“Living in the middle:” Black law-enforcement officers feel sorrow and frustration, coming from all directions.
Like a lot of African-American mothers, Fabienne Brooks felt compelled to talk to her son about what to do if stopped by police. Comply with the officer, she told him — a common refrain given fears that black men seen as resisting could be harmed.
If the officer still seemed hostile, Brooks advised her then-teenage son to ask this: “By the way, do you know my mom?”
That would inevitably lead the officer to learn that Brooks was not just a mom, she was a law-enforcement officer. She served in the King County Sheriff’s Office, starting as a deputy in 1978 and retiring in 2004 as the chief of detectives.
“Living in the middle” is how she talks about the dual roles she continues to occupy as a retired officer. It has been both challenging and painful — never more so than this past week, which saw fatal shootings of two black men, in Louisiana and Minnesota, as well as a sniper attack on police officers in Dallas that left five dead.
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“It hurt my heart,” she said.
A number of African-American officers have been feeling the same way: hit by wave after wave of sorrow, coming from all directions. Some find their loyalties, if not torn, then divided as they bat off sweeping charges of racism in law enforcement even as they concede that a minority of bad officers could put their own children at risk.
“I have been sick to my stomach. I can’t sleep. It’s horrible,” community-corrections officer Cynthia Softli told several other members of The Black Law Enforcement Assocation of Washington over brunch Saturday at a Federal Way cafe. They had scheduled the meeting a month ago to discuss a fundraiser planned for fall, but the session turned into a discussion of the recent shootings.
Softli has herself encountered racism at the hands of police. As a little girl in the late 1960s, she headed with her parents to Golden Gardens Park in Ballard for a picnic. “A police officer pulled us over,” she recalled. “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” she said the officer asked.
They drove home, with the chicken, potato salad and baked beans they had packed untouched. “I was sobbing,” Softli said.
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Later, as a young woman, she said she was questioned by a police officer while shopping at Bellevue Square. The officer said someone had reported a black woman using a stolen credit card. “I felt so embarrassed,” said Softli, who had been using her own credit card.
Softli said she caught the law-enforcement bug while taking a criminology class at the University of Washington. She started her career as a civilian with Seattle police, working on the national Weed and Seed program intended to help crime- and drug-ridden neighborhoods.
“Being an only child, I really loved the family aspect of the Police Department,” she said. Whether the officers were white or black, she said, “they took care of me.”
She also said she had her eyes opened after being assigned to the North Precinct. In terms of how officers treated suspects, “things were no different … It’s just the criminals were all white.”
Her conclusion: Not everything was about race.
Brooks also became close to both white and black colleagues. Soon after joining the Sheriff’s Office, she said, a veteran white officer asked her to meet him on Pacific Highway South. She was a little intimidated as they talked patrol car to patrol car. But, she said, “he just wanted to let me know that he had not been too keen on women in police work. But after working with me, he had changed his mind.”
Now, watching the furor that has erupted over the latest officer-involved shootings of black men, she said that such images — caught on video and watched over and over again — make it seem like racist violence by police is pervasive.
“It is not pervasive,” she said. “Ninety-five percent are good officers. I don’t like that they’re being painted with a broad brush.”
Yet she said she knows the other 5 percent could have a tremendous impact on people’s lives.
“Thank god for cellphone and high-resolution video,” said Carlos Bratcher, past president of The Black Law Enforcement Association.
He said he is convinced, after looking at video from the Louisiana and Minnesota shootings by officers, that fear was the motive. But he doesn’t see that as an excuse. He believes race — specifically fear of “the large black man”— played a role.
“I understand people’s frustration,” he said, referring to protests that have erupted across the country, including in Seattle. “I’m frustrated.”
“Where do we go from here?” asked Softli at Saturday’s brunch. She suggested canceling the fundraiser, but others wanted to go ahead with it. Intended as an event that would draw black firefighters, attorneys and community members as well as officers, it could be a healing thing, they decided.
Bratcher, just retired from the King County Sheriff’s Office, had another suggestion: getting Ron Smith, Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president, to apologize for a tweet on the guild’s Facebook page right after the Dallas slayings. It read: “The hatred of law enforcement by a minority movement is disgusting.”
To Bratcher and other members of the association, it seemed the guild was blaming the Black Lives Matter movement for the shootings, which they found offensive. They said the movement was asking necessary questions.
“Who the hell is policing the police?” Softli said people want to know.
The guild Facebook post was taken down shortly afterward and Smith has said that its content has been quoted out of context.
Some in the group said they sometimes have to combat an impression that they, too, are anti-police. The group supports changing a state law that prohibits prosecution of officers who kill someone in the line of duty as long as they acted without malice.
Softli sits on a state task force that is reviewing the law. “We need to get something out to members explaining why I’m on the task force,” she told the others at brunch.
Those present also raised a more nebulous goal: having law enforcement be seen as a noble profession again.
Leland Allen seems to see law enforcement that way, although you might not expect him to. In 1988, Allen, who is African American, was called home from college because his uncle had been fatally shot by Seattle police. The officer who fired said he feared for his life, yet Allen’s uncle, Erdman Bascomb, was on a couch holding a remote control.
While his uncle’s death shocked him, he said he never dug into the details of what happened. And he didn’t dwell on it when he went into law enforcement after the construction industry, in which he worked, faltered in mid-2000s.
A onetime high-school and semipro football coach, he liked mentoring kids who didn’t have male role models. And he thought he could do that as an officer.
He works for Seattle police now, and regularly patrols the Central District, where he spent much of his youth. While the neighborhood has gentrified a lot, he said he still sees familiar faces.
“I’m just like them,” he said. “I don’t mind going up and shaking their hand.”