In the hours following the shooting death of five police officers in Dallas during an otherwise peaceful demonstration, opinions blared from social media, televisions, and newspaper front pages. In the din of it all, I reached out to the retired police chief Donald Grady II, who served as chief in Santa Fe, New Mexico, among other cities, and also trained police forces abroad in managing racial and ethnic strife among the ranks and with civilians. His 36 years on the force, as a black American, were marked by some familiar tensions and themes—racial targeting, police brutality, unwarranted hostility, lack of cooperation, and mutual paranoia. In a candid and expansive conversation, Grady unpacked for me some of the complexities of wearing a blue uniform while living in brown skin. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: What was your reaction?
Donald Grady II: Disappointment. Heartache. I’m disappointed that anyone would decide that the way to resolve issues that we have between the public and the police, in particular minorities and the police, is through additional violence. I don’t understand how anyone could rationally believe that perpetrating violence against the police would somehow endear the police to the rest of society. Heartache because we’ve got people dying all over this country. We’ve got civilians dying at the hands of the police and police dying at the hands of civilians. And rather than talk about things reasonably, logically, we have the police ratcheting up the rhetoric and we’ve got members of the community ratcheting up the rhetoric and that doesn’t resolve any issues at all. It bothers me any time we lose a citizen or we lose a police officer We have to recognize that police officers are citizens too.
Lantigua-Williams: What do we do now? How do we show that we value blue and black lives?
Grady: We have to get police administrators and police officers to recognize that just because they put on a blue uniform does not mean that they’ve divorced themselves from being citizens. They were citizens before they ever became police officers. They don’t lose that status just because they put a uniform on. For years, there’s been a line between the police and the public, and its perpetuated oftentimes by the police—that’s an unfortunate thing to say but it’s true. We perpetuate it by having an us versus them attitude.
Police officers begin to think that the only good people in the world are police officers, and that everybody else is somehow the enemy. I’m not saying every police officer does it, I’m not saying that everyone is guilty of it, but there’s a preponderance of people in the police profession that really do draw a line between the police and the public and they see themselves as an occupying army, as someone that has to be the champions for what they consider the good people.
Unfortunately, being the good people oftentimes translates into being a non-minority. Minorities are typically viewed as the dangerous classes, and they’re seen by too many police officers as symbolic assailants. Society has perpetuated that myth forever. We attribute things to minorities that don’t exist but we make ourselves believe that they do … Police officers buy into that. I’ve done policing for 36 years of my life, so it’s not as if I’m not anti-police. I’m very pro-police, but I’m pro democratic police. I’m not pro autocratic authoritarian police.
Lantigua-Williams: The same way there might be within the police culture a generalization that adds automatic criminality to certain populations, there are black and brown communities that say the police are not responsive to us, so some of our relationships with them are preempted by our not receiving adequate security or not having the same response times. In your experience, how has that played out? Is it a factor in the tension between police and communities?
Grady: Of course it’s a factor. But the problem here is that it’s true. Minorities are not making it up that police are not responsive to their communities, that police are overly aggressive when they’re dealing with minorities. That’s not an illusion on the part of minority communities. That’s real. As a police chief, I have been stopped numerous times by police officers claiming that there was some violation with my car until they realized that I’m just a law-abiding citizen. I don’t identify myself as a cop when I’m in those circumstances, I just let them do what they are going to do. And like so many other African Americans I just say “yes, sir,” “no, sir” and let it go at that. But after a while you get tired of being stopped for doing nothing. After a while, even as a police chief, you get really tired of being put upon. There’s a thing that we call freedom of movement which is really revered in this country—that we should have the right to move freely without impingement from the police simply because.
Lantigua-Williams: How would you handle the unfolding events if you were the Dallas police chief today, as a man in blue and as an African American man?
Grady: I have been in those circumstances. The first, and most important thing that I do, is I refuse to lie. I will not fabricate. I will not falsify information. I will not do anything that makes the circumstance any different than what it actually is. The second thing is I’m willing to accept absolute responsibility for what I do and what the people who work for me do. I have an obligation to ensure that it doesn’t happen or that it doesn’t happen again … If my people did something wrong, we’ll fit it.
At the same time, if my people have done something right, I will let them know why it was right and why they did it. We have been so insular as police that we have put people off. You go to a police department it’s like going into a gulag, we barricade ourselves off from the public. We have bullet-proof glass if you go up to even complain about a parking ticket. That’s unreasonable. That’s not the way a democracy should work. If we’re open and honest, if we do what we know to be right, and we’re truthful with the people, you don’t have an us versus them attitude.
