By Sikivu Hutchinson
“The department is meant to tear a police officer down in the academy and then recreate that officer in the image the police department likes. A subtle form of brainwashing occurs for some.” Cheryl Dorsey, Black and Blue: The Creation of a Manifesto
In the national debate about and outrage over police misconduct, excessive force and accountability, retired Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Cheryl Dorsey and San Francisco Police Department lieutenant Yulanda Williams are on the frontlines pushing back against institutional injustice within their ranks. As African American women officers in predominantly white, predominantly male departments, they have weathered sexism, racism, and job discrimination in their most pernicious forms. Dorsey joined the LAPD in 1980 and quickly became disgruntled with the barriers to advancement as well as the rampant violence directed toward African American and communities of color. Yulanda Williams joined the SFPD after surviving the 1978 massacre of Peoples Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana. In 2016, Williams was the only officer of color to testify against the SFPD’s culture of racism and sexism on a Blue Ribbon Panel on police misconduct. Dorsey and Williams discussed the challenges of “police reform”, the explicit and implicit bias of over-militarized police departments in the aftermath of Stephon Clark’s killing by Sacramento Police, and the contradictions of recruiting more officers of color for a police regime which has a slave catcher lineage.
Let’s talk a little bit about your careers. What inspired you to go into law enforcement as African American women?
Cheryl Dorsey: I joined the LAPD because I wanted benefits and stability. I came in with the consent decree. I was expedited in the hiring process. I realized that the LAPD offered more opportunity than the DOJ, my previous employer, however, there were certain positions that were unavailable to me as a Black woman. Coveted administrative staff jobs in research and auditing were unavailable. Those were the most sought after vis-à-vis getting promoted to sergeant or lieutenant. They would fabricate reasons for why you couldn’t get them (you didn’t have enough time on the job or needed to be on patrol).
Yulanda Williams: Let me first insert this disclaimer, my responses are based on my own personal experiences as a Black female in law enforcement. I am not speaking for my department. Initially, I applied for a position with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department but I scored higher on the SFPD position. Although I accepted the position with the SFPD, I was determined to remain an individual based on my experience surviving Jonestown. Throughout my career, I have been known as one of a select group of officers who are not afraid to challenge, speak up about, and document injustices and disparate treatment. These experiences have led me believe that some officers sense there is an urgency to deprogram Black officers; especially if there are questions regarding their loyalty or commitment to “Blue”. After the commencement of the Black Lives Movement, I was questioned about my commitment by several officers. Some asked, “Are you loyal to the Blue or Black?” “Are you down with Blue Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter?” These questions focused on loyalty to your culture or your job are not unfamiliar to Black officers I haven’t heard other ethnicities or protected classes complain about having these types of antagonistic interactions.
What were some of the biggest barriers for Black women in your respective departments?
Cheryl Dorsey: From the very beginning, barriers to promotion had been in place. I was not being groomed as a patrol officer to become a sergeant. Eventually, I promoted to training officer after nine years and sergeant with fourteen years of patrol experience gaining the respect of my peers. Generally, Patrol officers only respect patrol officers. White girls would get groomed and promote very quickly. Once you promote to sergeant you have to go back to patrol. Part of what I do now in speaking out is to try and prepare folks going in to the force to know what really goes down. It would have been nice to have a mentor or ally. (The story of Christopher Dorner and his situation is not unusual when Black officers find themselves in disciplinary hearings). There was a lot of hazing in the department when I worked in the Central Traffic division. When the watch commander called the car assignment I shared with another female officer, we were referred to as the “Tuna clipper”. Supervision condoned that kind of harassment.
Yulanda Williams: As a newly hired, young Black female officer I was selected to serve as an undercover officer. I was assigned to work the street buy bust operations in various districts (I pretended to be an addicted person attempting to score drugs on the streets with another officer monitoring my activity). It was uncommon for Black women to work in the Narcotics Division as an investigator or as a detail assignment. Finally, after fifteen years of service with my agency, I decided to take the Sergeant Promotional Examination. When the results were documented on the Promotional Eligibility List co-workers questioned my ability to obtain such a high overall score. They attempted to marginalize my accomplishment and smear my reputation, claiming that I must have cheated. Why is it so questionable when a Black person achieves success? It reflects the institutional racism and bias in the public and private sector and in law enforcement. Nonetheless, I was advised that my experiences didn’t rise to the level of warranting an EEO investigation. You can only handle so many disappointments with city units mandated by federal law until you just walk away discouraged by the process and lack of follow through.
Yulanda you were initially recruited by the Black Officers for Justice organization which won a discrimination lawsuit against the SFPD in 1973. You then took on the SFPD and the police union over racial and gender discrimination, including a series of racist text messages that smeared you personally as a “n” and a “b”. You were the only officer of color to testify on a Blue Ribbon panel on police misconduct. What kind of backlash did that lead to? What has been the outcome of the panel and the DOJ’s findings of implicit and institutional discrimination in the SFPD?
Yulanda Williams: I stood alone in speaking out and resisting. None of my co-workers who were called out challenged the mistreatment they experienced as a result of the text messages; but they were quick to reap the benefits of my actions. As a result of my testimonies while serving as the President of the Officers For Justice, there have been more women and people of color promoted to higher ranks. That said, there are still folks of color who work in various city departments who contact me sharing their stories of impartial, unfair treatment. As a result of the continued bullying, disrespect, and attempts to defame my character by the San Francisco Police Officers Association, I made a personal conscience choice to withdraw my membership with the union. I had to find an alternate source for legal representation. The San Francisco Police Officers Association frequently made disparaging derogatory comments about communities of color. Regrettably, this is the tenor of the leadership of most police unions nationwide. Whenever you’re a candid person you are not favored. Oftentimes, as Black officers, those of us who have the courage and character to speak out are not necessarily leading a unit or division. It is difficult when one determines that you are your own person and you must be true to yourself.
