Black officers get double dose of pain, frustration

Officer Phillip Jackson knows deep in his bones that he can, in fact, be a Black man and wear police blue at the same time


By Holly Zachariah
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — He had held the line for hours, never flinching as protesters screamed insults, hurled rocks and frozen water bottles and dared the men and women to take off their uniforms and fight.

Then someone zeroed in on his black skin.

Columbus police Officer Phillip Jackson checks his riot gear as begins his shift. (Photo/Doral Chenoweth/Dispatch)
Columbus police Officer Phillip Jackson checks his riot gear as begins his shift. (Photo/Doral Chenoweth/Dispatch)

Protesters soon advanced on Columbus police Officer Phillip "P.J." Jackson, circling back to him time and again.

"You're disgusting. You standing on the wrong side," one Black woman shouted in his face. "We stand with our people ... I know you can hear me. I hope you can sleep good at night. Remember my voice, Black man. Remember my voice."

And oh, how he does. The insults hurt, Jackson said, and the personal attacks cut him as surely as a sharp knife.

Yet that pain only has steeled his resolve for how he can best bring about change from the inside. It reminds him how those who judge him only by his uniform are no better than any officer who judges those they police simply by the color of their skin.

"Because I was a Black officer, I became a focal point and a target," he said. "Not knowing me, not knowing who I am, what I have been through, what I've done in my community and what I still continue to do."

He held his position in that line of officers at the intersection of Broad and High streets Downtown as the agitated crowd swelled to hundreds as the night wore on.

It was Thursday, May 28, the first night of protests in Columbus decrying police brutality and demanding widespread change in the name of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis after a police officer pinned him down by his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest on minor charges.

And it was a night like no other Jackson has experienced in his 14 years with the Columbus Division of Police or as a state corrections officer or as part of a U.S. Marshal's task force before that.

Sure, he has had his blackness used against him before and yes, people on the streets as he works his mid-watch shift have questioned his loyalty. But he said he's always been able to talk to people, to show them who he really is and what he stands for, what his colleagues stand for.

These are his streets, after all. This is where he came from, having grown up in the Linden neighborhood and then spending 20-plus years as a youth football coach there.

But this? This one May night and all the nights that have followed? They are different.

"It hurts," the 46-year-old Jackson said. He knows deep in his bones that he can, in fact, be a Black man and wear police blue at the same time. It shouldn't require him to split his loyalties.

He said he is as angry about what police did to Floyd as the people marching through the city, but he has never been ashamed to be a Black police officer. And he isn't now.

"I knew what was happening to that man on the ground," he said of Floyd. "Yes, I felt that pain. But ... separating your Blackness from the uniform? You're gonna be Black regardless. You can't turn that off."

***

The Columbus Division of Police — both its commanders and the rank and file — is mostly white. The highest-ranking Black officers are lieutenants, and they are only four out of 56. Of the city's 1,560 officers, about 10% are Black, and 20 of 224 sergeants are Black.

The city has faced discrimination and racism lawsuits in the past, and a report from a consulting group released in August found that the division has a "significant disparity of use of force against minority residents." As recently as last month, Lt. Melissa McFadden, a 24-year veteran of the division, said she believes the racism she sees exhibited by officers on the street is a symptom of the internal racism at work.

Census data from 2019 lists 28.5% of Columbus' population as Black or African American. Increasing diversity in the police force so that it looks more like the community the division serves has long been a priority, and Detective Dana Croom, who joined in 1987, has been a part of those efforts.

Croom, 55, said it's not like it was when he first came on, when older officers pointed out who among them were blatantly racist and who he should avoid. But even though it was difficult internally back then, he had never once thought about quitting — until the past 30 days. Then the doubts about staying until his planned retirement next year crept in.

The personal attacks on his heritage, the calling into question his ability to be both an officer and a Black man, have been difficult, Croom said. The assumptions that every officer is racist are unfair and wrong, he said.

Croom was drawn to law enforcement by experience. As a child growing up in New York City, he and a friend were approached by a stranger who offered them some candy if they'd go with him. A young Dana declined and went home; his friend did not. The friend was killed.

Prompted in part by such traumatic events, the Crooms moved to central Ohio. His father became a longtime Licking County deputy sheriff and sergeant, and Dana Croom followed his footsteps into law enforcement.

Croom has seen plenty of protests on Columbus streets, but he said there's been nothing like this past month or so.

"I've been shot at, I've been shot, and I can honestly tell you that that first Saturday was probably the scaredest I've ever been," he said. "Normally, the police take control. But not that day."

At 55, he has been among the oldest to don the tactical gear and work the front lines of the protests. And Croom, too, took plenty of personal barbs.

"Uncle Tom," he said. "I get that a lot."

Croom said he sees the frustration and anger on the faces of the protesters. And he understands it. But as a longtime homicide detective, he wonders why the community doesn't seem to call for answers to everyday killings, especially for the young Black men claimed by street violence. He wonders why society doesn't try harder to address that.

"Black lives matter all the time," he said. "Not just when the police do something."

***

After nearly 32 years with the division, Officer Jacqueline Fofana recently has been called back to the front lines, too. Working now as a child-abuse investigator, she has long been a diversity instructor at the police academy and takes an active role in hiring recruits.

She has always thought that part of her responsibility was to help bring about change.

"If I witness some act of discrimination or racism, I'm going to speak up," she said. "That myth that Black officers are here and we aren't going to speak up, it's just not true."

Even now, Fofana sees these protests as an educational opportunity. She said she knows there are officers who have profiled the Black community. And she knows people of color have been for so long the target of bias.

But now is the time to turn pain into action.

"People want their pain acknowledged," said Fofana, 54. "It shouldn't be a case of them vs. us. We're ready and willing to change."

She said she hopes this racial justice movement, rather than dismantling law enforcement, will increase diversity in the ranks and lead to better understanding.

"Now is the time to step up," she said. "We're in this process, this swell of change. We can all make a difference."

***

Officer Jackson, who has had maybe five days off in the past month, said he not only hears the protesters but shares their pain and anger.

But he said that doesn't mean being a police officer is wrong. He wishes more people understood his motivations.

He was 25 years old and on his way home from work in corrections when he stopped at a light at Hudson Street and Joyce Avenue in Linden. There, he saw yellow crime-scene tape surrounding a neighborhood bar.

It was Mother's Day 1999.

"I remember these exact words coming out of my mouth: 'Man, somebody done got killed again today.' I drove home and later on we got that call."

Robbers had shot his brother as he was leaving the bar. The case remains unsolved.

Jackson still can hear his mother's screams of heartbreak.

So the protesters who question his loyalty to both his race and his profession? He only wishes they knew him better. Other people of color, he said, shouldn't treat Black officers like they should not be standing on that line.

"That's what civil rights was about — equal opportunities of employment," he said. "We needed Black police officers, doctors, firemen. Now we're having that change. Don't down us for doing what our people and what my grandparents fought for us to have."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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