How do you go from being Wichita Police Department’s Officer of the Year, to “papered out” in less than one year? The officers we talked to know exactly how that happens because they’ve seen that and more happen to Black officers in the WPD.
We sat down with legacy officers and some younger upstarts; those who’ve excelled and those who hope to, some who had a lot to gain and others who had nothing to lose. We wanted to hear about their experiences being in Wichita, Black and the law.
They all agreed to be interviewed under one condition, that they not be identified in any way. Talking, they all agreed, could cost them.
They told us about some wins, promotions and awards, but they told us about more losses and setbacks that often left them feeling frustrated and ready to lash out. But, these are strong men and women – they would have to be to go into law enforcement – but still, a few admit to finally giving out and giving up.
“I think we quit out of frustrations because we’re not winning,” said a former Sedgwick County detention deputy. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do but you’re knit picking on stuff and these people over here are doing way worse and you’re not saying anything to them.”
“What they may get a pass on, we don’t,” said a WPD officer. “I may get over disciplined and get reprimanded and reprimanded and they’ve done the exact same thing and they’ll get, ‘don’t do that s&*t again.”
At the Sheriff’s Department, the policy has changed and jail employees can no longer accelerate their personnel cases to the County’s Human Resources Office. WPD officers agree, going to Human Resources doesn’t gain you much.
“So, you have to go to the very people who are treating you substandard. So, now what? You’re so frustrated you eventually quit,” said a former Sherriff’s officer. “You have people quitting after 17 or 18 years.
While some give in, others say never.
I wasn’t going to let them run me off. That’s what their goal was”.
Some Wins: Rising in the Ranks
Besides sometimes bad reviews, Black officers have still managed to rise to the top at WPD. There have been three interim Black Chiefs—Floyd Powell, Nelson Mosley, and current interim chief Lemuel Moore. Norman Williams served as Chief for a record-setting 14 years and there’s also been numerous Deputy Chiefs.
Sheriff Easter hasn’t done nearly as well. The highest rank achieved by a Black person in that Department is Captain. There have been. There’s never been a Black sheriff, undersheriff, or major.
“Easter talks a good game, but he’s not doing nothing,” said one officer.
They all agreed don’t be fooled by seeing Black people in high-ranking positions.
“Just because everybody was Black in power, doesn’t mean they have power or that things are going to get better. Maybe we have power, but they haven’t actually empowered us to do anything.”
The Williams Years
An exception was Chief Williams, they all agreed. He had power but did nothing positive with it.
“Norman had every opportunity to change anything he wanted to make it fair, but he failed.”
Under Williams, traffic stops were more than twice what they are now. Nationally, per capita, Wichita had one of the highest rates of fatal shootings of citizens by officers.
Frustrated by a lack of promotions, a racists culture, and unequal disciplinary actions, 21 Black officers filed a facial discrimination lawsuit against a Black Chief of police. The officers who were on the force during this period, say morale among Black officers was at an all-time low.
During that period, a lot of Black officers left the department.
“We lost a lot of great officers who have gone on to do great things. They went on to become hostage negotiators, SWAT Team members, and supervisors.”
Both Departments have a history of having discrimination lawsuits filed against them.
In 2001, 14 Black deputies working in the Sedgwick County Jail filed a discrimination lawsuit against the county and sheriff. Like most discrimination lawsuits, despite a toxic atmosphere within the Department, the case was difficult to prove.
Among the deputy’s complaints was bias in promotions. In an attempt to reduce discretion and unfairness in promotions the Sheriff’s Department implemented a “matrix” to be used to evaluate qualified applicants for promotions. In addition to meeting the job’s minimum requirement, the matrix looked at things such as evaluations, absences and disciplinary actions to develop a ranked promotions list. When a position opens up, the next person on the list is the one that “should” be hired.
Deputies complained that the system is broken or poorly administered with individuals often bypassing the 1st person because they don’t like him or her, and picking a lower-ranked person who might just happen to be their friend or relative.
“I know how it works. I know who’s friends with who,” said one deputy.
Often, the deputies say, African Americans are the ones skipped.
Another flaw with the system is the subjectivity of evaluations. If your boss likes you, you get a good evaluation. If they don’t; you can guess.
Recognizing the subjectivity of evaluations, WPD has discontinued using evaluations as part of their consideration for promotions.
While the community as a whole is in an uproar over the acknowledgment of racist and sexist texts discovered involving 12 WPD SWAT officers and one Sedgwick County Deputy, the Black officers we interviewed weren’t in the least bit surprised. They say they’ve heard and seen similar before. Although frequency wasn’t discussed, all of them said they’d heard fellow officers use offensive racial stereotypes or derogatory names or racial slurs to describe minority groups, or had an occasion to remove offensive signs, cartoons or literature from department property.
Each expressed having different reactions to these racially charged moments, quite often, they said, they just moved on from conversations with mildly racial overtones.
“This stuff has been going on for a while. It’s not going to change,” said one officer.
“You have to choose your battles,” said another. “If you keep complaining about it, pretty soon you become the problem.”
“It’s too hard to win,” said another.
With Them or Against Them?
At both departments, Black officers expressed the existence of a “you’re either ‘with them’ or you’re not” attitude. Being with “them” meant accepting — and not questioning — the unique culture, ways and practices of your assigned work team. Being “with them” means not rocking the boat.
“Them” can also refer to a group of “friends” who might socialize together outside of work or a family group. There are a lot of second- and third-generation officers and other family members – cousins, nieces, nephews – in the department.
“No matter what you say, they take care of themselves. They know the DAs, they probably golf with them. They know the USAs (U.S. Attorneys) so that when you file that lawsuit, they already know about it. They’re buddies. You think they’re going to make their buddies look bad?”
“If you speak up when you see something wrong and unjust, there’s a cost that goes with that.”
The officers shared how individuals who don’t go along, are ostracized or punished with bad assignments, bad reviews and/or harsh discipline.
“You talk about the Blue line, I’m here to tell you it’s the blue wall of silence,” said another officer.
Views of Some Not All
The officers who spoke to us were clear, their opinions and shared experiences were not reflective of all Black officers in WPD and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office. For example, when both groups filed their discrimination lawsuits, some Black officers and deputies chose not to participate in the lawsuits.
Although we’re not clear how documented it is, they pointed out that a Black officer was the one who forwarded the racist meme with the deceased Black porn star sitting on the face of Georg Floyd.
“They want to be liked and stand up on the side of them White boys rather than stand up for what’s right,” said a senior officer. “I have not a clue what they think they’re going to get. In their mind, I think they believe they (White officers) are going to leave them alone.”
“I’m not sure how to delicately say this, some of us just forget where we come from. I’m still Black when I take off whatever color uniform I’m wearing and some of them have forgotten that.”
More Good Cops Than Bad
The officers are unanimous in their belief that the overwhelming majority of local officers are good and sincere in their desire to serve the community. Although they believe former Police Chief Gordon Ramsay was able to get a lot of the “bad” officers out of the department, they say, there’s still a very small minority of them left.
“It’s making the rest of us look bad and staining the culture of the department.”
Next issue:In Part 2 of our series “Wichita, Black, and the Law,” more on the negative culture Black officers say exists within the department and how professionals say it can be changed.