Trouble in Three Colors

Blacks who wear police blue aren't very welcome among white officers or in black neighborhoods

What he remembers most about the night the white cop hit Jeff Eastern from behind was the sound of Eastern's deep voice on the radio.

"Once you hear Jeff's voice, you're going to know it the rest of your life," says the young black officer. "He said he was in plain clothes westbound on 40 in his cruiser. Then he says they're bailing and he's in foot pursuit."

Next thing this officer knows, Jeff Eastern is on the ground. When he gets up he's limping. (He was disabled for months from falling down an embankment after a blow to his shoulder administered by a heavy flashlight.)

No disciplinary action has been taken against the white cop, whose supporters claim he can't be faulted because Eastern didn't identify himself as an officer, resembled the description of the suspect, didn't stop running when ordered and had a gun in his hand. Others say that Eastern had a radio, not a gun, in his hand and that officers are trained not to draw weapons when in pursuit.

The incident started when Eastern, whom more than one source describes as a "poster police officer," witnessed a car theft in the parking lot of his east side apartment complex and mounted a full-bore chase, complete with blue lights and siren.

Did the white cop know Eastern was an officer? If not, another question is raised: Is it standard police procedure to whack black guys from behind?

"After that, morale went so low you'd have to reach up to touch the ground," says the black officer.

Low morale among the city's black police officers is only one facet of the problem that race presents to law enforcement in Knoxville. Black cops are mixed at best in their reviews of their status inside the city's police bureaucracy, but their situation is just as murky in the communities they serve. The rewards of such public service must sometimes seem small and distant to officers who appear to be beset from all sides by indifference, if not by outright hostility.

Giving black cops a bad name?

The mood in the Austin East auditorium is so angry that the politicians, the police brass, the movie actor, and the football star on the stage above the crowd can feel it.

The police officers are lined up at the base of the stage in folding chairs, like cannon fodder between the big shots and the ticked-off, mostly African American crowd of 200 citizens. Knoxville Police Department Chief Phil Keith and the cops present, many of whom are also African American, bear the brunt of the crowd's fury.

This is the first of several Inner City Town Hall sessions organized by County Commissioner Diane Jordan to address problems between the police department and the black community. Some of the crowd's anger focuses on an evidently notorious white officer who isn't present. They say he uses racial slurs and harasses black people for simply being on the street. (It turns out later that not everyone is critical of this officer--some say he is simply a hard-nosed, aggressive cop who has helped clean up the neighborhood and is appreciated.)

Some of the anger focuses on Sgt. Dick Evans and Patrolman Myron Massey, the two black street officers sitting on the front row.

Fingers point. Accusations fly. Name-calling starts.

There is a schizophrenic quality to the discussion. On one hand, the inner city is caught in a spiral of escalating violence. Folks are afraid to go out on their porches at night and everyone is appalled at the crime wave being wrought by a small but flourishing number of juvenile predators. These are kids whom everyone fears.

East Knoxville asked for more police protection, and now residents are complaining that they're getting too much of it. Some complain that they're living in a police state.

"There's been a misunderstanding of our outcries," says Minister James Mohammed.

Before the night is done, Chief Keith has been thoroughly battered, and it is clear that the black cops are caught in the middle of conflicting social interests.

A speaker demands that the cops quit busting young men loitering on the street corners. Applause.

Another speaker says the police should do something about the street-corner nickel bag dealers who wouldn't be tolerated in West Knoxville. More applause.

At one point, the invective so rankles Evans that he starts to come up out of his chair and is restrained by Lt. Charles Coleman, a 29-year veteran and the highest-ranking African American in the Knoxville Police Department. Massey, stocky, bespectacled and studying to be a pharmacist, sits impassively as a young man from Lonsdale accuses him of giving "black officers a bad name."

A young mother in the front row berates the officers, saying that her child is "terrified of police." And sure enough, every time the mother gets up, the little girl, left sitting face-to-face with a big white man in blue, shrieks in undiluted terror.

Some in the audience demand to know how many black officers are on the police force. Keith says about 10 percent (At the end of 1995, 9.2 percent of sworn officers were minorities, according to KPD officials).

Others want to know why it's so hard for black officers to get promoted. Keith says it's hard for everybody. A man says he works nights and has been stopped by the police six times since December. Someone wants to know what's been done about the white officer who hit the black officer with the flashlight.

