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Halfway through his 20-year career with the NYPD, Christopher LaForce started to feel conflicted about his day-to-day work, much of which involved ticketing Black and brown New Yorkers for the most innocuous of crimes: walking through the emergency exit as they left the subway station.
“I could understand at least giving tickets to people coming into the station without paying,” LaForce, now 53, told VICE News. “But for leaving the station through the gate instead of the turnstile? It made no sense.”
As a teenager in the Bronx in the ’80s, LaForce always wanted to be a cop. He joined the force in 1995, hoping to make troubled, mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods like the one he grew up in, better for people who looked like him. But those aspirations eventually soured. His superiors seemed more invested in cracking down on low-level offenses and meeting quotas.
When LaForce pushed back, his superiors took away overtime, refused to authorize outside jobs to earn extra cash, and denied him vacation days. Finally, in March 2015, LaForce just left.
“I didn’t want to retire yet, but I didn’t want to still be on patrol doing what I was doing,” he said. “And I wasn’t the only one. They were doing this to a lot of officers who felt the same way I did.”
Like any Black American, Black cops like LaForce have had to face the realities of racism and discrimination every day of their lives. But their line of work brings a unique element to the Black experience: a duty to carry out responsibilities that contribute to systemic racism while also being expected to adhere to the unwavering “Blue Wall of Silence” that prevents them from speaking up. And if they do speak up, they’re often punished—or forced out.
“Five years was more than enough time to arrive clearly at the conclusion that our criminal justice system was institutionally racist at its foundation.”
Faced with overwhelming pressure from colleagues and superiors to fall in line, many quit—and leave behind their ambitions of making change from the inside.
“A lot of Black officers just don’t want the heat. Cops are real people,” said Edwin Raymond, a current NYPD lieutenant who made headlines in 2016 for blowing the whistle on the department’s racial profiling and other discriminatory practices. “Do you really want smoke at work when you have any other real-life issues?”
Raymond, who’s now running for City Council in Brooklyn on a platform of police accountability and reform, among other issues, said that Black people often join police departments with the intent to change them, but not many make the choice to push back against the policies that oppress their people once they get there.
“The smoke at work is completely avoidable, and most people choose to avoid it.” Raymond said. “But when it’s this type of job where millions of lives are affected, I wish more colleagues would make the decision to take a little bit of smoke on behalf of the people.”
For the ones who do, however, the consequences can be severe.
Speaking out on TikTok
When Jaquay Williams joined the Greensboro, North Carolina, police force in 2019, he thought he found a unique way of changing the public perception of cops: TikTok. Using the hashtag #HumanizetheBadge attached to funny videos of him in uniform, the 30-year-old managed to accrue more than 50,000 followers less than a year into his career. His talent earned him praise not only on the internet but also from his fellow officers and superiors.
That all changed when he decided to use his new platform to speak up about the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“If you’re on Tik Tok, gain this kind of platform, and don’t use your platform for good, then you might as well get off it,” he told VICE News. “I didn’t put too much thought into it.”
On May 27, just two days after Floyd’s death, Williams posted an emotional, minute-long rant criticizing the Minneapolis officers involved in the fatal arrest that set off a summer of protests calling for police reform.
“I am disgusted with the things that happened in Minneapolis,” Williams told his followers. “Point blank, things could have gone way different.”
“It’s four of ya’ll, one of him,” Williams continued, referring to the officers who kneeled on Floyd’s back and neck. “Who has control of the situation?”
The video received over 1.6 million likes on TikTok alone—Williams’ most viral yet—and hundreds of thousands more through reposts on other platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Even Snoop Dogg shared it, and media outlets like TheShadeRoom and NBC News wrote about it. Williams gained 150,000 new followers in days.
But the video did him no favors with his employers, who sent him an email warning him for the social media commentary they’d once praised.
“All it said was, ‘You shouldn't post anything that's going to stop or hinder the mission of the police department,’” Williams said. “I was talking about the state of America right now for African Americans. They responded by opening an investigation into my social media.”
Williams set his TikTok account to private for the duration of the investigation. Hoping to show that he supported good policing even though he felt an obligation to disavow the kind of police brutality that killed Floyd, Williams did an interview on the “Tamron Hall” show.
“In policing we have this term ‘squared away.’ That’s like, this person is a good person, basically they check out,” he said during the interview defending his colleagues. “The nine guys that I work around with, are squared away—white, Black, green, yellow.”
