By Fariba Nawa
August 1, 1999
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of four articles investigating diversity in local police departments.
FREMONT POLICE officer J.C. Grant knows some of his colleagues tiptoe around the words black and African American when they talk about crimes in his presence.
Grant, one of 14 African Americans among 300 employees in the Fremont Police Department, said his predominantly white co-workers go out of their way to be sensitive on issues of race around him. But he wishes they would just say what’s on their mind.
Political correctness has made many local police personnel super polite about race and culture. But some minority employees say it doesn’t necessarily change people’s basic prejudices.
Diversity and tolerance are now preached to the point that few dare to speak against it, police experts said. Those who do oppose affirmative action or multiculturalism may be reprimanded or passed up for promotion, one employee said.
But few minorities in police departments complain about political correctness. It has served its purpose of suppressing discrimination — there have been fewer incidents of voiced prejudice in the last decade, employees said. But political correctness has done little to overcome ignorance.
During a police diversity training class, one person asked Grant — who was a panelist — if African Americans were genetically gifted in sports. The department’s diversity program, Common Ground, has helped break through such stereotypes, some employees say.
In the Fremont, Union City and Newark police departments, a number of minority employees said they had been discriminated against by colleagues once or twice in the beginning of their careers. But they reported the incidents to their superiors or dealt with it personally, and the problems did not resurface.
Elliott Stephens, a supervisor at Fremont City Jail who is African American, said colleagues have twice directed racial slurs at him in his 20 years working for the department.
Kourosh Nikoui, an Iranian American who was promoted from photographer to forensic analyst in Fremont during 11 years with the department, said he was amazed at the trust the department gave a foreigner. The entire crime lab is now under his control.
But Nikoui doesn’t trust political correctness.
I always feel that I have to be better than average, he said. I have to try harder to prove myself. You always have to deal with some sort of prejudice that exists. It may be underlying. Lt. Gus Arroyo, a Mexican American who has been with Fremont police for 19 years, said he counsels employees who may take a joke too far. Often, the words aren’t intended to be offensive but employees are cautioned not to make any jokes in regards to race.
Cheryl Tassano, a Korean-American school resource officer, said her five years in the Union City department have been positive. She chose to work for Union City because it’s a fairly diverse department — one-third of 93 employees are nonwhite.
Tassano said her co-workers have been so supportive that they’re pushing her too fast. The 32-year-old was encouraged to take the test to make sergeant recently but declined, saying she wasn’t ready yet.
While tolerance for racial and ethnic differences is preached and generally practiced in local departments, it doesn’t carry over to the streets. Minority officers say they hear racist and sexist comments more frequently from the public, not surprisingly from people they arrest. White suspects don’t hesitate to call you n—, and blacks will say ‘white man’s boy,’ ‘Uncle Tom,’ the 41-year-old Grant said.
The self-described cool, confident and quiet Grant brushes off the slurs.
We deal with a lot of (people) who try to get under your skin, said. It comes with the job. I know who I am, what I am and it doesn’t bother me.
Deborah Cabness, an African-American community service officer in Newark, said men have shunned her because of gender more than race.
On occasion, I have met with males in the community who did not want to discuss their problems or even talk with a female officer, she said.
Some minority employees say they are treated well in their departments, but they would be more comfortable if there were more minorities, and would like to see more hired.
Local departments are making intensive efforts to hire minorities, but they are struggling to find qualified candidates, officials said.
Some employees say there are a couple of reasons for this: Nonwhites see police as corrupt and those who have a more positive view seek more lucrative careers. More incentives might lure more minorities, some employees said.
For the black inner-city community, cops are thought of as the enemies, Grant said. The 11-year police veteran grew up in a slum in East Chicago, Ind., and chose to be an officer to change that perception.
But now, he said, rising costs and the need to take care of his family have him thinking of leaving police work.
The computer industry. That’s where monetary gain seems to be, he said.