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winter 2022

Black & Blue

How Minority Law Enforcement Officers Are Caught Between Two Worlds
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

If the blue line is thin, then the Black and blue line is even thinner. According to a 2020 Reuters report, African Americans account for just over 11% of local police forces in the United States—a minority sometimes viewed with suspicion by both their colleagues and their home communities.


It’s a disparity that concerns Brenda Goss Andrews, the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), who tells WayMaker Journal: “If we want the kind of policing in the community that we deserve, we’ll have to become part of it. Black and brown and any number of demographics need to be represented in police departments.”


She’s well aware of the resistance that needs to be overcome. During her 30-year career with the Detroit Police Department—which saw her rise from patrol officer to Deputy Chief—she was responsible for recruitment. “My biggest issue was getting African Americans to join,” she says. “We did big career fairs, we went to HBCUs, we went to the military, barbershops, beauty shops… but it was difficult even then.”


The situation hasn’t gotten any easier in the wake of George Floyd’s death, of course. Though she retired from the Detroit force in 2006, she continues to champion Black law enforcement service in her NOBLE role. In conversations with the likes of the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, she asks what they are doing to recruit more people of color.

If we want the kind of policing in the community that we deserve, we’ll have to become part of it.

BRENDA GOSS ANDREWS


Part of the racial imbalance in law enforcement is because whites have “a legacy and a history” of being involved, she says. But there’s also the “natural fear, and maybe rightly so” of policing in the Black community, of which she has personal experience. “My dad, when we were little girls and he saw the police coming down the street, he’d rush in the house and bring us in.”


Despite that, she chose a career in law enforcement, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Howard University and a master’s in criminal justice from Michigan State University. Among her honors has been the Breaking the Glass Ceiling award from the National Center for Women and Policing.


Two worlds
Many Black people have good reason for their reservations about law enforcement, Goss Andrews recognizes. “Something happened to a family member, and it just perpetuates,” she says. Overcoming that gap is going to take time and honest conversations, she adds.


“We have to peel back some of those layers. I want people to know that police officers, we are of the community. We do the same things everybody else does… [and] we have to put on the uniform because we’ve pledged to protect and serve. A lot of times we have to put our families on the back burner,” she says. “We are faced with the same kind of things society is… we’re straddling both of those worlds.”


Part of the problem is that people expect too much of the police, in one sense. “We put the onus on solving and dealing with crime on the police,” says Goss Andrews. “It should not be there; it’s really a multidisciplinary solution.” That means involving everyone from educators to mental health professionals and tackling social issues like food deserts. “We all have to come together and have that conversation,” she says. “If we continue thinking that police can solve all the crime, we’re going to continue to fail. It’s never been the mission of the police to solve every ill in society.”


What’s the part of the Black family in shaping strong communities? “We have so many [fathers] out here that have abandoned their responsibility as parents, and these children grow up in homes without a strong male figure,” Goss Andrews (who herself raised a son as a single mom after a divorce) observes. “Now, some might argue that that’s not the problem, but I see it as a concern, as something that Black males should be talking about in the barbershop.


“I think that when we start seeing our Black males kind of step up to their responsibility in the home, for their children, I think we’ll see a different dynamic, a different course that some of these children will take. Is that the only answer? No, but it is part of it.”


She would also like to see a renewed emphasis on tolerance and respect. “These are the kinds of teachings that you have to do in your home,” she says. “The police can’t do it. If you don’t get it at home and you come out to the streets, there’s not a lot that we can do outside of enforcing whatever laws.” There was a time when if a young person was misbehaving, their mother would get a call about it. “Now, if we do that, it’s a fight, it’s a shooting.”


Gun safety
NOBLE (motto: “Justice by Action”) is playing its part in encouraging community engagement in various ways. The organization produced a 30-second public service announcement during the COVID-19 lockdowns observing that incidents of domestic abuse were on the rise and urging victims to seek help. NOBLE also runs a school program engaging young people, with role plays on how to handle a traffic stop (see sidebar). “We have got to start talking to them in those age ranges—12, 13—when they start getting into trouble.”


With almost some 3,000 members worldwide, NOBLE was founded in 1976, at a time when there was concern over the lack of opportunities for advancement in law enforcement for people of color and women, and rising crime in cities like Detroit and Chicago.


If she mentioned those two things without citing the year, “you would think I was talking about 2022,” she notes. There have been some gains through the years, though: NOBLE members currently head police departments in Chicago, Memphis, New York and Philadelphia.


Goss Andrews assumed the presidency of NOBLE in the summer. After leaving the Detroit PD—where at one time she oversaw its $400 million budget—she cofounded the Retired Detroit Police Members Association. She has also become a realtor and served as a City of Detroit planning commissioner. “Police officers, we are of the community. We do the same things everybody else does… [and] we have to put on the uniform.”


One of the personal pillars of Goss Andrews’ NOBLE term is safe home gun storage. “We’re not talking about how many kids are being killed under 10 years old,” she says, referencing the recent death of an 8-year-old in Detroit shot by an older child who found a gun; the two were home with no parents there. “Those are the barbershop talks that we can have. ‘OK, brothers, you want to have your guns? We got that. We’re not talking about the Second Amendment, but we’re talking about you having a responsibility to store that weapon, so these children are not getting killed.’ We’re losing a lot of our young kids under 10, and this is something that’s preventable.”


TRAFFIC STOP 101
So, you’ve been pulled over in your vehicle. What’s the best way to handle the situation? Brenda Goss Andrews talks us through it.
• Before you even get in your vehicle, make sure you have any relevant paperwork or credentials you may need: driver’s license, registration, insurance.
• Don’t drink and drive. That’s only going to cause additional problems.
• Pull over. Trying to drive away is not going to help.
• Chill. Don’t be argumentative. That immediately puts the officer in a defensive mindset.
• Cooperate. Tell the officer you’d like to reach over to your glove compartment to get your papers. Remember, he or she is on the alert for potential danger.
• Keep it pleasant. If the officer says you were speeding, maybe answer, “Oh, I didn’t notice. Let me get my license.”
• Be patient. Wait while they go back to their car to run a check.
• Be polite. If you’re given a ticket, don’t snatch it. Just deal with it. You have an opportunity to go to court and challenge it, if you want.
• Remember, police officers are people too. If you are angry at getting pulled over because you’re having a bad day, maybe they are having a bad day as well, which could affect their interaction too.


From an interview with Louis Carr