What It Means to Be Black While Blue

black, police
Black police officers, like these US Capitol Police, face pressures from their communities and their departments. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 20 minutes

While the fog of history swirls around us, some crucial events change both the way we look at the past and our expectations for the future. With respect to the civil rights movement, such crystallizing events include the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Riders summer, the March on Washington, Bloody Sunday in Selma, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. 

And now we can add to that list the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that have rapidly galvanized and profoundly moved public opinion about both race and policing. Few people are more attuned to this paradigm-shifting disruption than black police officers, who uniquely sit astride two worlds.  

This week on the WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Lt. Ben Kelso, a 30-year veteran of the San Diego police force, and the longtime president of the San Diego Black Police Officers Association. 

Kelso is a dedicated policeman who remembers how fellow San Diego police officers pulled him over in the early 1990s for wearing blue, and for driving a blue Cadillac. In those days, a black man in a police uniform driving a certain type of expensive car set off alarms.

Today he talks with us about what it’s like to be inside the squad room, particularly during the past two weeks, and the fatigue and sagging morale that have added an extra layer of stress to being a police officer. 

Kelso shares what both black and white officers are talking about, and explains why it has been so hard to build police departments that look like the communities they serve — and to get officers to accept outside criticism without automatically becoming defensive.  

He also dives into the subject of systemic racism, the mindset of people who go into policing today, and our unrealistic expectation that all problems arising from 400 years of racism should have been solved in the 56 years since the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. 