“We work in a predominantly Black neighborhood. It’s imperative for the white officers in that neighborhood to empathize with the Black people of the neighborhood,” he added.
The week Williams did the interview, he said, the internal affairs office at his department called him back in. “They took my gun and my badge and told me I was being put on administrative leave.”
Two months later, the Greensboro Police Department decided to terminate Williams. The department put out a statement to curb the internet outrage over his firing, saying it had nothing to do with his viral TikTok video. When asked for comment, the department said that the initial statement about Williams’ termination was the only one they could make but reiterated that his comments about Floyd’s death were not the cause.
Williams and thousands of his followers say otherwise.
“I mean, they didn't have an issue on social media this entire year being here until that video,” he said. “When I saw their statement, I was like, ‘That’s bullcrap.’”
A GoFundMe raised more than $61,000 for him, helping him pay his bills in the time between his termination and starting his next venture: owning and operating Damn Good Dogs, a food truck that specializes in gourmet American classics like burgers and hot dogs.
“When I first left, I used to drive around, see the occasional cop car, and think, ‘Man, I miss it a little bit.’ But the freedom is so much better,” Williams said. “Being able to use my platform to speak to my people means more than going back to somewhere that’s going to hinder my ability to speak out.”
Defending officers who speak up, like Williams, is something that Raymond wants to see more from civilians fighting for police reform.
“I feel that people have not truly embraced the power of having someone on the inside speak up,” he said. “That’s golden if you know what to do with it.”
But Williams’ story is far from unique. Former Black cops from other parts of the country have similarly realized their careers left them few opportunities to make change. And for them, finding alternative methods became their life’s work.
‘The Blue Wall of Silence is so real’
Just five years shy of earning his full pension and medical benefits for the rest of his life, DeLacy Davis decided to quit his job as a police officer at the East Orange Police Department in New Jersey back in 2006. After 20 years of handling patrols, communications, and even academy instruction, he just couldn’t square what he described as the hypocrisy of the work.
“I took a gamble at 44 years of age because I no longer believed in the people I was doing this with. And I felt that I could be much more effective from the outside raising hell than on the inside,” Davis told VICE News. “The Blue Wall of Silence is so real and so pervasive that people outside of it don't have a clue what it’s like.”
Davis always felt strongly about bettering policing for Black Americans and Black officers. In 1991, he founded Black Cops Against Police Brutality to advocate for the reduction of violence against African Americans and the end of systemic racism in policing. The organization held community workshops around the country that educated Black folks on what to do when stopped by the police. The group also organized police protests against police brutality and other injustices within policing—although any local Black officers were banned from participating in order to protect them from their own departments.
But Davis’ advocacy made him a target. He found out upon retiring that he was under internal investigation for 17 of the 20 years he served.
“I was investigated every time I showed up on TV, on the radio, or in public,” he said. “Even when I retired, they challenged my pension for 10 months, and I had to fight for it in court. I had been convicted of nothing.”
“And all I did was ask the simple questions,” he continued. “How can we lock a Black person up for drunk driving when we have a sergeant who’s white and drives to work drunk every day? How do you lock people up for domestic violence and there are cops that we know of beating up their wives and their girlfriends? How are we locking up sex offenders when we know an officer is dating a 15-year-old girl at the high school?”
Since his exit 15 years ago—with only half of his pension—Davis has made advocating for better policing his life’s work. He earned his doctoral degree in 2019 for examining the factors surrounding the death of unarmed Black men at the hands of police. He still holds workshops about how to handle police encounters and provides support services to families with children in the juvenile justice system. He’s also the East Coast representative for the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability, a collection of current and former Black members of law enforcement advocating for responsible and racially equitable policing.
In fact, officers not holding each other accountable is one of the main barriers to departments enacting serious reform from within, according to Raymond.
“A big part of this is the leadership can’t see themselves,” he said. “Leadership will rationalize what they’re doing, and it’s one of the most dangerous things ever.”
Five years on the force
In 2015, former St. Louis cop Redditt Hudson helped found the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability, which advocates for better treatment of Black law enforcement officers and against the criminalization of poverty and other discriminatory policies.
Hudson had joined the St. Louis Police Department as a rookie in 1995. By 1999, he’d turned in his badge.
“Five years was more than enough time to arrive clearly at the conclusion that our criminal justice system was institutionally racist at its foundation,” he told VICE News. “I thought that coming into that work I could make change, that I could serve my community from an empowered position and do enough from inside the department to begin to address the culture. But I realized that I needed to find a different track for myself in order to be as effective as I thought I could be.”
