With a rising tide of tension surging between police officers and the Black community, the #BlackLivesMatter protests and the unfortunate series of events surrounding them have given us plenty to talk about. From race to police brutality to the deadly biases inflicted upon the poor souls that have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the painful debates rage on.
But throughout the media frenzy surrounding these killings, we have not heard the voices of Black female police officers dealing with the realities and pitfalls of our nation’s justice system simultaneously with the intersecting oppressions that come along with being a woman and a racial minority.
Meet Maurita Bryant, Region II Vice President of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and Assistant Chief for Pittsburgh Bureau Police.
Bryant has been a police officer in Pittsburgh for almost 40 years and she has plenty to say about the challenges she has faced while being on the force, the reasons why she loves her job and what she thinks is necessary to improve relationships between law enforcement and communities of color in years to come. The views she expressed in this interview are hers alone and are not reflective of those in either NOBLE or the Pittsburgh Bureau Police.
Hello Beautiful: Tell us about any racial implications in your trainings or in the commands you’ve had at work.
Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant: When I came on in ’77…it was primarily a White-male-dominated department. The difference is that, especially for a Black female, we didn’t relate to White males as well as White female officers did. White male officers could relate to them as their sisters or their daughters; they couldn’t relate to us at all. For Black females it was always more difficult until you pretty much put yourself in situations where you worked at a station and everyone knew you were a good worker, a hard worker and was dependable, meeting goals. You kind of made your own way through your representation of how you worked.
HB: As far as being put on assignments, were there ever situations where you were partnered with a white male or white female officer?
MB: I’ve had situations where I was in a car with a White male partner for eight hours who wouldn’t talk to me…There were some White males who treated you like any other officer…Everyone has a certain degree of biases whether it’s racially or against females. But we’re trained so that when you have this uniform on, you have to act a certain way whatever your biases or issues are. You don’t bring them to work with you.
HB: Can you describe examples of how those biases manifest whether they were in the years that you started or more recently?
MB: Sometimes it was comments. Sometimes it would be derogatory jokes, or cutouts from magazines hung out on your locker. I know one day I came into the station and right onto the desk there was a Playboy magazine and somebody found a black model in the magazine. So it was spread wide open to that section for me to see it. They take them as jokes and if you get upset about it or make a scene or fight back, they turn around on you.
[A]s I started to grow into a professional and really learn what policing was all about, you start to stand up for when you see things that are not right. I must admit that early on, it was just sheer survival. I didn’t want to lose the job so I didn’t speak up because I would be ostracized.
HB: Tell us about what your workplace is like today. What is the class/gender/racial representation like? And what is your role like now since you’re working more on the investigative and administrative side with victims?
MB: For Pittsburg police, the racial makeup is really poor. We’re at just under 900 officers and we have 200 African Americans within that. We have a problem with recruiting African Americans and some people say it’s because of the disconnect between police and minorities where young people don’t want to come into this profession…I think if we’re going to recruit more African Americans, we really have to start earlier…[W]e really have to start with young people and interact with the law enforcement through community programs so they can see what the profession is like to be interested in it.
HB: Can you tell us what conversations around stories like that of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin have been like at your department?
MB: One of the things that we do is we look at the case [like the federal investigation of the Ferguson Police Department] and we compare it to our area and see if there’s things that we need to do differently to make sure that some of the things that occur don’t occur here…[W]e look for best practices, mistakes that were made and we incorporate those things into what we do.
You have to train officers on how to interact with the community. Without the community, we can do nothing. Looking at that police department, the way that they operated, the things that they valued, their whole way of doing things was wrong.
[T]his is a turning point for law enforcement. People are standing up against what they feel is years and years and years of injustice. They’re saying, ‘you can’t do this to us. You cannot continue to treat us like we don’t matter because we do.’
HB: What are some of the misconceptions that have been brewing around your work since the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront?
MB: I think one of the misconceptions is that White officers feel that the minority community is totally against them. I think the minority community is not against White police officers or police officers in general…I think it’s a community saying, ‘we want you to be professional, regardless of what color you are. We want you to treat us with dignity and respect and we want you to do your job.’
HB: Is there anything you wish people knew about your lifestyle as a Black female police officer?
MB: For me, I happen to think that this is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling professions you can have…I love the job, I love what this profession stands for and what you have an opportunity to do for people who are less fortunate, who are victimized and who don’t have a voice. For me, this profession is a calling.
HB: Have the ongoing events in the Black Lives Matter movement had any impact on how you feel about your line of work or about your colleagues? Do you think your colleagues have come to view you differently?
MB: People look at me sometimes to see what my position is going to be on certain things… or if am I going to treat them differently because of this movement. All I can say is that I’ve always known Black lives mattered. People who know me, who’ve worked with me know that so I haven’t been impacted by a lot of negativity.
HB: What have conversations around police brutality been like in your home?
MB: Since my grandsons were becoming teenagers, I was worried about my grandsons and their interactions with police or in the street, period. I’ve always taught them how to respond if there’s something going on with police in the street.
I tell them to stop for whatever reason, to keep their mouth shut, do what they’re told, look at the badge number, the description of the car number, or a description or who the individual is. I’d tell them, ‘don’t say I’m your grandmother. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you should be able to walk away from that situation with no problem. If you are doing something wrong, you should keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told. Don’t put your hands in your pockets, don’t show off with your friends.’ I tell them what to do when they’re stopped because I want them to walk away from the situation.