The day that George Floyd’s cries for his mother reverberated across the country, Chief William T. Riley III walked up to a group of his officers discussing the horror they had seen.
“You know, chief, we already know if anything like that happened with us, we wouldn’t have a job,” one officer said.
Riley, a black police chief who was hired to transform the force in Inkster, Mich., after the suburban Detroit city settled a police brutality lawsuit in 2015, had trouble hiding his delight. But he remained firm.
“You are right,” Riley said. “Not only would you not have a job, you’d be locked up.”
In the past six years, as Black Lives Matter has emerged as a national movement to confront police brutality against people of color, the job of leading a department while black has become far more complex, politically sensitive and personally painful.
Black police executives face the exhausting work of leading organizations that have historically — and often disproportionately — arrested, beaten and killed people who have the same color skin as they do. This amounts to a cruel paradox: Becoming law enforcement officers, for many of them, was a way of continuing the civil rights legacy of their parents. They hoped to change the system from within.
But the violence that has come along with peaceful protests nationwide has provoked anger and dismay from many black police chiefs, prompting some of them to condemn the Minneapolis officers charged in Floyd’s death and the vandalism that has scarred many cities in his name. Both, in their views, are still crimes, though of far different severity. It is a message black police chiefs are delivering, mindful of the distant and immediate pasts of their nation and cities, to departments looking for clarity and guidance.