What It's Like to Be a Black Cop in St. Louis County

Martise Scott escaped poverty and became a former detective for the St. Louis County Police Department. But he was still mistaken for a criminal by other police officers.

PASADENA HILLS, Mo—Martise Scott had made it. He escaped the inner-city ghetto of north St. Louis, went to college, and got hired as a police officer for the St. Louis County Police Department. It was 1985, and he was one of about 50 black officers in a force of about 700.

"We were the lucky few," says Scott, who was first assigned to patrol the wealthy white suburbs in west St. Louis County.

He still remembers the looks he got from homeowners when he responded to calls. And the comments police officers made about African-American defendants. It wasn't long before he realized that the black crack dealers and users he arrested would get longer prison sentences than the predominantly white cocaine dealers and users.

"It's a thin line for a black officer," says Scott, now 49. "Nobody understands what it's like to be on both sides. You walk a tight rope."

Though Scott had broken the cycle of poverty he grew up in, he would never break past the racial barriers he faced during his 15-year career as a police officer. This became clear to him one evening as he drove home from working an undercover shift in one of the suburbs.

Scott was headed to the city in an unmarked car on Olive Boulevard, a road that many African-Americans avoid because it connects dozens of suburbs where police racially profile drivers. In Ladue, Scott saw a pickup truck swerving and then watched it make a left turn on a red light. Afraid that the driver was drunk, Scott called police and said he would follow the truck until officers arrived.

The truck pulled into a gas station, and Scott got out of his car and announced that he was a police officer. The man ran into the station's convenience store. Two local police officers then arrived and went straight to Scott, pushing him to the ground and pointing a gun at him. Scott said he put his hands in the air, told them he was an undercover county police officer, and said he had a revolver in one pocket, and his police identification in the other. They took the gun, he said, but ignored his pleas to get the ID from his pocket. He kept telling them the drunk driver was inside.

"They weren't worried about him; they were worried about me," says Scott.

The officers eventually arrested the other driver, who was white, but they didn't apologize or thank Scott, he says. Furious, Scott filed a complaint with the town's police department and with his own department. Nothing came of it, he says.

That was the wake-up call.

"I realized that it doesn't mean a damn thing if you're black and you have a badge. I was still just a black man," he says.

The experience frustrated Scott after working so hard to build a life different from the one he knew. He grew up in a St. Louis neighborhood where prostitutes and drug dealers owned the streets. His mother, who was single, worked a series of odd jobs at hospitals and clinics to pay the rent for the old, shotgun flat they shared with four other families. Scott shared a bed with his two brothers, while his two sisters shared another bed in the same room.

After graduating from high school, Scott attended a local community college, but had to drop out and find work when his mother fell ill. That's when he got a job with the county police department. He later earned a business degree while working full-time as a cop. Scott says he was fortunate to find a way out of the blighted neighborhoods of north St. Louis. Not everyone can.

"It's hard to break the cycle," he says. "If slinging dope is all you see as a kid, then that's probably what you're going to do."

As a black officer in a mostly white police force, Scott soon learned that he needed to work three times as hard as everyone else to get the same credit. He was promoted from a street cop to detective, and spent years investigating drugs, robberies, and homicides. Toward the end he was working cases with the FBI and ATF, but decided to leave law enforcement in 2001 when the FBI turned him down for a job as a special agent.

By that time, Scott had a wife and three daughters, and was looking for a higher-paying job.

"It was a sad day," says Scott, wiping away tears as he stands outside his two-story brick house in Pasadena Hills, a historic suburb of mid-twentieth century homes and old pine trees. Now he works as a loss prevention manager for Walgreen's. His salary pays the mortgage on the five-bedroom house and put all of his daughters as well as a nephew through college. A black family lives next door and a white family lives across the street. He and his wife bought a house here because they wanted their daughters to grow up in safe, diverse community.

Scott says his white neighbors are friendly, but that it's impossible to ignore the racial tension that lurks beneath the surface. Like Ferguson, Pasadena Hills was a suburb where white families settled as more African-Americans moved to the city. No one really talked about race until riots broke out on the streets of Ferguson last month, less than three miles away from Scott's house.

"The nation's eyes are on us, there's no more hiding the racist overtones," says Scott.

He understands the anger over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager. It disheartens him "as a black man" to know that Ferguson police officers left the boy's body uncovered for hours in the street.

But Scott also defends his former colleagues in the county police department, who descended into Ferguson with armored trucks and tear gas. They were handed a messy situation they didn't cause, he says, but they shouldn't have put on the military fatigues either.

During the riots, Scott had to shut down two Walgreen's stores. Both were ransacked, with $45,000-worth of merchandise stolen from one of them. Scott describes the looters as "opportunists," who distracted people from the real issues that St. Louis needs to face.

"I hope that this city--little by little--can learn and grow and that we start to value black men," he says. "It's going to take a lot of healing."

National Journal recently visited St. Louis and Ferguson to see how Rust Belt cities are changing after losing more than half their populations. This article is part of a Next America series about the people shaping the St. Louis region's future.