For many throughout the country, the police-involved shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minneapolis, as well as the killings of five Dallas police officers, exposed a longstanding rift between the police and the black community. To better understand this divide, we spoke with someone who grapples with it daily: Malik Aziz, the chairman of the National Black Police Association and the deputy chief of the Dallas Police Department.
Below, he speaks openly about everything from the legacy of slavery, the burden that black cops face, and where we go from here.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to talk a little bit about this word “despair,” and the feeling of despair. I don’t know if you have heard it from your officers. I don’t know if you’ve heard it from friends and family, but last week, a lot of folks I know hit rock bottom when they saw the videos out of Minneapolis and Baton Rouge. This is even prior to the Dallas tragedies. What were your personal feelings when you saw those videos?
My immediate thoughts were that I was seeing things that would make one say, “Why would a person do that?” It feels like post-Michael Brown, post-Eric Garner to me, and it feels like this has escalated to a point where people may be willing to harm police officers. This is about three or four hours before the Dallas shooting.
I was looking at news reports, I was reading things on social media, and something had changed. We had a shift, and that shift was going to cause a major disturbance. And it happened.
Are you hopeful that we’ve seen the worst, or do you think there might be more on the way?
I’m hopeful, and at the very same time, I have my reservations that make me doubt. I’m hopeful if our president, with Congress, calls for a national conversation on race and police brutality. I’m hopeful if that’s going to take place.
If blacks and whites don’t sit down, if police and communities don’t sit down and talk about these issues that have plagued us for so many decades, then yeah, the future of America is in doubt.
Are we talked out on some of these issues?
No, we’re not talked out. We have vilified each other, we have pointed fingers at each other, we’ve debated stupidly, we’ve argued unnecessarily. We haven’t actually tried to sit down, and work, and come to a middle ground with each other. We’re not talked out. The president has given, what, 11 or 12 of these kinds of speeches? We’ve become desensitized from the highest level of office because we have no action to follow the words.
What specific actions could come about?
Police departments being fully staffed, police departments being fully trained, national standards, interaction, better engagement with the community, explaining some of the things without giving away strategies or tactics to civilians.
We have to go back, and you want to know what’s the conversation that we go back to? Chattel slavery, from the moment slave ships rolled up onto Sullivan’s Island. Are we going to talk about that? Are we going to talk about the many plantations? Are we going to talk about white privilege? Are we going to talk about black-on-black crime? We’ll talk about all these things if we’re going to have a conversation about what got us here today. Are we going to talk about the police being the most visible form of government, being used as a tool by city governments?
We’re going to talk about Alabama, and Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the southern states and what they did to communities of color for so many decades. We haven’t had a real conversation.
We don’t want to acknowledge that because the United States of America hasn’t apologized for the most heinous crimes committed on this soil outside of the Native Americans, and that is the subjugation and demoralization of black people. If the men and women don’t want to sit down and talk about it, then where are we going to go? Where are we going to be?
I would think that these conditions would really put a black police officer in a weird space. Let’s just shoot straight. You all see racism within the ranks. At the same time on the street, many people in the community view the black officer with a level of suspicion and scorn, too. It would seem to me that you guys are in this weird space where you’re catching it on both ends.
Yeah, we are. I can no more separate my black skin from the color of this uniform that I don every day for so many years. This is what we have to understand even as black officers. Black people will shout to us, “Black lives matter.” You know what our response is to the black people who shout to my black self that black lives matter? Is yes, they do, and it’s starting with me. What’s your response to that? My life has to matter, too. I’m glad you reminded me of that. I appreciate you letting me know that you don’t want to harm me, you don’t want to kill me. Because I don’t want to kill you.
We’re in a bad position as black officers. We’re in a bad position. Out of the bad position, we’re in the best position to make change. Black officers should be at the forefront of change in this law-enforcement complex. We should be leading the change.