What it’s like to be a black cop in 2016: ‘I see both sides’

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, to another in our Brief But Spectacular series.

Tonight, Oakland, California, police officer Damon Gilbert offers his candid thoughts on what it means to wear a badge in 2016.

DAMON GILBERT, Oakland, California, Police Department: Any time you put on a bulletproof vest to start your day off to work, you have to know that you may or may not come back home to your child, to your wife, to your grandmother, to your auntie.

And that in itself is scary. That in itself is scary.

Anybody that tells you that they haven’t been scared, I’m under the full impression that they’re a total liar. It’s there, and you’re human. You’re not a robot. You actually have emotions. We train you and put you in realistic predicaments.

How do I make sure that my finger is not on the trigger, but my finger is indexed? How do I function when I’m talking to the radio while keeping an eye on unknown threats?

Many times, I have given a direct order or a lawful order, and it’s been met with “F you,” or it’s been met with, come on, let’s fight.

For me, I have never been in that situation where I have actually had to pull the trigger. Every time you see something on TV, it’s a clip of an officer with a gun. And what tends to happen is, the community thinks that every call an officer goes to, they’re using their gun. That’s not the case. And, in Oakland, we work in one of the most violent cities in North America.

When we see videos that are definitely disturbing, it hits home. When you see it as a citizen, and it shocks your conscience, a lot of times, when I see the same footage or we see the same footage, it shocks our conscience as well. And then we want answers.

My heart sank when I have seen everything that I have seen over the past couple months, couple years. Seeing the response to different riots, and different violent protests, protests that go wrong, it’s heartbreaking, because I see both sides.

I see the officers out there who are probably on a 24-hour day, and people don’t know that. And then I understand the other end, where people are frustrated. They have seen different things that definitely leave some questions that need to be answered, and they’re angry.

Sometimes, you have to give the people a voice, and that maybe their anger isn’t necessarily towards you. It may be toward another contact that they had with another police officer 10 years ago.

It’s tough for the African-American community when dealing with the police. I personally have been pulled over multiple times as a police officer. I actually was arrested in high school for doing something I didn’t do.

Why would I want to impose that feeling on you? Because I was mad, I was angry, I was disappointed, I wanted revenge. There’s a difference between getting into police work for the right reasons and the wrong reasons.

The wrong reasons would be, I don’t like people, I don’t like talking with people. The wrong reasons would be, well, I want to feel — well, it makes me feel bigger, and badder, and tougher.

You get into this business to help out the community, to serve the community, to be a servant. I know my circle of influence is very small, but it starts with me.

So, when I go out there, I have to make sure that I’m doing the right thing. And I believe that will help start the process of doing things correctly and building back the public trust.

My name is Damon Gilbert. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on being a police officer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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