Mixed-race cop called ‘racist and a Nazi’
In this era of civil unrest and partisan politics, it’s harder than ever for cops — particularly black cops — to do their jobs. In this excerpt from the new book “Beaten Black and Blue: Being a Black Cop in an America Under Siege,” Ray Hamilton, 42, reveals his experiences working as a mixed-race cop in San Ramon, Calif., east of Oakland, as well as his early days serving in Washington DC’s tough Sixth District.
A big part of my story is that I’m black and white, and that puts me right in the middle of all the race and policing issues.
And, yes, I’ve dealt with different aspects of racism. On a routine traffic stop, people might say, “Oh, you just stopped me because I’m black.”
Really? Because I’m mixed race, and sometimes, you can’t tell what I am.
On the East Coast, they thought I was Puerto Rican, and here in California, they don’t know what I am. There’s no box to put me in, which I think is true for a lot of people. So when that happens, I call people out on that. I ask them, “Could it be that I stopped you because your tail light was out, or your tags expired a year ago, or you ran a red light? It couldn’t be anything like that?”
That usually turns things around.
I never saw myself as looking tough or like a thug; I had curly hair and an olive skin tone. But when I was a teenager, I got stopped by the gang unit in Dallas — a true felony stop — with guns drawn and everything.
“Put your hands on the steering wheel!”
Whoa, I thought. What in the world is happening?
“You’re in a gang!”
No, I wasn’t, and I never was. However, my cousin was in a gang, and he used to get caught up in all kinds of criminal stuff. He ended up getting shot five times, and died.
All of that really turned me away from being in a gang or doing anything criminal.
Instead, I ended up in the military. I was in the Air Force working for the Department of Defense on Bolling Air Force Base. At the time, I was working as a sports and recreation assistant, creating extracurricular events for the Air Force community.
I believe how you do your job is more of a calling than what your job actually is. And for some reason, after the military I decided I was going to apply to the DC Metro Police Department. They weren’t hiring at the time, and several people advised me not to join that “dirty police department.” I applied anyway, and I waited. I waited for two years. Most people apply to multiple departments to increase their odds of being hired. Me? I only applied to one. I believed I was supposed to work there. Eventually, after their hiring freeze was lifted, I became one of 35 people hired — out of 10,000 candidates.
That’s how I started my career with the police 10 years ago.
When a person of color calls me — another person of color — a racist, I feel bad for them. It’s like they’re conditioned to believe people treat them a certain way because they’re black. I want to say to them, “Wait a minute. You don’t want me pulling you over because you have your hair in cornrows, you have tattoos, you’re smoking a blunt, but you don’t want me to assume you’re a gangster, right? You don’t want me to assume that, but that’s one of the first things that comes to mind. But that’s not reasonable for me to do that. That’s me judging you, and you don’t want me doing that. Why judge me?”
During the recent riots, I was accused of being an overseer, someone who watched over slaves. Another time, someone accused me of being like the Nazis marching the Jews off to the concentration camp trains, as if I were marching people off to be killed. I was surprised by that. It really does get that dirty sometimes.
When I have on riot duty gear — or the uniform in general — I remember I’m not here representing myself; I’m here to try to keep some kind of peace. When I’m wearing either one, I don’t represent myself or my own ideas and thoughts. I’m there to protect whatever brothers and sisters are around me.
We’re not there to control people. They should feel free to protest all they want. I may even agree with them, but I don’t agree with all the methods. And I can’t let a few opportunists cause this thing to become a mob and be unlawful.
I think it’s important to hold that attitude.
Recently, a couple of guys on the line took a knee. No, no, brother! You can’t take a knee when you’re on the line, whether you agree with them or not. You can’t take a knee because that puts everyone else at risk now. It’s very awkward. It’s not the time, and then it looks like we’re not standing together.
When I’m in the uniform, I’m there for a greater purpose. That purpose is to keep some kind of peace and maintain some kind of order, and to do that, you have to show some kind of solidarity.