Cheryl Dorsey: The Ombudsman was supposed to be the safe place (but this was not the case). There was no place to go to report mistreatment or harassment. You could be reassigned if you spoke out or challenged the PD. In the LAPD, this is known as “freeway therapy”.
Cheryl, your book Black and Blue: The Creation of a Manifesto, documents and challenges the oppressive race/gender politics in the LAPD. What has been the national response to your assessment about police corruption and particularly the complicity of police unions in propping up white supremacy, sexism and homophobia in PDs?
Cheryl Dorsey: My autobiography has been well received and has opened up opportunities for me to speak my truth to power. As a result, I am a much sought after police expert speaking on events making national headlines on networks such as CNN, Fox News, HLN, CNN and MSNBC.
Cheryl, in a recent article on police whistleblowers you write, “If citizens really want to urge ‘good officers’ to report police misconduct, they must help create safe zones for officers who report wrongdoing, protect ‘good cops’ from rogue administrators and demand real whistleblower protections that extend beyond the academic.”
Cheryl Dorsey: Whistleblower protection laws are not a real thing. Chiefs have total autonomy and there is no outside protection. You have to decide what’s important. It has been my experience that if a black officer desires promotion; one must be quiet, pliable, seen but not heard.What drew me to the LAPD was the fact that a lifetime service pension was attainable after twenty years. I remained focused, kept my eye on the prize, and I am currently in my 18th year of retirement. However, I nearly became a statistic two-years prior to retirement eligibility. The sheriff’s department which had jurisdiction where I resided notified the LAPD of domestic conflict at my home involving my husband, who was also an LAPD officer at the time. LAPD initiated a personnel complaint against husband charging domestic abuse. The LAPD charged me with violation of misconduct because I “caused the response of an outside agency.” I was investigated by Internal Affairs and ordered to a Board of Rights. I sought the assistance of a black command staff officer for whom I had previously worked to speak as a character reference, but he refused. The white male chairman who was a deputy chief on the LAPD at the conclusion of my Board of Rights decided to give me “mercy”. My job was spared and I was suspended for five days without pay. I was trying to get the attention of news agencies but the PD barred me from allowing anybody to cover my issues.
6. Shortly after the police murder of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California legislators proposed a new bill (which has also been championed by the ACLU) that would limit the use of deadly force by police. California police kill more people than anywhere in the nation. California has some of the highest rates of officer involved shootings, with Los Angeles leading the pack. What are your views on this bill and its prospects for reducing police violence?
Cheryl Dorsey: I find little comfort in this bill. It is nothing more than semantics. Interpretation is still left to the officer's discretion. The problem remains in that great deference is given to a police officer's version of events and it is impossible to argue what is purported to be "in someone's head" ie. fear, danger, etc. Personal financial officer accountability much like the Baltimore City Solicitor enacted into their policy when civil suits arise from (injury) deadly force would be a great next step.
7. What are your views on reform strategies like community policing and de-escalation? Do they actually work and are they beneficial for communities of color who are under siege with high rates of police violence and police murder?
Cheryl Dorsey: The system does what it was supposed to do. Police chiefs have great autonomy. The president of the National Association of Police Chiefs recently apologized to communities of color without articulating what changes if any would be implemented to address policy substantive change and officer accountability. If police chiefs don’t see anything wrong with what their rank and file is doing then you’re not going to have change. It is my belief that some police departments are corrupt and it’s top and down. Police chiefs seem obligated to protect that organism because that is where their loyalties lie. They want you to not get on these jobs and make it easy for you to be eliminated. If you understand that the system is corrupt you need to bring your head game. I don’t believe that everyone gets indoctrinated. Infiltrate the system and promote and you don’t have to sacrifice to do that. Changes on any department will come from within. The best way to change a system is to become a part of that system. I suggest young people join the police departments where they live and become a part of the resolution. Don’t wait for them to do better. Stop expecting that they will treat us right. Just like the KKK has infiltrated the ranks of police departments around the nation as evidenced by an FBI report - black folks need to do the same. For more on my advocacy visit www.sgtcheryldorsey.com
Yulanda Williams: Reform efforts are receiving national pushback. Change is not easy. It is difficult and virtually impossible to reform police agencies without addressing internal problems such as racism, sexism, white supremacy, privilege, cronyism, and nepotism. Some pose this question, “how can you clean up someone else’s house if your own house is still dirty?” The only way to change is if we have more people of color and greater diversity to challenge the hierarchical culture of police departments across the U.S. I am a member of the Barbershop Forum where we visit institutions and talk to young people to develop more trusting relationships with the community. Many of our people are criminalized at birth, and my approach is to respond to our communities in a meaningful, culturally sensitive way. My legacy is going to be as a woman who stood up for justice. You can’t buy me. We have a responsibility as officers of color not to allow ourselves to be bought by any particular group or system. Our integrity is our most precious commodity.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the novel White Nights, Black Paradise and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Her new speculative fiction-sci fi play NARCOLEPSY, INC. debuts at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June.