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Black and in blue: A Ferguson police officer reflects on a tough time

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Posted at 9:47 AM, Oct 06, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-06 10:47:53-04

Seeing that a fellow African-American police officer had endured his fill of racial slurs shouted by other blacks, Sgt. Harry Dilworth tapped the man's shoulder and took his place facing protesters.

Riots after the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer make it a tough time to be on the Ferguson police force -- and for Dilworth that goes double if the person in blue happens to be black.

Most of the insults he heard on the line that day are too graphic to print. Among the more polite are "sellout," and "Uncle Tom," Dilworth said. He had stood with two other black officers, one from the Missouri Highway Patrol and one from the St. Louis County police.

"We didn't blink," he said in an interview. "We didn't say anything to them. We stood there and took it. We all talked about it afterwards. I said, 'Don't address ignorance with ignorance.'

"But it's hard to hear that from the minority group that you are representing. ... You tune it out, but psychologically you're dealing with scars. Some officers are going to see counselors. We're not robots."

Dilworth believes their hard facade is fueling some of the fire.

"I think it pisses them off even more because they think we're unemotional," he said. "We feel, but we can't show that because as soon as we say something we will be all over the news ... I can't so much as spit on the sidewalk right now without someone throwing it on social media."

Black and white officers agree that the blacks have been targeted more on the front lines of policing the troubles after Michael Brown's death. They feel caught between empathizing with a brother officer who used deadly force and understanding a community that is venting pent-up rage against police.

Dilworth, 45, wishes he could retire, but feels a draw to stay in the community he has served for 21 years.

Even on ordinary calls for service, some taunt him with the "hands up don't shoot'" gesture widely adopted by protesters.

"You can only take so much of this," Dilworth said.

Dilworth had been at Fort Leonard Wood fulfilling his duties as an Army reservist the day of the shooting. He said his wife wishes he were back in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"She thinks I would be safer there," he said.

Dilworth is the only black supervisor and one of four African-American officers on a force of 53 in a community where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black.

His teeth clenched as he drove past a protester holding a sign that read "Stop Killing Us."

He questioned why protesters don't hold such signs at the scenes of murders, such as the recent killing in St. Louis of Donnie White. Dilworth said he knew White, who was on the way home from work when he got caught in crossfire between suspected black gangs.

"We are not killing you, you are killing yourselves," he said, his voice rising inside his police SUV. "This is a systematic problem that's been going on for years. I want to tell them to wake up! And look at exactly what the problem really is! Look at the statistics. The number of officer-involved shootings is relatively low. I stand a better chance of being killed by you."

A call for a disturbance echoed on his radio. Foremost on his mind, he said: Are his officers going to be safe? If something happens, what will he tell the spouse?

"It's different now because the threat has been heightened," Dilworth said. "I worry about the guys I supervise, I worry about their physical and mental well-being."

Dilworth said that after Brown was killed, one of the officers he supervises was mistakenly identified on social media as the shooter, and ended up moving his family out of state.

Dilworth said computer hackers published personal information about him, on the Internet. "Someone tried to buy a $37,000 truck in my name," he said.

Some fellow officers moved, forsaking $100 a month incentives to live in Ferguson. They changed phone numbers.

Take-home patrol cars are now parked at police headquarters. "Imagine having a Ferguson police car parked in front of your house right now?" Dilworth said. "It's like walking around with a scarlet letter.

"The community has become divided because people are looking at this as a black and white thing, like a poor black kid got shot by a white guy. It wouldn't be that way if it was a black officer. I guarantee you that."

Once Officer Darren Wilson's name came out, some confused him with a black St. Louis police sergeant of the same name. Sgt. Darren Wilson said he was inundated with threats and harassment. He is president of the Ethical Society of Police, whose members are mostly black city officers.

"I don't know the other Darren Wilson, and unfortunately now he's been stigmatized because of this entire event," Sgt. Wilson said. "It has become a racial one, not from my standpoint but from a societal standpoint.

"We've all been subjected to Monday morning quarterbacking, so we don't know whether he made a good or poor decision that day ... No one wants to be in the other Darren Wilson's shoes."
 

Dilworth didn't know Brown. He said he barely knows Wilson, who was in a different squad. They had occasional conversations about cases.

He is reluctant to judge the shooting. "It's hard for me to question because I was not put in that situation ... For every one witness that said they saw it one way, there are those who said they saw it another way."

Dilworth hates that his department is being portrayed as a predator, raising revenue by writing traffic tickets to poor minorities.

Surviving in the stressful conditions, "Starts from the top down," Dilworth said. He praised Chief Thomas Jackson, who had promoted him to sergeant, saying he stands behind Jackson's sometimes controversial handling of the situation "110 percent."

"No matter what he says and does, he's going to be scrutinized," Dilworth said. "That kind of weight has got to be unbearable."