Thin Line Between Black And Badge

Posted

“The divide is growing deeper and wider. The rhetoric becoming stronger and more vile. Everyone has their personal view and beliefs, which are based on their upbringing and values. I, like most if not all, current and former black police officers, must walk a thin line.”

Tim Ellis walked that line for almost 27 years with the Illinois State Police before retiring in 2010. That’s why he felt the need to speak up about the growing unrest that had pitted the two groups closest to his heart, the black community and police officers, against one another.

“My allegiance is always going to be to the badge,” Ellis said before continuing, “but my heart is always going to be with the black community and to my family.”

Ellis grew up in Chicago, but has spent the better part of the last 40 years downstate, working 25 years in District 10, which includes Champaign, Coles, Douglas, Edgar, Macon, Moultrie, Piatt, Shelby and Vermilion counties. For the last year and a half of his tenure, he was a lieutenant at District 18 in Litchfield, where he retired from in 2010. At both outposts, Ellis was one of the few African American troopers.

“At the time of my hire, they were going through a hiring blitz to get our numbers up to reflect the community more at the time. They were actually recruiting in the Chicago area and trying to promote the hiring of more black officers,” Ellis said, who graduated from the police academy in 1984. “(It) was quite a culture shock for me and my family when I got sent to Danville.”

Living in Chicago, Ellis didn’t know much about the Illinois State Police, who mainly patrolled the interstate highways at the time. Most of his interactions came with the Chicago Police Department, who patrolled the expressways around the city. 

Ellis remembers meeting a state trooper when he was 19 or 20 at a friend’s house and was struck by the professional look of the young officer. 

“I was so impressed by the way he looked in contrast to the way the Chicago Police officers I’d seen. It reminded me more of a Marine uniform than what I was used to,” Ellis remembered. “I was so impressed I started inquiring about the state police at that time.”

When Ellis applied with the state police, he was working at UPS and while he wishes the job change was for a noble cause, at the time, it was more about his family.

“I was just starting a family and I needed secure employment,” said Ellis, who had a young daughter and wife to think about.

“It was just, ‘If I get on the police department, I think I can have that job for a long time without getting laid off.’ Looking back, it was the best decision I made in my life.”

While he may have pursued law enforcement as a way to give his family a better life, his interactions with the police at an early age shaped how he handled himself on the job. 

“There’s not a black adult person I know that does not have a story, or in some cases, several stories, of being targeted by police simply because of the complexion of their skin,” Ellis said. “Personally, I have many. As a person of color, the complexion of my skin means that I am always considered armed and a possible threat.”

There was the instance in his freshman year when he got out of school early and was picked up walking to a friend’s house a few blocks away. After an hour sitting at the police station, they told him they were looking for a subject who committed a sexual assault and he was free to go.

“I later found out that the guy they were after didn’t look anything like me or resemble my description at all,” Ellis said, who said he has also been pulled over several times, seemingly for no reason. “I wasn’t going to challenge them, because you learn that you don’t challenge the police in Chicago very early on.”

The interaction that made the greatest impact came when he was just 11 or 12 years old, not far from his neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.

“We lived in what I considered a nice neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. It was one of those neighborhoods where black families were moving in and white families were moving out west to get out of the city,” Ellis said. “When we first moved to that area, the line was only two or three blocks from where I lived at, going west. Then it moved another couple of blocks and another couple of blocks. Everyone knew where the line was, black and white.”

“My older brother, who is about six years older than I am, was kind of a renegade. He didn’t respect boundaries,” Ellis remembered. “One day he and a neighbor of ours that was his age went on a bike ride and they let me go along, which I thought was a really big deal because older brothers usually don’t like younger brothers hanging around with them.”

Ellis recalled that the trio headed west, eventually riding past a park where a large group of kids were playing basketball. Ellis, his brother and the friend stopped to decide where they were going to go next.

“Just as we were deciding where to go, two carloads of people pulled into the parking lot and surrounded us. I had no idea what was going on. These guys jumped out of their cars, and I don’t know how many there were, but to a kid’s eye, there were a lot,” Ellis said. “They started yelling racial names at us and asking us what we were doing in their neighborhood. I’m thinking, let’s get on our bikes and get out of here. And my brother, like I said, he didn’t like anyone telling him where he could and could not go, he basically told them we can ride our bikes anywhere we want to.”

