A storyteller's story

Badge is no shield for black officers

In print on August 23, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Byline: Akilah Johnson Staff Writer
Date: April 18, 2005
For Sgt. Michael Coleman and Officer Terance Scott, being black men in police blue is tougher since the death of Jerrod Miller.

They’re trying to reconcile their feelings of loss over the death of a black teenager shot by a white co-worker with their loyalty to the department while warding off increasing criticism from some black residents who characterize them as nothing more than sellouts.

“It’s like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Scott, who met Miller, 16, in an after-school program he and Coleman helped start.

The shooting has fragmented the city and brought some segments of the black community together. Some blacks are outraged, saying the officer’s reaction would have been different if Miller were white — a charge that city officials dispute.

Rookie Officer Darren Cogoni shot Miller on Feb. 26 as the teenager drove through a school courtyard during a dance, according to police. Miller, who did not have a driver’s license, sped away from Cogoni after the officer asked for his license in front of the Delray Full Service Center.

Coleman and Scott’s plight is familiar to many black officers. Black Americans historically have looked upon black police officers with skepticism because of what police have represented in black communities, said Brian Willingham, a Flint, Mich., officer and author of a book on the topic.

Other Delray officers agree.

“I have been condescended [to], stripped of my identity, more by people who look like me than by those that don’t,” said Haitian-American Police Officer Johnny Pun.

Being black and wearing a badge can become a loyalty test when a controversial police incident occurs, criminal justice experts say.

“Some people treat us as though we’re not human because we wear the uniform, or they feel that we side with the organization,” said Coleman, a Delray officer since 1994.

Some experts acknowledge an unrealistic expectation that black officers should understand the often-splintered relationship between police and the minority community and, therefore, give blacks a pass.

“The closer that a black officer is with the community, the more they feel stuck,” said Kenneth Bolton Jr., a Southeastern Louisiana University criminal studies professor. “They want to be in favor of the community, but if they speak out against the department, [it] cuts their careers off at the knees.”

As two of the officers who regularly patrol the city’s northwest and southwest neighborhoods, Coleman and Scott said they know the community and understand its concerns about such things as aggressive police practices.

“We can’t detach ourselves from law enforcement. That’s who we are,” Coleman said. “We wear the uniform 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Still, they knew Miller, who was a member of Carver Kids of Character, a program the officers helped start.

The night Miller died, Coleman was at Delray Full Service Center when he learned Jerrod was shot.

“Then I saw his brother, his twin brother, and I got a little misty eyed and emotional because I saw who it was in the car through him,” Coleman said. “That whole situation turned for me right then and there. It wasn’t just a crime scene.”

They have been to Miller’s home, offered condolences to his family and approached Miller’s grandmother about sending Jerrod’s twin, Sherrod, to Miami for an anti-violence conference that would count toward community service graduation requirements.

The thought, Scott said, was to give Sherrod a chance to get out of the fishbowl and interact with other teens. But their intentions were misinterpreted.

“To me … that was a horrible disrespect,” said Shahid Freeman, vice president of the south county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “What they were doing, in essence, was coloring this young boy to be a criminal. Why not take him to counseling?”

When he learned of Freeman’s response, Scott said: “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Police Capt. Lennis Gillard, who recruited Coleman and Scott, said he has experienced similar reactions but has never seen it so profound.

“It’s disheartening, but you can’t let that dampen your spirit,” Gillard said. “You just have to stay the course and let your record speak for itself.”

There are three excessive-force complaints against Coleman and two involving Scott, though none has been sustained. Their personnel files also hold commendations and community accolades.

“We’re praying for more officers like them so we could live more comfortably in our neighborhood,” said The Concerned Parents Of Carver Estates in an April 29, 2003 letter. “They also spend time with our children by sponsoring field trips, bake sales, community cleanups and essay contests, to name a few.”

What frustrates Scott and Coleman is that some critics don’t know what they and others, such as Pun, do within the community.

“They just think: ‘Cop shot kid. That’s bad. Let’s retaliate,'” Scott said.

Pun helped start the Delray Youth Vocational Charter School, which trains at-risk youth for auto repair jobs and helps them get high school equivalency diplomas.

“It hurts to think that the community doesn’t have trust,” Pun said.

Coleman and Scott hand out Thanksgiving turkeys. They talk to church youth groups, give drug-prevention talks at schools and participate in teen summits.

But another sentiment about them permeates the streets.

On almost any day, the men gathered at Pompey Park, where weekly Sunday protests take place, talk venomously about Scott and Coleman.

“I’m not going to use the word Uncle Tom, but [Coleman and Scott] are nowhere close to [being] trusted by other black people because of their past dealings with African-American people — arresting black people, physically grabbing people in front of their supervisors,” said protest organizer Willie Potts. “[In] my opinion, we don’t need to see them in the black community.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6645.

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