It’s been a trying summer for Black police officers in Johnson County.
Sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of police, a nationwide reckoning with racial justice and police accountability is at the forefront of protests, rallies and calls for change.
In Johnson County, amid a global pandemic, protesters in recent months have rallied for justice and equity, clashing with police on at least one occasion. In September, Black men at a panel discussion in Overland Park declared that racism is still prevalent, and county commissioners urged leadership to acknowledge the county’s racist past.
Black police officers sit at the heart of this strife and division.
“We’ve been pulling each other aside and asking are you OK? Because we’ve been getting it from both sides,” said John Lacy, a police officer for 27 years in Overland Park. “Our Black friends ask how could you put on your uniform every single day? It wears and tears on you. There’s only one other person you can talk to: another Black police officer.”
Maj. Byron Roberson, deputy chief of the Prairie Village Police Department, agrees, saying he feels caught in a similar bind.
“I have had that conversation with friends and family — I counter it with, if I don’t do it, who will?” said Roberson, who has served in Prairie Village since 1995. “If you want things to change, how do you do it from the outside? The best way to do it is from the inside.”
Lacy always knew he wanted to be a police officer. But an encounter with a racist St. Louis cop in the spring of 1989 rattled him. He had just dropped off a friend at home, and the officer who pulled him over asked why he was in a neighborhood where no Black people lived. He told him to get out of the area.
Lacy was angry. He was ready to give up his dream career.
“My father said, ‘You’re going to let one incident change what you’ve always wanted to be since you were in second grade? You think about that,’ and then he left the room,” Lacy said. “And I did, I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to change this. I don’t want someone to feel the same way I felt.”
‘I see both sides of it’
As Black officers, Roberson said they look at things from a police perspective, but when they take off the uniforms, they are still Black men who deal with things that their white counterparts don’t have to consider.
“There’s no way that a white police officer can understand completely what it is to be Black while driving or Black while stopped by a white police officer,” Roberson said. He said he has to have talks with his teenage sons about how to conduct themselves around police because he doesn’t want them to become “one of those statistics.”
“No police officer wakes up and says I want to kill a Black person today,” Roberson added. “But the situation, sometimes, unravels so quickly.”
Being a Black police officer can be an isolating career. Lacys says he has lost friends, especially this summer, because he’s in law enforcement. Watching the videos of an ex-Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck was also “unnerving,” he said, adding that Overland Park hasn’t had that policy since 1986.
“I speak for a lot of officers that are around here,” Lacy said. “When they see an officer with excess force, it’s a black eye on all of us, for not only that police department but any police officer across the United States that’s wearing a badge.”
Roberson and Lacy are frustrated that people on social media keep grouping all police shootings into one.
“All of these things happen in a split second, and we have to always be 100% right as police officers, and that’s impossible,” Roberson said. “That’s what America’s missing. I think most Americans know that.”
Lacy echoed those comments.
“Get the whole story first before you make a decision,” he said. “A lot of times, people jump to conclusions real quick. A lot of people have their pre-biases, is what I say.”
‘Johnson County wasn’t ready’
Jay Holbert is also Black and a retired Johnson County Sheriff’s deputy, who now lives in Olathe.
Holbert became a deputy in Johnson County in 1976. He retired as a detective and master deputy after 31 years. He never climbed the ranks as he’d hoped, but he watched as his white counterparts were promoted.
“I was told at one time, after taking the sergeant’s test a couple of times and couldn’t figure out how come I could never make sergeant, that Johnson County wasn’t ready for a Black sergeant giving white people orders,” Holbert said.
Holbert remembers a blatant kind of racism: deputies racially profiling minorities, officers following him home to try to catch him acting out. Back in the 1980s, he said, he was once pulled over in his unmarked detective’s vehicle by an Overland Park police officer for no apparent reason.
A captain at the sheriff’s office would make “stupid jokes” about Black people in front of him, Holbert recalls. Most times, he stuck up for himself, but another deputy and a sergeant would also come to his defense.
“Sometimes, I would have to calm them down, because they’d really jump up,” Holbert said.
Even though they stuck up for him, they weren’t really friends, Holbert said. It was an isolating career.
“I did not have, what do they call, drinking buddies, all that,” Holbert said. “I’d take off my badge, put on my civilian clothes, the Black society knew I was a police officer. I could mingle with them, play basketball or whatever. But I had no friends.”
Holbert likens Black police officers to soldiers who served in Vietnam: when they returned from the war, they were often not welcomed.
“Black officers try to keep people safe; they try to do their job,” Holbert said. “But yet when something comes up, they don’t get support from their white officers, nor from the Black public.”
“The Black public feels like they ought to be out marching with them when they get orders to do something else. When you’re ordered to stand a line, you stand a line. You don’t break line to go march with the people, whether you agree with them or not.”