Renee Eastern takes the microphone and demands to know why "the man that hit my husband is still working for the police department." Keith says the matter is under investigation. Later, however, he says there is no investigation under way in Internal Affairs.

James Rowan, a retired KPD captain who is UT head football coach Phillip Fulmer's bodyguard and a frequent critic of the department's lack of ranking black officers, sits in a back row and scowls. Afterward, Rowan, one of the most respected figures in East Knoxville, says he didn't find the meeting particularly constructive. Others disagree, saying it gave them a chance to bring their grievances straight to the chief. Others wish the mayor had been present.

Keith says later that he has tackled the morale problems within the department. He says the department has offered cultural diversity training, sensitivity training and, most recently, training in mediation. "If we can mediate our problems internally, it will help prepare us to solve problems in the community."

"Part of the morale issue is that at a couple of community meetings, black officers have been singled out more than white officers," Keith says. "That can't make them feel good about the job they do."

No easy walk

Some black officers say problems with Knoxvillians of their own race are no easier to deal with than problems within the department.

Last fall a group of black community leaders, including Commissioner Jordan, local NAACP President Dewey Roberts, and City Councilman William Powell, went to see Mayor Victor Ashe on behalf of several of the city's black police officers. They had a long list of grievances.

"I chaired the meeting," says Roberts. "We discussed the problems and arranged to come back again with a delegation of officers. But the younger ones, the ones with the most to talk about, were afraid to come. They feared retaliation."

Roberts and Jordan say they were disappointed with the second meeting, because the officers whom they were able to persuade to go with them--Coleman, Evans, and Nate Allen (since promoted to lieutenant)--told the mayor that whatever problems the minority officers had could and should be solved in-house.

"I called Coleman an Uncle Tom right in front of the mayor," says Jordan.

"It made us look bad. We looked like fools, troublemakers" says Roberts.

Coleman says that maybe the shoe fits.

"Dewey should not be led into things he doesn't know anything about," he says. "I'm not saying there aren't things that are wrong going on in the police department, but there are things that happen inside that you can't come in from the outside to correct, and you can cripple an officer, make him unable to function because he ultimately depends on other officers for his survival.

"Have black officers been hindered? Yes.

"And all those gripes? Some of them I've stuck my nose into. But Diane and Dewey cannot be the spokespersons. They can't come in with the NAACP and expect to make any real changes. They shouldn't have gone to the mayor. He doesn't run the department. They should have sat down with Phil (Keith) first. It's no easy walk to be a black officer."

Coleman says that perhaps the black officers should try (again) to form their own association (it's been tried before without much success).

Roberts says that he was asked to get involved by black officers who had lost faith in their ability to affect change from within.

There was a time not long ago when police brutality was the police issue with which the NAACP was concerned.

"We really went after Phil Keith in the beginning and as a result the police brutality complaints have gone down," Roberts says. Now, he says, the NAACP is focusing on seeing minorities hired, retained and promoted on the police force.

"And black police officers are in a difficult situation," he continues. "They need to become more organized. They have fears regarding backup, fear of who signs their check.

"We have not seriously done the kind of promoting that would encourage blacks to become police officers. It's not seen as a career path. We think it's important that they fast-track some of these young black officers, people who know the community, into positions where they can investigate."

At this point Roberts begins to sound as much like a hard-line anti-crimer as any conservative Republican.

"We think if they had more investigators who know the territory, they could solve some of this crime," he says. "And when they do, we need to send the message that killing is unacceptable and prosecute them to the max."

The dark narc

"I love putting my people in jail. I love putting your people in jail. I love catching them. I'm not a counselor, I'm not a social worker. I'm a police officer--if it took hiding in a trash can or laying on your roof to catch you, I'd do it."

When Charles Coleman, now 50, first decided he wanted to be a police officer, he put an application in with security at the University of Tennessee. Seemed like a good idea, since he wanted to go to college. He got a letter back telling him thanks but they weren't ready to hire blacks.

So he looked to KPD, where he was told he was too short.

"I'm five-nine and had a big, bushy afro that probably made me about five-ten," Coleman says. "(Former chief and sheriff) Joe Fowler is a lot shorter than I am."

Eventually Coleman went to work for the fire department and after awhile the KPD called.

"You tell me the door is closed, and I'll keep pecking on it," he says.

He worked the streets, did undercover drug work (where he was called "the dark narc"), and built a reputation of legendary proportions. (One erroneous story persists that he busted his own wife for drugs.) Now he heads the Organized Crime Unit, which includes Metro Narcotics, Auto Theft and the Vice Unit. He says his working life hasn't been untouched by racism.

