Black and blue about law enforcement


In The Black and the Blue (Hachette, 2018), former Arlington, VA police officer and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent Matthew Horace brings his perspective as a black cop to the ongoing discussion of racism in American law enforcement.

Horace, with the help of professional journalist Ron Harris, describes how many black officers join law enforcement reluctantly, in the hope of gaining steady, middle-class, societally helpful employment, but with lifelong experiences of the routinely oppressive interactions that occur between cops and African-American communities: “Like other black men, I feel the frustration, the humiliation and the rage just knowing I’m at risk for doing nothing more than just breathing.”

To illustrate the origins of those feelings, Horace details once again the infamous police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald, but also, and perhaps more valuably, the personal experiences of himself and fellow black cops, and lesser known cases of gross injustice inflicted on African-Americans. The effect is to demonstrate—beyond a reasonable doubt—just how endemic in American police departments is “a culture of disregard … for the people they are paid to serve,” in which loyalty to fellow cops supersedes an officer’s oath to protect the public.

Two years before Michael Brown’s death, for example, Fred Watson was accosted by a Ferguson, MO cop for the apparent crime of sitting in his car watching kids play basketball. Eddie Boyd, an officer already notorious for brutality and intemperance, quickly threatened Watson with violence and filed a total of nine fabricated charges. For not only was Boyd a racist cop, he was also part of a Ferguson police department and criminal justice apparatus engaged in a policy of supplementing governmental budgets through fines, penalties, and bail bonds primarily imposed on the city’s majority African-American citizenry.

Watson, a navy veteran making $100,000 a year in cybersecurity, lost both his security clearance and his job within two years of his arrest, because the local prosecutor refused to withdraw the obviously flimsy charges made against him. It would take five years in total, and the impressive efforts of Merton awardee ArchCity Defenders, before all the charges against Watson were dropped. By that time his career was in tatters; his savings were gone and he suffered from depression—a true case of a black “life ruined” through systematic injustice.

Horace devotes chapters to some of the country’s worst departments— New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia—and to a long history in which racist policing was clearly enforcing the legal and societal norms articulated by America’s established power centers. He contrasts his own experiences policing the mostly black crack addicts of the ‘80s and ‘90s with current treatment of mostly white opioid addicts.

“With crack, it was either rehabilitation, death, or incarceration, and since the first choice was unavailable to most black addicts, they were left with the remaining two outcomes.”

In exploring potential solutions, Horace discusses the need for better training that addresses “implicit bias,” as well as improving the screening and qualifications for potential officers. (The news that the Cleveland cop who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice has recently been hired by a rural Ohio police department is particularly disheartening.) Horace also highlights the problems of community neglect, of the breakdown of mental health care, and of the ingrained mistrust of police contributing to failures to remove murderous gang members from the streets.

It is in regards to gang violence that Horace makes a serious misstep, saying “if black lives matter, all of them must matter,” not just police victims. Former prosecutor Paul Butler chides Horace in the Washington Post for resorting to “the same false dichotomy” between police and gang violence favored by President Trump. “No one in the movement for black lives excuses any taking of life,” Butler writes.

Another problem is more a sin of omission in Horace’s exploration of how to break down the “blue wall of silence” perpetuated by police seeking to protect their wayward fellow officers. The author rightly focuses on transforming department cultures, describing at length the efforts of police chiefs Eddie Johnson in Chicago and Michael Harrison in New Orleans. Harrison has gone so far as to fire not just officers guilty of egregious abuses of police powers, but also those officers who have failed to report such abuses.

But Horace utters not a word about the often problematic positions taken by police unions in regards to such abuses, especially when unions go beyond their appropriate role of ensuring individual members receive due process and openly challenge elected and appointed officials who have the temerity to criticize obviously racist attitudes and behaviors within departments. “These organizations have played a powerful role … in resisting all manner of police reforms,” Flint Taylor has observed in In These Times. Horace’s failure to explore that role at all left this reviewer mystified.

 Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center Board

(TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No. 9 November 2018. All rights reserved)

Photo: Women’s March on Washington, October 21st. Photo Credit: Joyce Rothermel.

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Categories: News

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