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, history goes on around us all the time. There are those events that coalesce both the forward and backward march of that story. With respect to the Civil Rights movement, events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, Bloody Sunday, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, were all such events. And now we can add to that litany the death of George Floyd and the protests throughout the country. Like those previous events, it has in a very 21st century way rapidly galvanized and shifted public opinion about both race and policing. Few are more attuned to all of this than black police officers, who sit astride two worlds. It gives them a unique perspective, and one that we’re going to try and understand today, as I’m joined on this week’s WhoWhatWhy Podcast by Lieutenant Ben Kelso, a high-ranking member of the San Diego Police Department, and the president of the San Diego Black Police Officers Association. It is my pleasure to welcome Lieutenant Ben Kelso to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Ben, thanks so much for joining us.
Lt. Ben Kelso: Thank you, Jeff, for having me. I appreciate having an opportunity to really discuss some of the issues here.
Jeff Schechtman: First of all, talk a little bit about your background. You’ve been on the force for over 30 years. Give us a little sense of that because certainly in 30 years you’ve seen a lot change, a lot happen.
Lt. Ben Kelso: I’ve definitely experienced a lot of change over 30 years. When I started, we barely had radios that were … they were not what we have now. And we’ve seen other technology come into play, cell phones now, and cameras, and everything else, all kinds of specialized equipment. Tasers, and you name it. Right? And we didn’t have a lot of those things when I first started. They gave me a gun, and handcuffs, and a stick, and that’s pretty much all you had. You needed to talk to somebody, you had a call box you can go make a phone call on.
Jeff Schechtman: Given all of those changes, so many of them around technology, how have they changed policing in terms of the fundamental work that police do, their role in the community, their involvement in dealing with crime and community relations? With all the technology that’s changed, there’s some fundamental parts of the job it seems that have always been the same.
Lt. Ben Kelso: Technology has made a huge impact on the job. A lot of it for the better, mainly for the better. Some of it not so much, it’s up to interpretation, I suppose. But I will tell you that technology has strengthened officers’ abilities to do the job, but the basic things that go with the work aren’t technology based. And one of the biggest things about being in law enforcement, and being a police officer, is being able to problem solve and being able to really kind of mediate out situations with people. And that really comes from your interpersonal skills and not so much what you’re wearing on your utility belt.
Jeff Schechtman: What have you seen in the past 30 years in terms of individuals that choose to go into police work? As you look at your colleagues through all of these years, what’s changed in terms of the type of people that come into the force?
Lt. Ben Kelso: I’ll tell you that people coming into law enforcement today are a lot more educated. They tend to be a little bit older now coming in. Some of them are coming in from having previous careers, and now law enforcement is becoming a second career for them. Back when I came in, officers were usually in their early 20s or so, and they had some life experience, were out on their own with their families, and trying to make it on their own, and this became a really good career to raise your family on. Nowadays, like I said, it’s a secondary career, and it’s not often one that people are choosing now because they have a lot more options because of their education.
Jeff Schechtman: As a result of that, how has it changed the nature of the attitudes of the people that decide to be police officers?
Lt. Ben Kelso: We’re certainly influenced heavily by social media today. I think all the new recruits that come in, they have a heavy social media presence that has to be a monitored and checked as part of the background process to see if they have activities in their lives, or things in their lives that may not make them good fits for law enforcement. So that’s really important. We look for people who have the ability to, one, persevere in the face of a lot of negativity, especially negativity directed specifically at them when they show up to solve problems and they want to solve problems anyway. People that have a desire to help. People that have a desire to really do good in their communities in spite of the things that are purported out in the communities about law enforcement, about police.
Lt. Ben Kelso: Some communities love police, and other communities have a real lukewarm, or maybe even difficult relationship with the police, and we look for people that can overcome those things and come and do the job and work late nights, long hours, and be hungry, and put up with a lot of verbal abuse, sometimes, sometimes physical, right? But they generally do the right thing. Generally. We still have problems. We’re not perfect. And there are officers out there that get themselves into situations where they do the wrong thing, and agency that has learned to hold those folks accountable, and it’s necessary remove those people from the job, because they are really creating bigger problems for the rest of the law enforcement officers that are out there trying to do the right thing.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there more diversity in your police force, and police forces in general today? And why does that matter?
