest this guy. My field training officer told me, “No, we’re going to just see if we can call somebody and come pick him up.” Which was okay. We have discretion. That’s not a problem. Later on, I found another drunk driver, black guy. And [the field training officer] made me arrest him. He made me tow his car, made me lock ’em up, everything that legally I could do with the DUI.
I didn’t question him because he was going to evaluate me. He implied that I had to do this type of thing and it made me uncomfortable. But at the time, I had no say in the matter. Now, being in a leadership position, I don’t forget those things and I use those as fuel.
On the need for a proper police culture…
You have to make sure that the proper culture is being injected into your new officers. If that does not happen, then they’ll succumb to that adverse culture. They may not start out being bad people. They just adapt to the culture and their jobs. And if the culture is not right, bad things happen.
I’ve got a horror story a young, black guy shared with me about his field training officer. The field training officer told him “We’re going to show you how we treat these n-words around here.” And the guy’s like, “What are you talking about? I’m black.” The field officer said, “Well, no, you’re a police officer now.”
On why some officers can’t be trained…
People are talking about training and all this kind of stuff. That guy that killed George Floyd, no amount of training would have helped. That was his personality. Training only works for somebody who wants to learn. I’ve been to classes on diversity. I’ve taught classes on diversity. You can tell the people who are there because they have to be there.
When I teach my leadership classes, the first thing I say is “I know some of you are here because your department made you come and you’re probably going to walk out the same way you walked in.” The people who are going to benefit from this class are the people who want to get better as a person and as a leader.
On the discrepancies of policing white vs. black communities…
Law enforcement has to serve all communities. In black communities, normally the whole community is policed. Everybody’s policed, every encounter. But if you go to a white community, they don’t do the same thing. They don’t. If there’s a crime being committed, that’s fine. But don’t police the entire community. That’s one of the hardest things. But if that’s the culture, people fall into it.
On the challenges of being a black police officer…
When I first came in, as a black man, I thought I was gonna be that cop in the black community that they want. To an extent I was able to do that. But then I also found out that a lot of folks didn’t see me as black. They saw me as blue. And because I was black and they saw me as blue, I often was challenged with some things that my white counterparts were not faced with.
I heard, “You’re a sellout, you’re an Uncle Tom.” And that was probably one of the most challenging things I had to deal with. I finally had to realize that, quite often, the people that said that were doing it as a diversionary tactic. But some people felt that way. Some people feel that way now. You just have to accept in life and accept in this profession those folks that you can.
On reconciling black and blue in a world of George Floyds and Laquan McDonalds…
There’s a job that’s got to be done. I know there are some folks saying we should just do away with the police. They’re entitled to feel that way, but I don’t know that that could ever happen. Not in my lifetime, anyway. With that in mind, we’ve got to try to find a way to coexist. We’re going to be most effective if we coexist. Law enforcement officers can’t be this power that’s over everybody. Even as a police officer, we’re supposed to be partners in this whole thing. And when I see Laquan McDonald, that comes down to how you view the people and how you police.
On what he tells his own family about interacting with the police…
I have four kids and four grandkids. They know my experiences and they know that complying is first and foremost. Being there in the moment with the police officer is not the time to go to court. That’s not the time. You should comply and get as much information. It’s not the time to hold court. Get their badge number. Get a good look at their face.
Don’t ask them to give their badge number. Look and see. If there’s a number on the squad car, try to make a mental note of the number. What time of night is it? What’s your location? Are they calling it in on the radio? Outside of Chicago, if you can give me a general description of the person and the time of day, and you know where you were, I can tell who it was. Get through the situation, then we’ll deal with it afterwards.
On worrying about his teenage grandson…
My daughter called me crying. She was hysterical. She says, “Dad, you’ve got to do something. You’ve been fighting this battle for as long as I know. My son, your grandson is about to be 13. And I’m terrified that my black son is going to get killed.”
She’s crying, I’m crying. It was just disheartening for me to hear my daughter in distress like that. If you look around, you’ll see now that so many law enforcement people have gone to the protests. I am all about that. I am the person that will be on the frontline with those protesters. I denounce the looting. There are those that have feelings about all that but I don’t see anything nor any rationale to justify that.
On the only way police culture is going to change…
Nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop. We have enough challenges with our profession. Even the people who love us know that if we make a mistake we can cost someone their lives. Bad police officers make it worse for everybody. That eight minutes for George Floyd losing his life has had a ripple effect throughout the entire world.
We’ve got to get to a point where the good officers will take action against the bad officers. That’s the only way the culture is going to change, if good officers take action against the bad.