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.
Why do you say that?
Because we're in the better position to understand the communities that we come from. We're in a better position to understand how officers feel and what they do every day. We're in a better position to acknowledge that we have white police officers who are really, really damn good, and go to neighborhoods every day, and do more than some of the black officers in the neighborhood. That's why we're in a better position.
We act like policing is monolithic across the United States. It's 800,000 police officers, 18,000 police departments, and we want to vilify 650,000 white officers as if they haven’t policed neighborhoods and contributed to a society that is less criminal. That's kind of crazy to me. You've got to admit that.
What city are you from?
I'm from Atlanta, Georgia.
Atlanta is a black city. Atlanta has a majority of black officers. Why doesn’t Atlanta have zero crime, or crime that's actually [in proportion] to the amount of black officers? That puts a hole in the position, don't it?
I think why communities are on fire right now is that they see police misconduct and nobody being held accountable, and they also see or perceive that the blue line of silence kicks in, where even good cops don't want to speak out against the bad cops because—
Hold up, let me answer part of what you said. I agree, they see officers go unpunished, but go unpunished in which crimes? Are they talking about crimes of murder? Are they talking about crimes of aggravated assault? I know plenty of officers who went to jail. I know plenty of officers who have been held accountable and got terminated or got suspended. A whole lot of them!
Which crime are you talking about going unpunished? You see it on the TV, and on the national scale, we have five, ten incidents, and some guy gets acquitted in a court of law, in a due-process system that has upheld the American standards. If you don't like that system, then go fight that system.
The police are the easiest targets, while we let county and state governments off the hook in processes that have failed us for years.
You talk about this thin blue line, this blue wall of silence, that exists in your workplace. You know crazy reporters. You know people who push the issue, they lie. You know what other reporters would say? They would say, "That isn’t my business."
Journalists will cannibalize another journalist if they fail the standards, and we'll do it publicly.
And police will, too, that's what I'm equating it to. We go to court on our reports. We have people who check them and see what they did. We have people who go to jail for lying on false reports, making a false report. We've got checks and balances, and that's what happens.
It's like what the president said [during the memorial for the Dallas police officers], we need to acknowledge. We act like some of the neighborhoods that police go in don't have trouble. They've got plenty of trouble, and then you put us in the neighborhoods and say, “You go straighten this trouble out, but you better do it right. I don't want you making no mistakes. Leave me alone, by the way, because you should know me, you should read my mind, you should know I'm just working, getting my groceries and going home. I'm not a criminal.” That's unrealistic, and that's what the president was saying yesterday as a black man in the highest office in the world. He said, "We need to understand this."
This is what I'm talking about, why we need a national conversation.
There's this sense that some of the corrosive politics happening over the last eight to ten years has been playing a role in some of the overall racial animus that's out here in the communities. Some people have said to me that certain white folks want police services for themselves, and police states for black folks. Is that something that's part of this discussion too, about the differences in how whites and blacks view the police and the role of police?
I'm going to still revert back to what I said. Why does that happen? Let's go back 50, 60, 100 years when blacks were corralled into certain neighborhoods and made to stay there. Desegregation didn't stop the neighborhoods that we have. When you travel from one end of the road to the other, you see a difference in housing, and culture, and development.
If that's a police state, yeah, it happened a long time ago. You know who else says that that's okay? We do. We rarely do any work in [the black community]. Only a few soldiers rise to the occasion to try to stop the things that are happening. We think selling drugs or being the next best rapper is going to propel us into a new future.
We need to expose our dirty laundry, because we've got some dirty laundry, too, that we need to air.
Some folks have suggested that one of the possible solutions that could shrink these shootings, or misconduct, or wrongful outcomes is if people require police departments and police unions to self-insure. The cities often have insurance and they pay settlements out of the insurance, but there are scholars who are saying that you could actually make police departments or police officers themselves self-insure. If they end up having a lot of bad shootings or unjustifiable shootings, that they would pay themselves and not the taxpayer. Do you think that would be viable?
No, I don't even think it's accomplishable. I don't know how you impose a law like that. It's unrealistic. Police departments are responsible for their people, and either they fire them and they suffer whatever is coming from them, or they back them and they suffer whatever's coming from them. That's it. You can't force people to have insurance like that.
They could. There are other professions that require bonds.
Other professions, like doctors. I'm glad you brought that up. Doctors. Have you read the latest stats on how many doctors get accused of malpractice and what happens with state licensing boards? It almost mirrors policing.
I'm familiar with it.
The doctors who sexually assaulted people, they did all kinds of things, and nothing happened to them. The state licensing board won't take their licenses because doctors are in high demand. You can get away with multiple crimes, hundreds of crimes as a doctor and nobody would do anything to you even though they have the same type of malpractice insurance. There’s 900,000 doctors in the U.S., and yet they commit so many crimes and get so many malpractice suits
Guess what? State licensing boards control that, and nothing happens to them. In Texas, do we want the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to decide whether an officer is going to get a suspension or not, or if he's going to keep his job? I don't know if we want that or not. That wouldn't be beneficial.
Going back to this whole thing of despair. Poor, black, and brown people definitely get punished and policed for breaking laws, but it increasingly appears as if other folks are above the law. Doctors, police officers, bankers, people with influence and money. They’re not being held to a higher standard. Is punishment or accountability part of the conversation that you think we need to be having?
I think it's a part of all the conversations, with every aspect. That's why I keep going back to: Are we going to put this out front and center and have a national conversation on race and police brutality?
Are we going to get serious about this and say, "What are going to be the actions after this?" No, we aren’t serious about it because I have yet to hear anybody say we're going to really talk about it, and we're going to write about it, and we're going to put it out front. They aren’t saying that yet. When they say that, then call me back.
In a personal sense, if you could wave a magic wand and have the power right now to repair this problem, what would you do?
If I had a magic wand, we'd go back to the first time the slaves got off the ship on that island, and then you'd tell them to go back, wouldn't you? You have no idea what's in store for you, man.
Have you given “the talk” to your children and other family members?
Just like my mother gave me the talk and my daddy gave me the talk, I gave my son and my daughter the talk. You know what we do now? I have a brochure with the National Black Police Association on my website about what to do when stopped by the police. That's the talk. That's the talk that our parents gave us about how to act when law enforcement stops. How to say, "Yes, sir." "No, ma'am," and present yourself as respectable so you can survive the encounter. Hundreds of people have called me, if not thousands, or sent emails and said, "Thank you for this brochure. It saved my son, it saved my daughter."
Should we have to have the talk? No, but we're not at a stage in our complex evolution in America to not have that talk. We haven't arrived yet.
Do you see us arriving in your lifetime?
Man, I'm 47. I'm almost done. I don't know if that will happen in my lifetime. Maybe in my children's children's lifetime. Look, if you were enslaved and oppressed for 400 years, then you have to reset the clock to start over, to actually overcome what happened to you. It’s only 1865 since slavery was abolished. Then, you went into the prison industrial complex which restarted the clock. You went into Jim Crow and that restarted the clock. You went into wholesale, overt racism, which restarted the clock. You went into covert racism and discrimination. That restarted the clock over. If we're going to keep resetting the clock, then no way, man. I'll be watching this from the afterlife.