Racism within police ranks: A look at the struggles of Black cops by a former officer

I’m a retired, Black police sergeant who spent nearly 30 years on the Chicago force. Since my retirement, I’m busier than ever. 

I wish I could say it was the kind of busy that comes with retirement — live jazz, travel, generally being a “man of leisure.” That lasted for about three months. Instead, much of my time since I left in 2019 has been spent on the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers responding to cases of extreme racism experienced by Black cops. 

Our social media platforms and direct message folders have been flooded: 

“The systemic racial issues within the … department … need to be thoroughly addressed with transparency! … I don’t sleep at night.”

“I have a federal lawsuit against my department. I spoke out and have been black balled ever since.”

“I’m hearing from a lot of Black officers trying to manage through on-going hostile workspaces, and pre- and post-election activities have exacerbated the situation. Are you all providing guidance, and support for those officers?”

The divisive rhetoric of former President Donald Trump has given overt racism on police forces a green light to come back in full force and with impunity.

As the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol played out in real time on TV, the world got an irrefutable look at racial bias and policing: How was an angry mob of white rioters allowed that close to the Capitol?

If they had been Black, would they have gotten that far? Why were some white officers opening up barriers to allow the mob to go through? The scene was a crash course in the discrimination experienced not just by Black America, but Black officers. On a daily basis they navigate a profession in which their minority status frequently makes them a target. 

Officers of color have to honor their sworn oath to serve and protect their community (including from rogue cops), and learn how to navigate the “blue wall” (which frequently goes hand in hand with racial favoritism).

And as they try to fall in line, they are disproportionately disciplined — losing promotions and pay and being subjected to harassment and retaliation. 

Shawn Kennedy is a retired Chicago police officer.

Shawn Kennedy is a retired Chicago police officer.

A study published just last year in the psychology journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes showed that Black officers are not committing more infractions (the allegations aren’t higher), but are more likely to be disciplined for misconduct. 

Researchers collected data from three cities: Los Angeles, Philadelphia and my city of Chicago. The results were shocking. Rates of discipline were 105% higher for Black officers in Chicago alone. 

The kinds of complaints I encountered recently on social media are, sadly, nothing new.

Ethical decisions by Black officers have historically resulted in swift retaliation. The three cases below, one 15 years old, embody part of the struggle.  

Cariol Horne: More than a decade of strife

Just as the Derek Chauvin trial was wrapping up, Cariol Horne, who is a Black former police officer in Buffalo, New York, was hearing a verdict from the New York Supreme Court on a case that happened 15 years earlier, but originated from similar circumstances.

Cariol Horne marches during a protest organized by We Pump 716 and the Liberation Collective, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Buffalo.

Cariol Horne marches during a protest organized by We Pump 716 and the Liberation Collective, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Buffalo.
Sharon Cantillon, AP

A handcuffed Black man was being choked by a white officer. Horne jumped in to stop the brutality. The former officer involved in the court case was not the brutalizer, but Horne — the one who (by the suspect’s own account) saved the Black man’s life.

On Nov. 1, 2006, Horne responded to a domestic dispute call. Officers removed the suspect, David Neal Mack, from his home, and one of them put Mack in a chokehold. Horne yelled for the officer to stop. “I thought, whatever had happened in the house, he’s still upset about,” Horne said during an interview with USA TODAY. She yelled at him “pretty much trying to bring him back to reality.” 

When that didn’t work, she grabbed the officer’s arm and pulled it from around Mack’s neck. The cop punched Horne in the face and broke her jaw, she said. Horne sued the city over her treatment. 

Instead of commending her for saving the life of a citizen, her agency condemned her. She was given a hearing and fired two years later. She had been on the force for 19 years, and just before her retirement she lost her pension. 

‘You’re choking him’: Black former police officer recalls race-related firing

On April 13, her state supreme court ruled in her favor, returning her pension. 

In the years leading up to the supreme court decision, she successfully pushed for Cariol’s Law, which protects officers who step in to stop others from brutalizing suspects. In fact, the Buffalo law requires officers to do so.  

Her treatment, she says, didn’t happen just because she was a Black woman on a mostly white force, it was also about preserving the good old boys network. The officer Horne said used excessive force was never punished for that incident but later served prison time for an excessive force case against four Black teenagers.   

If Horne had been outside of Minneapolis’ Cup Foods during those crucial minutes on May 25, Floyd may still be alive today. 

Cornelius Rodgers: Troublesome disciplinary pattern  

Without context, it would appear that Cornelius Rodgers is a problem officer. 

