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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Black in Blue: Balancing identity, duty

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Media outlets across the country have been filled with coverage of the aftermath of police-action shootings, especially those that have led to the deaths of unarmed African-Americans, such as the June shooting of Indianapolis resident Aaron Bailey.

Activists have demanded justice for the victims and their families to protect “Black lives,” while others have called for more understanding of police officers who face daily threats to “blue lives.” 

Seeing both sides of the issue are Black police officers. They have the unique perspective of being Black Americans who have faced discrimination, while also being sworn officers of the law.

As they patrol the streets of their communities and solve crimes, Black police officers must maintain a balance between wanting justice for other African-Americans, and being sympathetic to the challenges faced by their fellow officers. 

“Being a police officer is rewarding, and I enjoyed it. But I wasn’t going to compromise my integrity, my color or my people for things that I saw was wrong,” said Richard E. Hampton, the immediate past president of the National Black Police Association Inc. (NBPA), a national organization dedicated to promoting justice, fairness and effectiveness in law enforcement.

In a candid interview with the Recorder, Hampton said there was one simple fact that helped him keep the balance between supporting justice in the Black community while also being an effective police officer: 

“I never forgot that I was Black,” said Hampton, who served as a police officer in Washington, D.C., for 25 years before becoming a consultant who has worked around the world with organizations such as the Carter Center and the Police Accountability Project.

“Also, the negative things within law enforcement tend to have a disproportionate impact on the Black community and communities of color.” 

Hampton cited concerns such as the high incarceration rates of African-Americans for longer periods of time, compared to whites who commit the same crimes but receive less severe sentences. 

Vincent Burke, a sergeant with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), said he maintains the balance by staying close to his roots in the city. He was once among the youth mentored by police officers who lived in his near-west-side neighborhood. 

“Whenever we got into a little mischief, they always took us home, which for me was worse than going to juvenile could ever be,” Burke said with a laugh.

For Burke, building solid relationships in the community has been the cornerstone of a successful law enforcement career. 

He has sought to be a positive role model for area youth, remembering what he learned from his days growing up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood near Washington High School, where he exceled in athletics before joining the Navy.

Burke said some of the same people who enjoyed activities with him at places such as Tyndall Armory, United Skates of America (USA) West and teenage parties at the old Galaxy in the 1980s are those he has encountered during his 26-year career with IMPD. 

“I’m sure the reason I’ve had only minimal problems is because I’m from here,” Burke said. “However, the biggest thing that has made police work easier is that I empathize with the plight of marginalized people. I was one of those people, and basically I still am.” 

To Hampton, the issues of protecting civil rights for all Americans and helping police departments operate at their best are inseparable. 

He realized that shortly after joining the police force in the early 1970s, following an encounter with white police officers from another area of the department with whom he hadn’t worked. The white policemen harassed Hampton, not knowing he was also an officer. Once they found out Hampton was also an officer, they turned and walked away from him with no apology and no explanation. 

“They treated me like they would treat every other Black person,” Hampton said. 

“I couldn’t just walk away from that. It became easy for me to see that being a police officer was my job. It was what I did, not who I was.”

He added, “I tried to do it in a way that benefited my community and the people who looked like me, because when the white boys were doing it, it benefited them and the people who looked like them. So I don’t think I was cheating, just dealing with the realities of what we had to deal with every single day.” 


In next week’s Recorder: African-American law enforcement officers share solutions on preventing police-action shootings, speak on overcoming discrimination within police ranks and the realities of law enforcement as a career choice.

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