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Black NWI cops stare down racism, animosity upholding oath
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Black NWI cops stare down racism, animosity upholding oath

From the Collection: The Region responds to the death of George Floyd series
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HOBART — As Hobart Cpl. Monte White stood shoulder to shoulder with fellow officers on the front lines of a Black Lives Matter protest last weekend, he was keenly aware the men and women on the other side of the Plexiglas shared his skin color.

Protesters outside Southlake Mall who demanded justice in the death of George Floyd singled him out, stared him down and taunted him with racial slurs as he stood armed with a riot shield, he said.

They called him "Uncle Tom" and said he was cold-hearted, White said.

As a husband and father of five sons ages 10 to 21, White said there was one protester — an Hispanic woman in her early 20s — he will never forget.

“She was crying, and you could tell she really cared, and she really meant it. She said, ‘You know what, I don’t even have to be here, I’m Hispanic, but I’m here for you, I’m here for your kids.’ And that was really touching. She kept telling me, ‘George Floyd was a father,’ and asking me if I had kids, and how would I feel if my kids never came home,’” White said.

'I wanted to talk'

Despite White’s instinct to engage with the woman, he said he kept silent — well aware that his job in that moment was to keep peace. He couldn’t drop his guard due to the intensifying crowd of protesters that stood a few, short feet away, he said.

“I wanted to talk to her, and say ‘Hey, look, I am a black father. I have kids. And I do worry about them coming home,’” White said. “If I ever get the chance to see her again, or if I run into her, I would tell her I appreciate the things she had to say and probably introduce myself, instead of us standing on two different sides.”

All across the U.S., peaceful and violent protests have ignited in major cities, suburban communities and small towns over the treatment of black people by cops following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd.

Captured on a viral video, Floyd died May 25 after a white officer with the Minneapolis Police Department pinned him to the ground with a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd pleaded: “I can’t breathe.”

And in the midst of it all, you have black officers on the front lines, balancing the needs of upholding their oaths of office and navigating their unique role in combating systematic racism in this country.

“In my 16 years in law enforcement, I never thought I’d be in this type of situation, standing on the front lines of a protest in regards to how police treat black people and other minorities,” White said. “At the same time, I’m a black man, I understand. I’ve had encounters with police. Some of them went well. Some of them didn’t go well. I grew up in Gary, so there were always those stories floating around of ‘Hey, be careful how you deal with the police.'”

Racial bias in policing

Research shows black people are three times more likely to be killed by police and 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed compared to white people, according to MappingPoliceViolence.org, an online research collaborative that tracks race-specific data on police killings.

Despite making up 13 percent of the country’s population, black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by cops compared to white people, data shows.

A 2016 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 8,000 officers found the majority believed fatal encounters with black people to be isolated incidents and not a sign of a broader issue. However, black officers from that same survey were more likely to view it as evidence of a larger problem; 57% of black officers surveyed said so, compared to 27% white and 26% Hispanic officers, according to the center.

White, who graduated from Lew Wallace High School, said he’s been stopped by police before his start in law enforcement and believes some of those times may have been subconsciously because of the color of his skin.

“My mom’s black. My whole family’s black, and all you ever got told is how the police treat you negatively. I’ve been pulled over, had my vehicle searched. I’ve been told to stop asking questions and to move along,” White said.

But as he grew up, he realized there are good cops, too, he said. He said he hopes people see most cops are outraged, too, over the Minneapolis officer's role in Floyd's death. 

"A (knee to the neck) is not a tolerable move at all, and I think many officers are thinking, 'What was this guy doing?'" White said. 

White began his career in law enforcement in 2000 with the Hammond Police Department. In 2004, he joined Hobart Police Department, where he was promoted up the ranks to corporal.

During the Southlake Mall protest on U.S. 30, there were some, brief tense moments where black protesters were getting in the face of black officers, taunting them and making race an issue.

This is happening all across the country.

Honor the badge

Wade Ingram, a Chicago cop who owns a private security firm, said he served with the Chicago Police Department from 1985 until 2009 and as police chief for the city of Gary from 2012 to 2014.

While he personally hasn’t been on the front lines of the latest Black Lives Matter protests, Ingram said all officers — regardless of skin color — have the obligation to uphold their oaths of office and honor their badge.

“We should always be neutral. When you’re at home, and outside of your uniform, you can think differently,” Ingram said. “Our job is to maintain peace regardless of what views you have.”

Ingram said he faced discrimination by police when he was a teen growing up in Chicago. In 1974, Ingram, then 16 years old, was playing basketball in his West Side neighborhood when officers swarmed the area. A person was stabbed as part of a gang feud in the area, he said. 

“They said I looked like the suspect. A black man with a white shirt on. They took me down and detained me and questioned me,” Ingram said. “I wasn’t even aware of the (stabbing). The victim identified me and everything, but they later dropped the charges. That’s what propelled me into law enforcement. I didn’t like the way things were being done in my neighborhood.”

Ingram said he was 10 years old during the Martin Luther King Jr. riots, which in part led to President Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968.

“Back then, police brutality was more accepted. If you were mistreated, we just accepted it, like 'OK, I was at wrong place at the wrong time' or ‘I shouldn’t been over there.'" 

Where do we go from here? 

While strides have been made to improve use-of-force, deescalation and implicit bias training in law enforcement in recent years, Ingram said it's not enough. 

"Training, a high school diploma, criminal background check, physical agility test and a psychology exam. That isn't enough. We need to screen them and dig into their backgrounds (for implicit bias)," Ingram said. 

Wayne James, deputy superintendent for regional law enforcement and chief diversity officer with Indiana University's Police Department, said he's thankful for the men and women of law enforcement in Lake County who mentored him leading up to his start in law enforcement in the early 2000s.

Like many black men growing up in Gary, he didn't have a role model in law enforcement, nor did he originally see it as a viable career. 

James, a former police chief for Indiana University Northwest in Gary, is now working to increase diversity through the IU police force system — which is one of many ways he and others are trying to improve police relations and creating more culturally sensitive officers. 

"You have to start with values, and you can talk about training all you want, but if you're not hiring the right people, your department is going to have issues," he said. 

Ingram said the video of Floyd's death struck a nerve with the black community — and rightfully so. 

"They're getting sick of all this. They're tired of it. Here's a man pleading for his life, he's calling for his mother," he said. "We do need to change some things. People are worried when is the next George Floyd going to occur? Who will be the next Eric Garner, the next Laquan McDonald?" 

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North Lake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting from UIS. Contact her at lauren.cross@nwi.com or 219-933-3206.

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