Lantigua-Williams: Chief Brown said that the police department is hurting, that the profession hurting, that they need to feel supported by the city of Dallas and the whole country. There’s a notion of a “war on cops” that’s entered the conversation while many maintain that certain ethnic populations have been historically unduly targeted. Where’s the line, if we’re trying to be honest and speak in realistic terms, where’s the line between those two conflicting ideas?
Grady: I don’t necessarily see them as conflicting ideas. I see them as a misunderstanding of what’s actually taking place. We have to recognize that the very nature of policing in a democratic society creates a dynamic tension. You have freedoms in a democracy, these rights, but with every right comes an obligation. What sometimes the police forget is that there’s an obligation that’s associated with those rights. If I have a right to demonstrate, you have an obligation to allow me to do so uninterrupted.
Lantigua-Williams: That appears to be what was happening last night before the shooting began.
Grady: I understand that, and I applaud them for the way they were handling that before the shooting took place. I applaud them. They were doing just fine and I saw that as an example of the police being responsive to its community. But, as I told you, the very nature of policing in a democratic society creates a dynamic tension, there are always people that will not like what they see, what they hear, they’re not going to want to respond favorably to any imposition of the law. In a democracy, we have to have a contract with the police. We’re going to allow you to enforce the laws on us. If I break the law, you have the authority to enforce the law against me.
One of the things that we do when we grant them that authority we also grant them the authority to use force. We have granted the police the authority to use force to control our society when it’s deemed necessary. Most of us accept that with no problem. There are going to be segments of the population that will never agree to that. When you abuse that authority on certain segments of the population you have to expect that there will be pushback. No one can argue honestly that we have police officers, generally speaking, treating people of color equally to those people that are not of color or that we treat people in the lower socioeconomic brackets equally to those in the middle, upper and affluent brackets.
Lantigua-Williams: Might there be a rationale that some people have adopted that leads them to see a systemic issue in access to the instruments of social and economic mobility, and because police officers mitigate between the law and the citizenry, they have become a target?
Grady: I sometimes get really disillusioned when people use the word ‘perception.’ If in fact something exists, if it’s real, and someone believes it to be real because they see all the indicators that it is in fact real then that’s not a perception, it’s reality … It hurts my heart to know that my son could walk out the door and not come back because he’s been shot by a police officer and the police officer shot him to death because he was scared. There are cops that will tell you I’m not scared of blacks, but I told you about the symbolic assailant. All of our lives it’s drummed into us subliminally that you need to fear people of color. It’s not an illusion, it’s real … If you recognize that this is built in—because that’s the nature of institutional racism—and that we react unconsciously to things that we have heard all of our lives.
Lantigua-Williams: You have a son, and you had ‘the conversation’ with him?
Grady: The conversation I had to have with my son is the same conversation most black and minority parents have to have with their children. You have to understand that you have to interact differently with people—not just police officers, but with non-minority people—than most people that you would interact with. What he sees his friends do, he can’t necessarily do. And sometimes it doesn’t work.
A clear example is what happened with Philando Castile in Minnesota. You can comply, you can do everything they tell you to do, you can do everything you’re asked, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll still come out okay. I’ve had to have that conversation. And you need to understand that if you do the wrong things it will almost guarantee you a negative result. My son is no longer with me so it’s not as if I can tell you how that turned out in the long term.
Lantigua-Williams: What happened to your son?
Grady: My son died when he was 14 due to a suicide. He was with me 14 years and it was a very pleasant experience so I have to feel blessed that he was with me for that amount of time.
Lantigua-Williams: I’m sorry. How old was he when you had the conversation?
Grady: He was only about nine, ten.
Lantigua-Williams: What precipitated the conversation?
Grady: We were talking about some things and that just happened to come up in one of the discussions. I’d been a cop for a long time. I was a cop when we were talking, and I had to let him know that all cops aren’t like me. All cops don’t see policing the same way I do. So while he understands how he can interact with me and what he sees me do with other people, that’s one thing. But what he can expect from other police officers will not necessarily be the same thing, and he needed to be aware of that
Lantigua-Williams: What was his reaction?
Grady: Remember, for those ten years, he had grown up black, so he had experienced some things already that told him that things weren’t quite right, not everybody gets treated the same. People forget that the n-word is a very hurtful word, but children start to hear that very early. He was in kindergarten when he first heard that word used at him. When students would pick on him and call him the n-word, the teacher would tell him that he had to have a thicker skin. Why would we let people tell our children that? But that’s the kind of response he would get from his non-African American teachers, which most of them were.
He had grown up with that. And that’s part of how we ended up with the conversation, and him having to recognize that it’s different for us. We grow up differently. We have to live differently and expect things to be done differently. Sometimes it will be fair, not everybody gets treated unfairly, but sometimes you do. You just have to understand how to deal with that so that you come out okay.
This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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