Things got better toward the end of Holbert’s career, he says. In the early 2000s, he noticed new county leadership started to make things better, with the sheriff at the time “weeding out” bad officers, for example. Now a member of the Johnson County NAACP, Holbert serves on the Community Advisory Relations Board for the sheriff’s office.
When Lacy and Roberson first became police officers, they say their fellow officers were welcoming, and neither reported facing racism within the department. But outside the police stations was a different story.
Every three months or so, someone Lacy arrested would tell him to go “back to Africa.” Others would say he’s “a credit” to his race — a patronizing slight towards people of color. Roberson and Lacy say they both got called racial slurs.
One white woman called the police on a group of Black people driving a trailer in an Overland Park neighborhood. After investigating, Lacy found that a Black family was moving into a new house they had bought.
The Black family put up a “For Sale” sign a week later.
Another woman wouldn’t open her door for Lacy after she called 911 and waited to talk with a white officer who arrived later. Lacy said she never made eye contact with him.
“That was pure racism right there, it was nonchalant,” Lacy said. “I still remember where I was and how it made me feel, and it made me feel, ‘OK, it’s 1994 and we’re still dealing with this.’ Then again it’s 2020, and we still see some people in the community that have racial issues. There are biases.”
Roberson agreed, calling it “more of a clandestine type of racism” where people use the police as a proxy to check on people of other races who they think don’t belong in their neighborhood.
Lacy remembers someone calling to say he was surprised the Overland Park Police Department picked a Black man to be public information officer for a “predominantly white community.” That was in 2016.
“They said to choose wisely and that’s why I was chosen,” Lacy recalled telling the caller. “They picked me because I was qualified.”
Roberson cautioned that racism can become “rampant” within a police department if it has poor leadership. But he said he has been fortunate that Prairie Village gave him a “fair shake or equal opportunity” to climb the ranks. In fact, two of Prairie Village’s three highest-ranking police officers are now Black.
However, Roberson and Lacy believe that, in general, Black officers have to try harder than their white counterparts to reach the same achievements and climb the ranks in law enforcement.
“My grandfather told me, ‘You can’t just be good, you’ve got to go the extra mile, you’re going to have to put in a little effort, you’re going to be watched, make sure you do your job right,’” Lacy said. “I didn’t understand what he was saying. Now I understand what he was saying.”
Holbert, the retired sheriff’s deputy, agreed.
“It’s just like anything else: The darker your skin, the more you have to try,” Holbert said. “I believe it’s going to be that way for a long time, until the administration from the top all the way down starts changing and looking at people for what they can do and not for what they look like.”
A way forward
Holbert and Roberson said they’re encouraged by the new wave of dialogue and calls for reform, because it opens the door for communication and mutual trust between police officers and the communities they serve.
“It has increased the communication and the narrative that’s going on about problems that are out there that people don’t want to talk about or ashamed to talk about,” Roberson said. “Because it’s real.”
Holbert wants to see law enforcement agencies recruit more Black people and minorities to become officers, but he’s worried teens would be too discouraged if they’ve experienced racial profiling. Law enforcement is still a predominantly white, male profession, particularly in the command structures of most police departments.
Roberson said three of Prairie Village’s 45 officers are Black. In Overland Park, the number is 17 of 255 commissioned officers. The sheriff’s office reports having nearly 500 deputies, 26 of whom were Black, in its 2018 statistics.
A member of Prairie Village’s diversity task force, Roberson believes that a diverse makeup will strengthen a police department by adding racial and ethnic representation and contributing different cultural values.
“We are the face of the community,” Roberson said. “So if they see our faces as diverse and as culturally melting pot as we are, then I think that that bodes well for the city as far as attracting people to come here.”
For Lacy’s part, he believes most police officers just try to answer the call and offer the best service, without thinking about a person’s race. He says that Overland Park gets rid of racist police officers who “shame the badge,” he added.
Lacy wants to encourage kindness and anti-racism. He urges allies of the Black community — and especially other police officers — to speak up against injustice when they see it.
Black communities and police officers share a history of mistrust with each generation. Sometimes progress feels like two steps forward and eight steps back, after one police officer “sneaks in the back door” and commits a crime, Lacy said.
“We’re going to keep trying,” he said. “I tell the guys to stay positive.”
Roberson, Holbert and Lacy stuck with their careers — serving a combined 85 years — because they say they care about keeping their communities safe, saving lives and helping others, no matter their skin color.
Roberson knows it’s a cliche, but he wanted to make a difference.
“We have to defend ourselves — sometimes against those things that our own community says — because we are doing what we think is right,” Roberson said. “We are doing a job that we think is noble and needed and helping the community. We don’t do it for the appreciation. We do it because we believe in it.”