"Have I heard the word nigger?" he asks. "Yeah. It's not a word that provokes me."

Does he believe there are racists in the organization?

"As long as I've been here, I believe I know who's who."

He recalls an old supervisor who used to say, " 'Put Officer Jones here, put Officer Smith there, and put this boy walking.' Finally I figured these old geezers just aren't going to change."

Today's young minority officers could use a dose of that kind of pragmatism, he says. While he believes there is likely some unfairness in the interview board that weeds out applicants and he sometimes quietly intervenes or asks questions about incidents he gets wind of, he still sees KPD as a place of opportunity where "a young black officer can come in, keep his nose clean and move right up because there just aren't too many of us. And you don't have to be a yes man."

He's not an infinitely patient guy, and he says he doesn't cut black officers any particular slack.

"When blacks come to work for me, often they think I owe them something because they're black. I don't. I tell them, 'Y'all didn't just get on this road and start walking. Somebody walked it before you--police work's not for everybody, and sometimes you gotta pack your bags and cut your losses. You can't live in the past.' "

While other officers have been roundly bashed at the community meetings Jordan organized, Coleman has been lavishly praised.

"Promote this brother!" Phil Keith was urged last month. Coleman has been a lieutenant since 1978, and Keith is frequently asked why Coleman has been stuck in grade so long. Keith usually replies that he too is enthusiastic about Coleman, who is free to apply for promotion any time he chooses.

Coleman says he has little interest in "the hassle of going back to school at this stage of my career. It (the promotion) just doesn't mean that much to me. I'm happy with what I'm doing."

Other sources say the department has the ability to waive some of the educational requirements in some circumstances, pointing to the promotion of Rudy Bradley to assistant chief despite his lack of a college degree.

"This one broke me."

A young black officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the May drive-by shooting in Lonsdale that killed a five-year-old girl "broke me. This one broke me."

He believes KPD could do a better job at solving and even perhaps deterring such crimes if there were more minority officers from inner-city neighborhoods. He says he became a police officer "because I really thought I could help out my people" but found it impossible to do so.

"After awhile, it (his job) had me hating white folks. I was hating my own people, too, for being stupid. "

He'd like to see more effective diversity training within the department and more blacks being given the opportunity to be detectives. Currently there is one black detective.

"We're told all the time you're not one of 'them.' We're not black, we're not white--we're all blue. I know that's wrong. If a black officer is out talking to a known drug dealer, he's conspiring against the police department. He's a traitor. If a white officer does it, he's everything positive."

Roberts has been involved in problems concerning individual officers, including Eastern, Myron Massey, Marshall Eskridge, and Anna Marie Martin.

Roberts says he has spoken to city brass on behalf of Massey, who reportedly has problems getting the backup he needs on calls (Keith says that issue has been investigated and is "absolutely not true") and has protested racist language within the department. Eskridge, a Lonsdale native, was accused of stealing a wallet from a suspect and was taken off the street as a result. He has not worked in recent weeks due to health problems.

His difficulties are of particular concern to a number of westside neighborhood activists. Mildred Westfield, who lost two sons to murder and a third to a murder charge and a long prison term, has made a full-time crusade of combating drugs and gang violence, particularly in her Mechanicsville neighborhood. She says she worries about Eskridge, who is under medication for stress-related blood pressure problems.

"I'm close to Marshall," she says. "And they are so against him. Marshall was trying to make a difference. Our officers have to have an extra sense of strong stamina. They go into the job with compassion, but pressure from within and without makes them targets."

A Lonsdale leader who does not want her name used says black officers are afraid because "if they speak out they are gone. I talk to officers, and they're scared. They don't get backup. I believe they could get into the black community and solve more crimes if they had local black officers. They really give Marshall a hard time. I do not believe Marshall stole any wallet."

She also says she doesn't approve of the cop bashing she's been hearing in recent months, and has not attended Jordan's meetings because she thinks they have been, to some extent, a front for thugs.

"It's hard on these black officers when they're getting flack from the community and the department, too," she says. "When neighborhood people start jumping on an officer, I'm one of the first to jump up and say, What'd he do wrong? Did you see him hit anybody?"

