Jesse Taylor understands the meaning of crime.
The subject of this story is not permitted to speak on the record about the topics covered in this article. To protect his anonymity, the article does not use the police officer’s real name or his department information. Also, we’re friends and I don’t want to get his ass in trouble. I’ve known him since college and today we live in the same neighborhood with our kids going to the same schools.
Like most male friendships, we have always floated above the deep conversations to instead focus on sports, music and pop culture. But when the death Mike Brown at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department brought our country’s racial issues back into the forefront, I immediately wanted to speak to him about the topic.
Little did I know how much he would have to say. Today, he is the first African American Motor Officer in his department’s history, a member of the S.W.A.T. team and a defensive tactics instructor – helping other officers become better at their jobs. But growing up, he was at the center of the Los Angeles battlefield during the LAPD’s “War on Drugs;” harassed by the police and surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence.
He escaped a neighborhood that destroyed the lives of impoverished minorities like him everyday. He witnessed first hand Daryl Gates and his CRASH units and Rampart Division scandal, and the violent sweeps that sometimes involved 1,000 police officers at a time harassing and falsely arresting those in Hispanic and Black communities. He was raised on anti-police music like N.W.A., Ice Cube, Ice T and 2pac then grew up to become a police officer himself. His thoughts on Ferguson were not what I expected, but his life experience makes it an opinion you have to respect. This is his story.
Jesse Taylor: You grew up very differently than most cops. How did your upbringing impact your career choice?
Officer: Like most kids growing up in Inglewood, California in the 1980s and 90s, in a predominantly black area, I was surrounded by negativity, loved rap music and was harassed by police.
Drugs, alcohol and gangs were an every day thing for me. With my family, I was impacted by the negativity that hit the black community at that time. Everything I was listening to in rap music was happening right in front of me. I had an uncle who was a major gang member, and a couple of other family members who were heroin addicts and chronic alcoholics.
But I knew that I never wanted to live that life. I was always aware of what the result was if you lived the life of a gang member, a drug dealer or something like that. It didn’t attract me in that way even though it could have been really easy for me to join a gang or sell dope and be like everybody else. I didn’t want to do that.
You mentioned you were harassed by police. What happened?
Two main incidents stand out.
One time I was riding my 10-speed in the bike lane in a predominantly white Venice Beach area. I was about 17 at the time. I was just cruising along when I heard the “Woop-woop” of police sirens behind me. I’m like, “What the fuck?,” thinking there is no way a cop is really pulling me over on my bike.
I was wrong. They made me pull my bike over right in front of the patio area of a busy restaurant, packed with people eating and drinking. The officers never asked for my I.D. or anything, so they had no idea who I was or if I had done anything wrong. They put me in what is called a standing modified – my feet spread apart and my hands behind my head. I’m just wearing basketball shorts and a tank top, and getting pushed, grabbed and searched. I’m directly in front of this big crowd of white people sipping drinks, looking at me like, “Poor little black boy.”
The officers said I fit the description of a guy who just robbed a liquor store. But if I had just robbed a liquor store I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be strolling down Venice Beach in the bike lane. That was racial profiling.
What about the second incident?
That might have been even more embarrassing. I was riding shotgun in my friend’s IROC-Z 28. We were going to a Pajama Jammy-Jam party. This was the early 1990s when Kid and Play’s “House Party” was popular. That was the thing back then. Two black kids driving in a nice area near Beverly Hills, and we got freakin’ pajamas on. Swear to God.
Clearly we stood out enough that an officer stopped us. He said we didn’t have a front license plate. No big deal, right? We’ll just get a fix-it ticket. No. He made us get out of the car and sit on the curb. In our damn pajamas! It’s clearly profiling at this point. Two 17-year-old kids in a car with no records and you have them sit on the curb. As a cop today, I know that is racial profiling.
Was this part of the reason you became a cop? To help make a difference with racial profiling?
I’m not that naive where I wanted to become the first black cop to make people realize you shouldn’t racially profile. I got in this job because I want to make a difference in the community I work for. I do what I need to do to get bad people off the streets. That’s the difference I want to make.