Lt. Ben Kelso: I would say that sometimes diversity is really hard to come by in law enforcement. It really depends on your region and your area. And of course, law enforcement today has a goal of trying to have departments that reflect their communities, but that isn’t so easily done, especially when you start talking about minority communities, and black communities in general. There’s a stigma in those communities about law enforcement and a real negative view towards having their children, and their friends, and their loved ones become members of law enforcement because of that negative attitude. All the other regions and other agencies where there are larger pools of minorities, they find it easier to have a diverse department. But overall, if you look nationwide, it’s still largely dominated by white men, for the most part, around the country. And without pointing fingers at any individual agency, just looking at policing in general, we still need to work on diversifying it because it will make people in those minority communities feel better about police. And there’s more trust involved sometimes when someone shows up to your door that looks like you, right? Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s just kind of the nature of the beast.
Lt. Ben Kelso: I’m able to walk into some circles and to handle some calls, just basically on the premise that I look like the person that’s dealing with the trauma or whatever situation that the officers are responding to. Right? Some of those walls come down just by me being there. I’m trained the same way as the other guys, but people sometimes are just more comfortable dealing with people that look like them, especially in those moments where they’re in crisis, and there’s things going on in their lives that law enforcement has to get involved in.
Jeff Schechtman: Which really raises a question that we’ve been hearing a lot of these days with respect to funding, and what police departments do, which is, are the police called on to do too much, particularly in the realm of social services, areas that should be done by other agencies as opposed to the police?
Lt. Ben Kelso: No, I certainly agree with that. I believe that law enforcement officers and policing in general are called upon to do too much. I can tell you that in my 30 years, we do a lot more today than we did before. Originally it just tended to be about law enforcement, and crime prevention, but that role has expanded. And now we’re dealing with mental health issues, and try to deliver services to homeless, or unsheltered people, and trying to be everything for everyone. And then at what point, what are we good at anymore? What do we really specialize in? Police wind up being the entry point for access to government services, and maybe that’s not the best use of law enforcement.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things we’ve certainly heard a lot about in the past couple of weeks is systemic racism in police departments in this country. What have you seen in San Diego, and in neighboring communities in California?
Lt. Ben Kelso: Well, the whole point of systemic racism, really, is more of the collective … what we see collectively nationwide, and what we see collectively historically involving policing. And it takes us back before the Civil Rights era, and even back to slavery before the Civil War, where we find that people of color, in their interactions with law enforcement, are not always treated the same way. The results aren’t always the same way, and they would … I talk to a lot of people in meetings out in the community, and unfortunately we’ve kind of taken a position as law enforcement sometimes that whatever happens, let’s say whatever happened in Minnesota. Well, that didn’t happen here, right? And because it didn’t happen here, then we kind of dismiss the feelings that the communities have of traumatic law enforcement incidents around the country, right? Without realizing that the black community is not individualized by cities or by States. There’s a greater black community, so to speak, and I guess that would be nationwide.
Lt. Ben Kelso: When an individual gets hurt or killed unjustly, or what the community deems is unjustly, by law enforcement in one city, that pain is felt. I mean, it’s like reverberate across the country in every city, right? And when you start looking at them coming in rapid succession of one another, over, and over, and over, and over, again for usually seemingly minor crimes that result in an individual’s death, that creates a lot of anger, a lot of rage in communities. And the result of that is what we’ve experienced over the last few weeks, because those incidents seem to happen back to back to back to back. And then you look at another incident and they like to bring up Dylann Roof, who shot the parishioners in the church. Killed nine people, right? And when he stopped, he stopped as a very peaceful stop. They take him to get him lunch, right? But he was armed, and he killed a bunch of people. And then we find an African American guy who was selling those cigarettes, who gets five officers on him and he’s dead at the end of that stop for simply selling those cigarettes. Right? And, and we look at George Floyd in a similar manner. The community’s looking at that in a much similar manner that, hey, what was he doing that he had to die from it? Could we have done something differently?
Lt. Ben Kelso: So that’s, that’s the whole systemic … the system seems to condone and support these things continuing to happen. We don’t see the other side of that, which is yes, it was a tragedy, right? There should be some accountability, right? Our officers being held to be the same standard that communities are being held to, and of course there’s qualified immunity in law enforcement. But when you have incidents that really show poor judgment, negligence, or willful indifference that results in a death, should that officer be held to a different standard? Should that qualified immunity apply?
Jeff Schechtman: Take us inside the San Diego Police Department, your department, and talk about what it has been like for the past several weeks, one, inside the department in terms of what officers are talking about, and particularly what it’s like for you as a black officer in that in a predominantly white department.
Lt. Ben Kelso: I will tell you that the department as a whole has felt the stress of the last several weeks. We had officers that worked up to 14 days, 12 hour days with no days off. So there’s fatigue involved in that, and we felt that. But they’ve also banded together to support the city and to protect the city. And that’s a good thing. But in our personal conversations with some, all right, because we’ve seen a massive outpour across the nation, and people are really speaking out, right? And officers are speaking out, too, and some of those conversations are uncomfortable. And in particular, when we talk about the Black Police Officers Association speaking out, speaking on issues of race, and policing, and reform, and some of those things, we get a lot of pushback. We get a lot … what’s interesting is we get the pushback from outside externally when people say, “Well hey, when these things happen, what are you doing about it? You’re inside. Are you standing by and just watching it happen? Are you trying to make a difference?” And that comes externally from communities of color.