From there, the argument got heated. Ellis’ brother and the friend were surrounded and eventually, all he could see was punches being thrown and the two boys being kicked.

“Nobody messed with me, maybe because I was a kid and still on my bike,” Ellis said. “But seeing my brother and his friend just being pummeled left a scar on me for a long time.”

An African American man who stopped at a nearby gas station tried to intervene and stop the beating, but the gas station owner started hitting the man’s car with a jack handle, forcing him to abandon his hopes of stopping the fight. Ellis said eventually they finally let his brother and the friend go and the group limped back toward their neighborhood, where they came across a Chicago Police vehicle.

“It was two black officers and my brother rode up to the driver’s window and told them what was going on. The first thing the officers said was, ‘What were you guys doing in that neighborhood,’ which really upset my brother,” said Ellis. “And we just went home. We knew they weren’t going to do anything. That was one of my first encounters with policing up in Chicago.”

Even after putting on the uniform of the Illinois State Police, the prejudices didn’t stop.

“When I first got sent to Danville my rookie year, we had so many people working that shift, we’d meet up in the back parking lot of McDonalds or some place and figure out where we were going to be patrolling, so we wouldn’t run over each other,” Ellis said. “So I’m sitting back and one of the troopers was talking to his buddies and he was describing his property. He said, ‘Yeah, I built this fence and one day,’ and I’m quoting here, ‘I see this old N**** messing on my property.’ He knows I’m there. I’m not invisible. Right away I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this guy feels comfortable enough to say that word and not even hesitate.’ He didn’t look at me and say sorry or anything. He just kept on with his story. That’s when I knew that I had to be careful of who I trust in that area. If he feels comfortable enough to say that to my face, what is he doing behind my back.”

While those experiences could have made Ellis bitter toward others, he took the opposite approach. When he stopped someone on a traffic violation or made contact with someone while wearing the badge, he hoped to make the interaction as pleasant as possible.

“My thing was, I didn’t want people to feel the way I felt in those situations. I tried to make people as comfortable as I could,” Ellis explained. “I know the encounter may be the first time that you have ever encountered a police officer. So every time I wanted to leave an impression that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it might be. That’s not always the case, but you try to do that the best you can.”

Ellis was also a regional crowd control commander during his time with the Illinois State Police, a job that would have probably put him on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter protests, which has added challenges for African American officers.

“If you’re in a uniform, basically you have to be neutral. You can’t empathize, as much as you may want to, with the people you’re facing off against. It’s tough. We’re not robots,” Ellis said of the protests. “It makes it doubly tough if you’re staring in the face of a young black person and you see the pain in their face of what’s been going on. You know some of the things they’ve probably had to endure because you’ve had to endure them yourself.”

But still, the black officers have a job to do. What makes that job even more difficult is that once they take off their uniform, they experience the same kind of discrimination that many of those protesting have experienced.

“Once you take the uniform off, as a white person, you can blend back into society. The uniform was an added protection for me because people treated me with more respect when I had the uniform on than as an average guy walking down the street. The uniform provided some protection for me and my black counterparts,” Ellis explained. “You think, ‘I spent all day protecting what I believe in and now I’m back to being just another black guy walking the street.’ All the stuff that you have to carry around is put back on your back.”

That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand the police perspective though. After an older man was seemingly pushed down by police during protests in Buffalo, Ellis’ girlfriend expressed outrage at the callousness of the officers who just walked by the prone protestor.

“I let her rant and rave for a while, then I reversed it and I explained to her what was actually happening in that video. I took it step by step, showing her why that occurred and what those officers were trained to do,” Ellis said. “I’m not excusing what these officers did, but what I tried to explain to her was what happened from an officer’s point of view. They’re taught to do things in a certain manner and they have to stay disciplined in that manner or they will be overrun. If you get somebody behind you, you’re at greater risk of harm to yourself or to your fellow officers.”

That dual identity, African American and police officer, and the love for both groups makes the current climate particularly troublesome for Ellis. He knows that big incidents like George Floyd’s murder are part of the problem, but so are smaller incidents that may not be as overt as what happened in Minneapolis.