So when I got an opportunity to move out of my neighborhood and go to college, I knew right away that I was never going back to that life I experienced growing up. I went to college in the Bay Area, graduated and started my police career soon after. I was pretty young when I started at 24.
What are some challenges you’ve faced as a black cop – like comments from the black people you arrest?
I don’t get comments like “sell-out” or “Uncle Tom” because of the way I approach people. I try to bring respect and understanding into every situation I encounter. Really the only time that happens is when I’m actually arresting someone and they’re just pissed that they got caught. They tell me I don’t understand because I’m only half black. And I’m like, “First of all, both of my parents are black, so you’re stupid. Second of all, even if I was half black, what does that have to do with me not understanding you breaking into a car? If my skin was darker I’d be more responsive to your black plight and how it made you break into cars?”
What about from your superiors or fellow officers?
At least in my area of Northern California, I’m not seeing that same kind of attitude from officers that I saw when I was growing up in L.A. With my department specifically, I think there’s much more awareness and understanding than there has ever been. The agency I work for is not very big. You can’t really get away with racism and racial profiling. It would come out if someone was bad at their job. And I’ll call somebody on it if I think they are treating someone negative just because they are a certain race.
We have monthly trainings on racial profiling to help ensure we aren’t doing that to the people of our community – that we’re not stopping somebody because of skin color. And it’s a very diverse community where whites are the minority. In California, we do so much because it’s such a liberal state. I can’t speak for the East Coast or Midwest. I’m sure they are not as advanced as we are in this area.
Also, I’m grateful because of the path that has been paved by those who came before me. I look back at black cops during the 80s and 90s, and how they were forced to fit into what the white cops were doing. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with that now. Today, at least in the California areas I’ve seen, there are more black officers that have come up as Sergeants, Lieutenants, Captains and Chiefs. We aren’t forced to fit in. We don’t have to fear that we’ll stand out for doing good work and being “that” kind of black guy.
We can feel comfortable telling a white cop, “Hey, you’re full of shit. You’re stopping this kid just because he’s black.” Diverse leadership gives black cops more confidence to stand up and be heard instead of just sitting back or beating the shit out of some kid because they don’t want to get called out for not going along with it.
Back then, especially in L.A., from the top down it was white, so they had to assimilate because of the leadership structure. There were two or three black guys in a 300-person precinct; that shit isn’t easy and made them stand out right away. They didn’t want to stand out more by questioning the tactics that were going on. It was like Stockholm syndrome where they started doing the same things the white cops were doing because it must be the right thing to do. It became a form of brainwashing.
But they still had to go home and look their families in the face, and I’m sure they must have felt like shit.
So with more black leadership, it makes things more fair and balanced; more comfortable to be a black cop. It’s a big reason why times have changed a bit in terms of racial profiling and how situations are dealt with.
But we’re still seeing so many issues with police and the black community. Some say it hasn’t improved at all.
I can’t speak for every police department or region, but I would definitely say that the cops today are not the same as the officers from 20 years ago. I would guarantee that just based on all the stuff they did 20 years ago.
You hear it from the old guys today – guys that were ready to retire that I met at the beginning of my career. They tell me how police work isn’t the same. They say it’s not real police work anymore. They call us kindler and gentler.
A main part of their jobs was what they called it “B&R.”
“We’d B&R somebody.”
“What the fuck is B&R?”
“Beat and release.”
You can’t do that shit nowadays. Those old school guys, they’d get drug addicts and dealers out in the back alleys. And if they didn’t have anything on them, they’d do B&R. That was just the way they did it back then. People in the community had to just brush themselves off and go back home.
How about the challenge of balancing your love for rap music with your chosen profession? When you rap along to “Fuck Tha Police” do you sometimes catch yourself, and say, “Wait a minute, what am I doing?”
I grew up in a really volatile time for young black youth and police. I saw all of the rebellion against the police first hand growing up. And rap music was a big part of the experience. I started with Sugar Hill Gang and then grew up on Public Enemy, N.W.A. KRS-One, 2Pac and Biggie.