Hudson recalled just one of many instances of police brutality he witnessed: a white officer snatching a young Black man’s crutches and beating him. The officer thought that a suspect was hiding out in the man’s home, but he said no one else was there and denied the cops entry.
“It was a brutal assault, which I ended myself by physically taking her off of the young man,” Hudson said. “She had choked him and was punching when I picked her up and restrained her.”
In the end, Hudson said, the man was telling the truth, but he was still arrested and charged with assaulting an officer.
In addition to his work with the Coalition, Hudson has worked with the ACLU of Missouri, served as chairman of the board for The Ethics Society, and sat on the Hate Crimes Task Force for U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Jeff Jensen.
“I didn't want to not take every opportunity to address the conditions in my own city, in my own community, and more broadly, in our national citizenry,” Hudson said. “We’ve been fighting this fight for generations, man. And with this one life that I have, I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything that I could to leave this world in a better condition for my kids than the one I was born into.”
While he personally had to walk away from being a cop, Hudson is happy to see more Black cops becoming vocal about the injustices they see in their own departments. Unfortunately, those officers are facing the same uphill battle their older counterparts faced decades earlier.
Blood on the seats
Bryan Turner had always wanted to be a cop. The Iraq War Army veteran joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 2011 with high hopes of making a difference back home. But after witnessing the callousness of a superior officer who refused to let him transport a young, Black shooting victim to a nearby hospital in a newly acquired police vehicle, he began to second-guess what he’d gotten himself into.
The young man had been shot in the neck at one of Philadelphia’s most notorious intersections for crime, according to Turner. As he was bleeding on the ground, Turner attempted to move him into one of the department’s Chevy Tahoes on the scene, which broke with department policy to wait for medical transport. But a superior officer thwarted his attempts to save the man’s life.
“She says, ‘Come here, let me show you something,’” Turner recalled. “‘That’s leather. If you put him in the back of that car and he gets blood on the seat, we’re down a car, and this car is brand-new.’”
“‘He’s just going to have to wait,’” she said, according to Turner.
Turner returned to the dying young man devastated. He apologized to him profusely as he watched him bleed out. By the time medics arrived, nearly 45 minutes after shots first rang out, the young man had died of his injuries.
“I have never cried on the job except for that time. Just a few hours before then, I felt like I had all this power to help people,” Turner said. “Even to this day, I haven't seen anything like it, except the video of George Floyd’s death. I felt like that was the one time I folded to the pressures of being a cop, and I lost a little bit of my humanity with it.”
“I no longer believed in the people I was doing this with. And I felt that I could be much more effective from the outside raising hell than on the inside.”
After that day, Turner vowed to never stay silent again. He became an unabashed critic of police corruption and brutality on social media and spoke out about the shooting deaths of David Jones, a Black man in Philadelphia, and many others. Turner said he was one of two cops to file a complaint about a supervisor’s racist and sexist rant calling Black people and women unqualified for leadership roles.
But Turner’s career took a turn for the worse, despite having earned 11 accommodations for his police work, including the Medal of Heroism.
He was given broken equipment to handle jobs and was regularly denied backup in dangerous situations. He allegedly received emails containing death threats and was regularly called racist and derogatory names by supervisors.
Turner’s troubles culminated in late 2018 when he was arrested and charged with falsifying arrest paperwork. He was eventually fired from the Philadelphia PD in December 2018. He maintained his innocence through the accusations, was eventually acquitted, and had the charge expunged from his record.
“It was an eight-day jury trial, and I was found not guilty in 15 minutes,” he said.
But the manner in which he was terminated made it impossible to find work in the law enforcement field. He lost his house, which he was just $4,000 away from paying off. He was also barred from rejoining the Army and was eventually forced into early retirement.
All the while, the department failed to report his termination to the city for five months, and he couldn’t collect his pension. In 2020, he filed a federal lawsuit against the department for racial discrimination, unlawful termination, and harassment.
The Philadelphia Police Department declined to comment.
“I served my country for 15 years. I served my city for eight years,” he said. “I never let the fact that I was speaking up about the injustices stop me from giving the citizens of Philadelphia a quality police experience. But I was locked up. I was arrested. I was charged.”
And Turner says he knows from experience that he’s not alone.
“A lot of cops don't agree with the stuff that goes on in the police culture,” he said. “But there's only a handful of cops that speak up about it, and most of them do it after they've been fired, after they quit.”