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Black From A Blue Perspective: How African-American Officers Deal With Racial Issues

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown bring to mind officer involved shootings that many Americans fear are primarily related to racial components. How differently do officers treat African-American men, even those who were unarmed than they may treat other members of a community? And considering that approximately 70 percent of law enforcement officers are white men, how do African-Americans who are police officers feel about those racial components? With me to talk about that is Phoenix police Lt., Timothy Woods, who's part of a panel tonight at ASU's downtown Phoenix campus called 'Being Blue from a Black Perspective.' Lieutenant, first of all have you ever felt racial problems or racial components as an African-American police officer?

TIMOTHY WOODS: Well I think that sometimes with law enforcement, one of the things and I just kind of do things kind of from a fact-base standpoint. And right now if you look at law enforcement across the country, 70 percent of law enforcement officers are Caucasian males. So they may look at things from a different viewpoint than I do, being an African-American male. So sometimes they might look at something and just they may have a bias or unconscious bias or something and not recognize that there are things that they may have done or said that have some type of component to them that may be insensitive to other folks.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think there's been improvement made or are we seeing sort of more of a gap between what generally law enforcement sees and what generally the community, especially communities of color, see?

WOODS: From my standpoint, I do see that law enforcement is making an effort to bridge that gap, especially at the executive levels. There's all kinds of things coming out of the President Obama's 21st Century Policing Plan that engages the communities and there's transparency and those types of things. So from a law enforcement's perspective, there is that olive branch out there to engage the community. I think what happens sometimes is people see things in the media and they have an initial reaction without actually examining all the facts. So sometimes from the community's standpoint, you have to look at the olive branch that's been given out there and then just try to dialogue with the police and with your city councils and those types of things in order to understand what's going on and get the change that you're looking for.

GOLDSTEIN: Have you ever had to have conversations with the fellow officers and officers you respect, so not officers that you weren't friendly with, and try to explain to them a general perspective about how an African-American may look at a Caucasian officer in a different way; may not look with them immediately as a sign of safety or respect.

WOODS: So I've had those conversations with individuals before and just try to explain what the perspective, at least my perspective being an African-American male as it relates to policing and law enforcement because one thing for me is I take the uniform off. I am who I am. I'm an African-American male driving down the street and no one knows that I've been working for the police department for 22 years and have some rank. So I have to look at it from that perspective. So I just try to explain you know historically how law enforcement has played roles in communities, diverse communities, and what that impact has been and how over the years where there may have been a distrust of law enforcement based on what historically what people have seen and why people may feel a certain way about things, so my big thing is to have individuals to look at things from that from the perspective of the other individual. Even though you may be right in what you're saying, but you still have to look at the perspective of where it's coming from from another individual.

GOLDSTEIN: You mentioned the phrase "unconscious bias" that maybe some law enforcement officers have that. How important is it at its core unconscious versus conscious, because unconscious you can kind of work with, right? If it’s conscious bias that's a bigger problem.

WOODS: Right exactly. You know the unconscious bias is you know, what we want to do is just make people aware that you may be having these things and not to allow that to affect how you're treating or dealing with individuals. A conscious bias that you have out there that —we as a society cannot and should not tolerate conscious biases against anyone. And we have to treat everyone with dignity and respect and treat every situation. I'm going to go into this situation at face value until something shows me differently I'm going to treat everything in a certain manner.

GOLDSTEIN: When there have been some of those incidents nationally, where unarmed young black men have been shot, how does that hit you as a human being and then does it affect how you think about it because you're also an officer? What's that parallel for you?

WOODS: So for me anytime someone loses their life, that's tragic. What I tend to do is look at the situation, I may see it on television or hear it someplace and then what I try to do is look at all the facts that surround it. So I don't just look at one news source I try to get very different opinions from different sources so that I can vet it out then use my training and experience to say you know based on the Graham versus Conner standards. Was this justified or was it not justified?

GOLDSTEIN: So you try to remove the emotion from it?



WOODS: Yeah try to take the emotion out of it and then I try to look at the situation and say, you know ‘Was this force that was used upon this person was it reasonable, based on what they were doing was that force justified? Based on what they were doing, you know, what could the officer have been thinking about at the time that the force was being delivered?’ Now sometimes people get it right and sometimes people get it wrong and when quite candidly when someone gets it wrong then there needs to be a consequence for it.

GOLDSTEIN: Lieutenant Timothy Woods of the Phoenix Police Department. He is one of the panelists at tonight's 'Being Blue from a Black Perspective.' It's presented by ASU. Tim thanks for coming in.

WOODS: Thank you.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.