From grade school up until this day, music has been a huge factor in my life. I don’t attribute what I listen to with what I do. I’ll listen to Ice T’s “Cop Killer” and sing along with the lyrics. Same with N.W.A., Ice Cube and Cypress Hill, and their records against the police. But it’s something I listen to and enjoy – it’s not who I am.
However, I think the rappers of that era were completely credible. Especially with KRS-One, the East Coast style of policing at that time was completely different. They saw more situations of police brutality and racial profiling than I ever saw. The hip hop community is so far-stretched – there’s guys that know guys that know guys that know guys. They’re getting stories from all these people. “I heard so and so got jammed up by the cops last night.” And they take it and apply to their music in ways that people can understand.
Even growing up in Inglewood, we had the LAPD with the “Serve and Protect” slogan on their patrol cars. And people would hand write on the cars under “Serve and Protect” … “and to break a niggas neck.” Ice Cube didn’t make that line up – he saw it and reported on it. And that’s really how it was. That’s what we saw growing up. Especially after the original Watts riots back in the 60s. After those riots, black people became profiled way more than they had ever been by police. Police were associating them with violence and unruliness. It was a majority of white officers working in predominantly black and Hispanic communities looking at the people differently and treating them differently.
Rappers were saying those things because it’s how it really was. Cops were associating anyone with a Jheri curl, Raider cap and jacket as a gangster or drug dealer. And it just took off from there – cops harassing black kids in general, regardless of what they were wearing.
Growing up listening to that music from back in the days, yeah they were gangster rappers, but they also had a message underneath that. That’s what I liked about it. I think we need more leaders in hip hop. Music from the 80s and 90s actually helped bring people together and bring our communities back around. Because rappers were saying something with an actual message.
You talked earlier about your respectful approach with the people in your community. How did your experiences growing up and the music you listened to impact how you do your job today?
I have a different perspective than most officers because of where and how I grew up. I don’t take kids hanging out as doing something wrong. They’re just hanging out. As an officer, I see that differently than someone else who grew up differently in a different area may see it.
I just think I have a different personality because of the way I grew up. I’m a little more laid back in how I treat people. I’m not in people’s faces, yelling at them and barking orders. I talk to them like they are a person. Even if it’s a person that just killed somebody. I’m going to talk to you like a person because I think it helps me do my job better. Plus, it’s just the way I am. My mom raised me to treat people with respect until they give you a reason not to. So I carry that over into law enforcement.
I use a lot of humor as a defense because I know I’m getting that person more off guard. Cops get scared. Even if I’m completely freaking out inside or scared to death over a situation, I always try to keep my tone and demeanor the same. Crack a little joke and make them laugh, because now, if they’re plotting to do something, they are second guessing because I put something else in their head.
It’s interesting to see things now in my current role. Maybe I stop a kid who’s black and he’s thinking that I stopped him for no reason. Just like I thought as a young kid. But from my perspective, maybe he did match the description of someone who just robbed a liquor store. But I try to make sure they don’t feel that way. I’m going to get all of your info, talk to you for a minute and when I establish that you’re not that person, “Hey, sorry bro. Try to have a better day.” You know what I mean? Regardless, it’s a shitty situation for them, but hopefully because of the way I explained it, it makes sense to them and they aren’t too upset and roll with it because they know they didn’t do anything.
I can’t generalize it and say all cops do it the way I do. But this is how we are trained. An officer’s attitude and verbal skills are the first thing people encounter. Words can go a lot further if you use them right. Our agency does a lot of training on this and it makes people better officers by communicating properly.
But guys will take it the way they want to take it. Some will take it to heart and they won’t stop someone just because they’re black. But you also get guys who say, “Fuck that, I’m stopping every black kid.”
You lived near the Rodney King incident and the ensuing riots. Now, as an officer, how do you view that situation versus the recent situation in Ferguson?