'I didn't sign on for that'

Anna Marie Martin, 29, speaks as precisely as a school marm. She is smart, well-groomed, and physically fit. She is fluent in sign language and qualified as an expert marksman. She was fired in January after refusing to resign at the end of her probationary period as an officer. She served 14 months with KPD.

She believes she sealed her fate last summer when she complained to her supervisor about a field training officer. She says the white male training officer with whom she was required to ride was behaving in a manner that made her uncomfortable.

"I didn't file a formal complaint," she says. "I simply asked to be removed from the control of that officer."

The training officer demanded a lie detector test, and Martin volunteered to take it also. He passed and Martin failed. She has doubts about the polygraph machine, which a secretary told her had been down all that day.

With the benefit of hindsight, she now believes she didn't have a chance after she complained.

"There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't find myself in the sergeant's or the chief's office. We (the rookies on the Power Squad) had a little joke about me having my own chair in the chief's office."

The training officer was promoted to sergeant during this time and has since been suspended on a complaint from a white female officer.

"I worked under constant stress and always performed above standard," Martin says. "I went to work and held my head up while being barraged with scriptures about liars."

She remembers the training officer instructing her in running radar by having her squat on one side of the cruiser while he stood on the other side with a radar gun. Speeders would approach, "he'd give me a signal, and I would run out and try to stop the car. They'd go VAROOM right past me."

Determined to do it, Martin says she hunkered down in a runner's ready position, awaited the signal, then dashed out and caught one.

"I scared that lady to death," she says. "I went back to my FTO and told him I wouldn't do it anymore." She says she was written up for insufficient aggressiveness.

She says she had trouble getting backup when she needed it. "I'd call for assistance and the dispatcher would call, 'Officer 475 needs assistance.a She'd get the answer 'What does she have?' or 'We'll have to walk back to the car.' "

On one occasion, she says, she waited in vain for backup after stopping a stolen car near East Towne.

"I called for backup--didn't get it until an off-duty sheriff's deputy stopped to help."

The car turned out to contain four thugs, a cache of stolen property and a loaded 9-mm pistol.

"Something told me not to approach that car. Afterward five cars showed up and it was 'Good job, Martin.' "

She saw the KPD as a place where she'd have the opportunity to finish her college education, have a career.

"But that was not an option. When I signed on, I knew that meant being willing to take a bullet for someone else, to put my life on the line. But I didn't sign on for those obstacles placed in our way unnecessarily, such as racism, sexual harassment, retaliation, ostracism, and defective equipment. Such things we did not bargain for, and we did not raise our hand to.

"People will say, 'There's a disgruntled individual.' Yes, I am disgruntled, because I have been treated unfairly and unjustly. Do I hold hostility? No I do not. And if you want a statement, just tell them Miss Martin will continue to stand by what she said today as being nothing less than the truth."

Asked about her case, Keith said the investigation is closed. "I don't have a comment about a fired employee."

The law of the streets

It is the end of May and time for another of Diane Jordan's inner city town hall meetings. She means for this one to be a seminar in something she calls "street law." She has gathered six lawyers, KPD officer Sam Brown, and couple of law students to give practical advice.

Before the meeting, she says that Chief Keith, who was a lightning rod for criticism on previous occasions, has not been invited to attend this one.

Keith believes it his duty to show anyway and is praised by Jordan for being "more than willing to work with us." Despite everyone's best efforts, however, his presence turns the meeting into another beat-up-on-the-cops session, although the crowd is not as large or as angry as before.

But it is clear that a good many people still have complaints, and that black officers are still those who draw the most complaints. A young man claims East Knoxville is policed by officers who would not be acceptable in other parts of town.

One elderly man calls some black officers "Rambos. Clint Eastwoods."

Sam Brown, a black officer who is a member of the SWAT team, gives a talk about what not to do when you're stopped in traffic. Don't jump out of the car; don't reach under the seat; do be patient.

He is an impressive figure, tall and soft-spoken and dressed in his black SWAT-team pants, shirt, and boots.

He further counsels the crowd: "Remember. We get scared just like everybody else."

Likely few in the crowd realize that it was Brown whose supervisor once told him that "niggers are OK--everybody ought to own one."

The next week, parents of children at a Lonsdale daycare center are told that the kids can't play outdoors anymore. The following night there's a race riot on the Cumberland Avenue Strip. It begins with a fight among black kids wearing rival gang colors and marks a milestone. Gang violence is moving out of the 'hood.

Summer is here, and the thin blue line of black officers will be sure to feel the heat.

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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