That said, I also want to build a rapport with the community I serve. When I was in DC, especially in the project area, I was dealing with a different mindset. And I knew you had to meet them where they were and build that relationship. The beat I had was a very rough four blocks where there were murders, drug deals, you name it. I had a partner, a white dude from Arizona. He’d never been around that many black people, and this was an all-black neighborhood. When we walked that beat, my partner kind of walked behind me. You could visibly tell he was scared. I had to explain to him, “Dang, man, they’re gonna pull your card if you walk behind me. Don’t do that. If they see you’re scared, they’ll respond in a bad way. You gotta walk beside me, not behind me.”
Since I’m in the middle — black (and white) and blue — I find myself walking the line.
I know some officers have bad attitudes about the communities they serve. Yes, it’s often a racial divide. Some of the white cops had a different outlook. They even made patches: We’re not stuck here with you; you’re stuck here with us. And sadly, yes, I have heard some of the guys refer to black people as savages. I’m thinking, “My gosh, how are you going to deliver or render any kind of justice or service to this community if you refer to them as savages?”
So, I’m trying to win over the white officers and the black community.
Sadly, I do understand why some people hate us.
On one occasion, a black officer stopped a guy who was a known criminal. Everybody knew he dealt drugs, and he had drugs on him. But the officer demeaned him, I guess trying to teach him a lesson in front of the other people in the area. He made him kneel down on the concrete (that hurts), and he had him down there for more than five minutes. The crowd felt like the cop was showing off and abusing his authority. So, they started name-calling — called us the slang term for cops, “twelve,” called us FEDS, called us all kinds of names. I believe when you name someone like that then they’re no longer a person. Like calling someone a savage or shouting out, “F twelve” — either side of the argument — they’re no longer a person.
Not too long after that, we caught a guy on a very minor misdemeanor charge, riding a dirt bike in the city. These “rough riders” would ride dirt bikes and ATVs in the city, and the cops would chase them. I caught this one guy, and we were just going to write him up, get his fingerprints, and process him out, but this guy had a $10,000 wad of bills on him. He claimed it was from his family business. But I know that most businesses usually don’t transport cash in their waistbands. I needed to hold the money until he could bring down receipts to prove it was earned through that business. He started yelling at me that he wanted to see it put in the evidence bag. I was surprised. Did he think I was going to steal it? Apparently yes, because other cops in my district had been fired for misconduct. No wonder he didn’t trust us!
I can sometimes understand the lack of trust from the community, but when you don’t feel you have the support of your leaders, that’s when it gets really hard. When I was on the riot team in DC, we weren’t able to wear our full riot gear because it looked too aggressive. Here in California, it’s more of the same. During one of the riots, I was hit with a bottle, and we had to shoot a rubber round back at that person. Then, we had to use tear gas to disperse the crowd. Three days later, they took away our tear gas. I was recently deployed to Sacramento, and we were told that if protesters break the windows at City Hall, we should let them.
Even in Oakland, we had to let them loot a Target, a 7-Eleven store, and a car dealership.
I know all the violence and looting are coordinated, because I saw someone watching us and monitoring our movement. Then, he called it to his fellow rioters. Not being able to do anything or take any action when laws are being broken and officers are being hurt? That’s demotivating. You end up getting what we call 4 percent. Some officers go out on duty, but they won’t be proactive, and they give less than 100 percent because it’s a reaction to feeling powerless and not being supported. There’s also a threat of being sued by someone, even if the officers are just defending themselves. It’s very disheartening.
While I grew up feeling like I never had to be anyone but who I was, these days, I feel like I am always being forced to pick a side. I try to identify with the people I work with, and I also try to identify with the community I’m policing. I don’t want them to feel like I said, that I’m just here as an overseer. I’m not here to fine you and arrest you, but I have a job to do. It can be hard to feel so stuck in the middle.
Reprinted with permission from “Beaten Black and Blue: Being a Black Cop in an America Under Siege” by Brandon Tatum, published by Bombardier Books (2021).