In his 17-plus-year tenure at the New London, Connecticut police department, he’s been disciplined more than two dozen times. And many of the offenses, according to his lawsuit, were for minor issues.

One occurred when he went to a bar after work with a group of white officers. Rodgers attempted to break up a fight and was written up. The white officers were not, according to allegations in a suit he filed against New London and his police department in January. In the suit, Rodgers alleges that the police department discriminated against him and used retaliation. Four of the disciplinary actions resulted in 20-day suspensions.  

Cornelius Rodgers talks about being a Black police officer

But what this history doesn’t show is that Rodgers also has a stellar record of service. He was given an officer of the year award and several past police chiefs wrote positively about his performance. 

Rodgers, who was number two on the lieutenant promotional list, has now been shifted down to the fourth position after he refused to agree to a demotion in lieu of his last 20-day suspension. As a consequence, service points were unjustly removed from his score.

The city’s independent investigation found insufficient evidence of Rodgers’ formal complaint of a pattern of discriminatory discipline. But the investigator only reviewed three-plus years of his tenure, not really enough time to establish a pattern in a nearly 20-year career. 

Sonya Zollicoffer: Racism in a mostly Black county

Just last week, a judge ruled that Sonya Zollicoffer’s Prince George’s County, Maryland police department was using problematic tests for promotions, with “notable disparities” for Black and Hispanic officers. This was in response to a lawsuit that Zollicoffer and others filed against the department.  

She also saw how Black officers were disparately disciplined compared with their white counterparts. When she was a sergeant in the Internal Affairs Division she investigated charges of misconduct.

Now a lieutenant, her experience on the police department got exponentially more complicated when she became the target of unfair treatment herself, she said. 

Sonya Zollicoffer talks about George Floyd’s death

After she recommended that two white officers be administratively charged for unnecessary force against a Black motorist, she was promoted and moved to a different department. Soon after her departure, the investigation was confidentially reopened and seven minutes of the incident’s dashcam footage was erased, along with the penalty for the officers, Zollicoffer said. 

She pushed her superiors to explain what happened to the footage, why the investigation was reopened and why the disciplinary recommendation changed. Not long after that, Zollicoffer was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and misrepresentation of the facts. 

In many police departments, white officers are repeatedly given chances to make mistakes, be forgiven and brush the errors under the rug. Chauvin is one example. He had been accused of choking suspects prior to Floyd, and he had multiple complaints on his record. 

Zollicoffer never saw such exceptions made for Black officers. In fact, she saw exactly the opposite — Black officers getting taken to task for the smallest infractions. 

Part of the problem is that the department doesn’t reflect the community. Prince George’s County is 64% Black. The percentage of Black officers on its police force is significantly lower.

Michael E. Graham, a member of the International Association of the Chiefs of Police National Law Enforcement Center, wrote a report included in the suit. He identified several measurable patterns within the Prince George’s County Police Department, including inadequate handling of racial harassment and discrimination complaints, a pattern of retaliation or the facing of counter-charges when officers of color complain of misconduct or discrimination, and a pattern of disparate discipline of serious misconduct of officers of color as compared with their white counterparts. 

Shawn Kennedy
The divisive rhetoric of former President Donald Trump has given overt racism on police forces a green light to come back in full force and with impunity.

Such discriminatory practices resulted in the 2018 lawsuit by the United Black Police Officers Association, the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association National Capital Region, the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, along with several officers including Zollicoffer.

Horne, Rodgers and Zollicoffer are not alone. Their lawsuits are only among the latest to call out racism within the ranks of police in America. It took 15 years for Horne to get justice, and the verdict happened to come during the Chauvin trial. Will it take another 15 years for today’s officers of color to experience the same level of justice?

Black officers also recognize that the next time a Black man is killed by police, the incident will likely pit community members against them. When use of force cases go viral, all officers get painted with an unfair and broad brush. And the issue of force and racism, both inside police forces and toward the public, is complicated. Not all Black officers are good, and not all white officers are perpetrators of violence. But Black officers do have to walk a fine line that white officers don’t. 

Until there is real police reform that chips away at systemic racism in law enforcement, dismantles qualified immunity for police officers to hide behind and holds police officers punitively accountable for their egregious misconduct, Black officers will continue to have an extra burden to bear and will have to seek legal redress from federal courts when necessary.

In the meantime, my retirement will continue to be busier than ever.

Shawn Kennedy is a retired sergeant of the Chicago Police Department and the information officer for the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. 


Leave a Reply