“They have to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are doing anything that could be considered offensive or biased as they do their jobs,” Ellis said. “Stopping those little things, that might help out a lot.”

Ellis said that calling out those little things is partially up to the police themselves. By shrugging off small abuses as personality flaws, the problem is just getting worse.

“You can’t let bad officers ruin the reputation of all of the good ones. We have to be the ones who police ourselves, even if just some minor thing,” Ellis said. “You may say it’s not that big of a deal, but yeah, it is, because those little things add up. And next thing you know we have somebody doing what this guy in Minneapolis did.”

As far as whether the Black Lives Matter movement will make significant change in the way African Americans are treated by the police, Ellis said that’s the 10 million dollar question.

“I hope, like I think most people do, that it is a positive thing that comes out of this and some type of reform is made,” he said. “I don’t know what that is going to look like or what it should look like, but something has to be done.”

The devastating part for Ellis is that the hate that his parents had to endure, that he had to endure, that other black officers who came before him had to endure, is still present in America.

“I hate that this is still going on. I have two grandkids now and I hate that they have to see some of the things that I had to endure and my parents had to endure,” Ellis said. “Many people were shocked, but not many black people. I pray that some good will come from this and it won’t just be a blip on our nation’s history.”

“I’ll tell you, when this pandemic first hit and everyone was forced to stay home, I told people that it was the first time I wished I was back working, because I felt like I’d be doing something that could help the situation,” Ellis said, his voice slowing as each word is measured and full of emotion. “After this incident, with Mr. Floyd, this is the first time I’m saying I’m glad I’m not working. The way police officers are portrayed now, it’s going to take a long time to heal. With a lot of people, not just the African American Community.”

The conversation with retired Lt. Tim Ellis stemmed from Mr. Ellis’ thoughts regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, which he posted to Facebook on June 3. Below are those thoughts:

The opinion of a retired black law enforcement officer who also served as an IL State Police regional crowd control commander.

The divide is growing deeper and wider. The rhetoric becoming stronger and more vile. Everyone has their personal view and beliefs, which are based on their upbringing and values. I, like most if not all, current and former black police officers, must walk a thin line. On one side of the line, we support our brothers and sisters who also wear the badge. On the other side, we have our family and friends who are also black and carry the same burden of being prejudged by society as a whole. There’s not a black adult person I know that does not have a story, or in some cases, several stories, of being targeted by police simply because of the complexion of their skin. I personally have many! As a person of color, the complexion of my skin means that I am always considered armed and a possible threat. My black friends, both current and former law enforcement, agree with me on most issues, social and political. This often stands in sharp contrast to my white friends, current and retired officers. And thus the dilemma.

Many in my family and black friends support Black Lives Matter, as do I. I believe in the general principle of the movement which in its most simplistic form means black lives should have equal importance as all other lives in this country. It does not mean that other lives don’t matter. All of my children support the movement because of, not in spite of, their father being a cop.

When you hear the term “white privilege” try not to get defensive. It doesn’t mean that you had an easy upbringing and didn’t have to work hard for what you have obtained in life. It simply means that if you had to do those things, work and fight for everything you have achieved, you didn’t have that extra burden of being a person of color. As a cop, when you get home and take off the uniform, you can blend back into society. As a person of color, the uniform provides some semblance of equality. But once the uniform has been removed, the dark complexion remains, and so does the biases.

These are uncharted waters we find ourselves in today. The uprising and civil unrest sparked by the senseless murder of George Floyd is the culmination of many past injustices, real and perceived, by a people who have felt marginalized by a corrupt system of justice. And all of this happening under the umbrella of a worldwide pandemic and record unemployment.

No person of character condones the violence, looting, and destruction of property. It’s all very sad. But don’t be distracted by the symptoms and forget about the disease. What’s been occurring in the dark has been brought to light. Many people were shocked, but not many black people. I pray that some good will come from this and not just be a blip on our nation’s history.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable ~ John F Kennedy.

Comments

1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Jon Johnson

I won’t attempt to read everything that has been, or will be, written on this issue, but I’m very glad I read this. Well done.

| Monday, June 15