What it’s like to be a black cop in Ferguson

Jason Sickles
Former Ferguson police Officer Robert Kirkwood, pictured on the far left in March, resigned from his dream job nine weeks ago. “What caused me to leave?” Kirkwood asks. “Last year.” (Michael B. Thomas/Getty)

FERGUSON, Mo. — Three years ago, Robert Kirkwood stood before an interview board, explaining why he wanted to be a cop in his hometown. The 6-foot-4 black Army veteran with a master’s degree in criminal justice said he wanted to patrol the streets he had known as a kid and make them safer.

“He was really overqualified for the job,” recalls Ferguson police Sgt. Harry Dilworth, a member of the hiring committee. But Dilworth, Ferguson’s most senior African-American officer, knew minority candidates for the department were rare, especially those with Kirkwood’s credentials.

“It was a no-brainer,” Dilworth says. “He got the job.”

It’s been one year since this once-obscure St. Louis suburb became a flash point in the national debate about police tactics against African-Americans following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. The controversial killing prompted a wave of national soul-searching and activism that is still going on today. And it’s been no less transformational for the black members of Ferguson’s embattled police department.

Kirkwood — the last African-American patrolman hired by Ferguson, and one of just four black officers on the 55-member force a year ago — is now gone. He recently resigned, just shy of his third anniversary, a casualty of the city’s new fame as a national symbol of racial strife.

“What caused me to leave?” Kirkwood asks, before bellowing a hearty chuckle. “Last year.”

Sgt. Harry Dilworth’s hope for Ferguson: “We’re probably going to be used as a model for the country — for how a community of this size can rebuild itself and prosper.” (Jason Sickles/Yahoo News)

But the man who helped hire him, Dilworth, a Ferguson employee since 1992, has become a passionate defender of the department, despite contemplating early retirement last fall. “Now I will probably stick it out,” Dilworth says of the only job he’s ever had.

The muscular sergeant nearly spits his disgust over the way that Ferguson has become a household name. “We have monikers that we don’t need to bear,” he says of the once-quiet community. “Calling it the Ferguson Syndrome or the Ferguson Effect. There are Ferguson Commissions. It is just ridiculous.”

The death of Michael Brown Jr., followed by a November decision by a grand jury not to criminally charge Officer Darren Wilson, sparked months of riots in Ferguson, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black. Protesters went toe-to-toe with police, who met them with tear gas and police dogs. Local anger boiled over as some residents burned down buildings and looted businesses. And Missouri law enforcement was criticized for reacting with heavy-handed military tactics.

“From a protest perspective, yes, Ferguson was out of control,” says Kirkwood, recalling the random gunfire and Molotov cocktails thrown in the direction of police. “Every officer out there was putting their life on the line.”

Dilworth says the department has been working hard on developing a dialogue with protesters. “Everyone be courteous to everyone — you go a long, long way.” (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

But when it came to verbal abuse, by all accounts, the blacks in blue got it far worse. “My God,” said Dilworth, “threatening your families, getting very specific on what they were going to do to your daughter and your wife. If you have a unique name, they can Google it, go to records, and find out [personal information].”

Dilworth and Kirkwood are both 45-year-old natives of St. Louis with graduate degrees. And both have served the country at war. Twenty-four years in the Army reserves have taken Dilworth to Iraq and Afghanistan. Kirkwood left the Army not long after returning from Iraq in 2009.

“I’ve been cussed out by drill sergeants, so words pretty much don’t faze me 99 percent of the time,” Kirkwood said of protesters shouting “Uncle Tom” at him and worse. “They started calling me the Robocop because I would never respond.”

But black residents saw Brown’s death as a tipping pointing, alleging that the predominately white Ferguson municipal government had been targeting and abusing them for years. In March, a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice came to a similar conclusion, faulting Ferguson for excessive force, baseless traffic stops and petty citations against black people. Ticket writing, federal investigators said, had become the city’s cash cow.

“There was some things done there that I know they wouldn’t do with a camera on them.”

— Robert Kirkwood, Former Ferguson Officer

“It’s not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said upon releasing the investigation report.

Dilworth, the department lifer, feels almost personally insulted by the findings. When asked if the federal government’s investigation was fair, he doesn’t hesitate. “No. Flat-out no.” He has read the 100-plus-page investigation twice and says he believes the DOJ skewed the data it used.

“They said we disproportionately stop African-Americans. That’s BS,” says the sergeant. “I train my guys — and I’ve been trained — not to stop the person, you stop the vehicle.” An email to the DOJ seeking comment for this story was not immediately returned.

Asked the same question about the fairness of the government’s scathing report, Kirkwood pauses for several seconds. “I’ve only read bits and pieces of it, but the parts I read I would say are accurate,” he finally says. “I didn’t need the DOJ report. I pretty much saw everything firsthand.”

Now an officer with another St. Louis-area department, Kirkwood makes it clear that he was never the target of racial harassment within the Ferguson department. “There was a great group of guys over there,” he says. “But some officers just … I don't know, man. They just did certain things there that I’m like, ‘Um, that’s interesting.’ There was some things done there that I know they wouldn’t do with a camera on them.”

Specifically, Kirkwood said he witnessed officers handle potential crime victims differently depending on race. Responding to a call from a white resident, he says, “their questions are a certain way, their speech is a certain way, and what they do from a job perspective is a certain way.”

But someone in the same situation who is black, they’re like “OK, what happened? That’s no big deal. It’s a NRN [no report needed].”

Told of Kirkwood’s discomfiting experiences, Dilworth says that he wishes the rookie officer had come to him. “If he was subjected to that, then I need to apologize to him,” says Dilworth, who was not Kirkwood’s supervisor. “I would have got him transferred to another squad. Because you treat people the way you want to be treated — black, white, grey, I don’t care what color you are.”

Paramedics carry one of two police officers who were shot while standing guard in front of the Ferguson police station during a protest in March. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, AP)

A week after the DOJ released its report, a man who allegedly fired on a police riot line outside the Ferguson department seriously wounded two St. Louis-area officers during a protest. Two weeks later, a group of protesters attacked Kirkwood, pelting him with water bottles and obscenities. The incident was captured on cell phone video and broadcast on local TV. Kirkwood hit his limit.

“I realized, at this point, it’s time for me to leave this department,” he says. “Because something is either going to happen to me, or I may be one of those unfortunate people that has to….” He pauses. “Even if I’m justified, I don’t want to hurt anyone seriously or take anyone’s life.”

A year after Brown’s death, Ferguson has lost nearly one-fifth of its force. Some officers were forced to resign in the wake of the federal investigation; others, like Kirkwood, transferred elsewhere. “The pressure has been detrimental,” says Dilworth. “Morale has been low.”

Losing a good soldier like Kirkwood doesn’t sit well with him. “I like Bobby. I don’t have a thing bad to say about him,” says Dilworth. And the veteran officer is also disturbed that he never had an opportunity to defend the department — investigators never asked him if he had observed questionable racial practices. “I can’t speak for [Kirkwood], but I’m speaking for myself and the department. The report has a lot of glaring statistical data that was not right.”

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).

VIDEO: Yahoo News’ special coverage of Ferguson one year later