With Rodney King, you saw it the first day and it was crazy. It was the first time somebody caught a police beating on video like that. They beat the shit out of this dude. We talked about it at school. All the black kids, we were like, “Yeah, that happens. Someone just finally caught it on video.” That was our attitude about it. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this happened. It’s so uncommon.” We saw that on a routine basis. Even now as a cop, I view it as atrocious and something that shouldn’t happen.
As far as Ferguson, it’s hard to say because we didn’t have it on camera and I don’t really know all the accounts first-hand about the incident. Details are still coming out.
That being said, and I’m not saying the officer was right or wrong, because I don’t know yet, but as a police officer, our main thing is to come home every night. That’s our #1 goal. Do what you have to do to get home at night. Sometimes that may mean taking someone else’s life because they are threatening my life. In that situation, I have kids to take care of, and I’m going to do what I gotta do. I’m not going to worry about consequences and backlash about people thinking it’s wrong. You can’t think about that in that situation.
As of now, I look at Ferguson different than the Rodney King situation, because we all saw what happened on camera with Rodney King. Regardless of what type of mind set Rodney King was in while driving, he ended up on the ground being attacked by multiple officers. At that point, the police had control of that situation. You have all these officers there continuously hitting this guy with a baton after he’s on the ground trying to preserve his own life. He wasn’t going after anybody. He was curled up in a ball down on the ground. That’s a completely different situation. We don’t have video on the Ferguson incident and don’t know everything that happened. I wouldn’t have the reaction about this specific incident being about race yet. It’s ridiculous to think we know that yet without all the information. That’s a heavy accusation to make without knowing the facts. People are glorifying it and making it like another race war without knowing what the situation really is.
But trust me, as a police officer, I still see some racism in my job. And maybe it’s not necessarily racism; people are afraid of black people. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is. You see a group of black kids driving in the car, some guys are going to “profile” them. “They’re black, they must be up to something bad because they’re all riding in the car together.”
On the other hand, it depends on the area you’re working in. In some areas, the majority of crime that is happening it coming from young black kids. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. And in these cases, it’s not racial profiling, it’s accurate police work. Say you have a certain area where there have been several liquor stores robbed in a short period of time – all by a black male wearing a black puffy coat, blue jeans and a beanie. So if you’re a black guy wearing a black puffy coat, blue jeans and a beanie, innocent and just minding your own business, unfortunately, an officer is probably going to want to talk to you.
With Mike Brown, regardless of if the cop was being attacked or not, there are people questioning why the cop killed him. If he did have to protect himself, why couldn’t the cop shoot to maim?
We are taught to shoot to eliminate the threat in the biggest target area possible. That just happens to be the upper torso. We’re not aiming to shoot you in the heart. If we had marksmanship like that, we wouldn’t be regular street cops. Sharp shooters have a unique skill and are placed into other specialized areas.
A cop should only be shooting if their life is being threatened. Regardless if the other person has a stick, a bat, a knife or a gun, it doesn’t matter. If my life is being threatened, I need to defend my safety. I’m going to shoot that biggest target area that I’ve been taught to shoot, and I’m going to keep shooting until that threat is done. If that’s one shot, okay. But if they don’t fall after four shots, guess what, I’m going to keep shooting. I’m protecting myself and I want to go home at night. But I should know that I did what was right in that situation at that time.
If you’re being attacked or threatened, you’re not going to try to shoot somebody in the arm or leg or hand. Those are really small targets. I’m not going to aim really hard to shoot a knife or gun out of somebody’s hand. That ain’t gonna freakin’ work dude. I’m going after the biggest target area I have and try to eliminate, which doesn’t mean kill them. You’re trying to use force to stop a threat. But if it’s a lethal situation, then unfortunately, that’s what it is.
It’s really hard to shoot at a small target. It would be nice if we could just be so good that we could shoot a gun out of someone’s hand. This ain’t the movies though. What happens if I miss completely and hit a kid down the street that was watching this whole thing? And I end up getting killed anyways. Who’s gonna be the asshole in this situation? Me. Because now I miss a guy and people wonder why I didn’t shoot him in the chest – where I’m less likely to miss. And I hit an innocent kid down the street and now we’re both dead.