Lt. Ben Kelso: But internally, we get the other side, “Are you siding with the community over us?” Right? We got a Facebook page, and Twitter, and Instagram and in some of those groups, they’re open pages. So we recently have been trying to explain Black Lives Matter and what it means. What it means culturally, what it means to us. And there are some in law enforcement that deem it as a terrorist organization, and when you say Black Lives Matter, they counter with all lives matter, but it doesn’t mean black lives. That’s the whole point of it all. Black lives have to matter for all lives to matter, and that was the whole point. When the founders of this movement, when they put it together, they just wanted police accountability. Right? And we struggle with that, police accountability, and what that’s like.
Lt. Ben Kelso: So we, the BPOA and other organizations like us, and minority officers in general, get caught up in the middle sometimes of those arguments, trying to translate those out, and mediate those things out, because the community and the police don’t always speak the same language. So we’re kind of like universal translators for that, but we take those hits on both sides. We had a big, big set of traffic on our Facebook page over a photo that basically showed a Venn diagram that said you can condemn the murder of George Floyd, and you can support the policing. And one other thing it said, and you can do all of those things, right? At the same time, right? It’s not a all or one sort of proposition, all or nothing. You can support them all. And there were some individuals that came over and made a couple of trolling, negative comments that sparked a great deal of activity. And that’s, it really demonstrates what we go through trying to do this job, right? Understanding that lot of us, we come out of these communities that say they’re over policed, all right, and that the police are occupying forces in those communities. They have been known to treat people bad. We come out of those communities. We’re here. We’re here to make a difference, and when you start getting it on both sides, it gets really exhausting, really tiring.
Jeff Schechtman: How does that impact morale? How does it impact your morale, and your fellow black officers in the department to have that pressure on you all the time?
Lt. Ben Kelso: I would say that there are times when it can get pretty rough. Officers, some of our peers that come in, they decide that it’s too much for them, and they leave the profession, right? There are others that stay. There’s some that decide, you know what? Maybe it’s easier to go work in other parts of the city, and not work in communities of color because the pressure is just too much for them to deal with. What has really kept me going is I have a really strong relationship with a lot of people in this community, and I chose this community to work in.
Lt. Ben Kelso: I came out of Detroit, Michigan, and Flint, Michigan, and when I got to San Diego, the southeastern area of the city was the closest to where I came from. So I feel really comfortable here, right? And I immediately started trying to build relationships with people in the community and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, you treat the … I grew up learning that you treat the janitor the same way you treat the CEO, or the boss. So I kind of take that attitude in policing that, hey, I’m out here to do a service. I’m out here to do a job. Right? And I want to end every contact with that person understanding that hey, I treated them well, I did what I had to do, right? But I don’t have to demean them. I don’t have to treat them bad. I can deliver them to jail … a lot of them over my career ended up thanking me, but I got them to jail because, hey, they were delivered there safely. No problems. I didn’t look down upon them. Hey, this is the job. Right? Sorry, that’s just kind of how it goes. Right? And when you do that, then I think that the career is a lot more noble. It is for me. So that kind of helps keep me going, especially during these bad times.
Jeff Schechtman: Which really begs the question of attitude. There’s so much that we’re hearing now in terms of policy changes, and all arguably good ones with respect to qualified immunity, and chokeholds, and militarization of equipment for police departments. So much focused on policy and better training. But at the end of the day, it really does come down to attitude. How do we begin to address that?
Lt. Ben Kelso: Yeah. That’s a tough one, how we adjust attitudes. It could be a part of the process of coming in the entire screening process coming forward. Right now, you take a written psychological exam. I think it’s called the MMPI, right? You take that test, and it’s got like 1,000 questions on it or something like that, and then based on that, then you go forward and you talk with a police psychologist, and that person can either give you the nod and you proceed forward in the hiring process, or they can move you out. Maybe some of those processes need to be updated. Right? We certainly need to have ways to get the types of people that we want in law enforcement, to get service oriented type people.
Lt. Ben Kelso: And really the biggest thing I think we could make headway on is the mindset of being a guardian, a servant, a public servant. We’ve taken on a warrior ethos. And that really came out of officers’ safety concerns back over the past few decades. We have a lot of officers killed in the line of duty, and as a result of that, there was a lot of training on the warrior mindset, defensive mindset. And I think that we want to balance that out a little bit better.
Jeff Schechtman: As you’ve looked over the years, what has been the impact of popular culture with respect to how police are seen in terms of the public’s attitude towards the police, and even the police attitude towards themselves, because they’ve seen themselves portrayed certain ways in the popular culture?
Lt. Ben Kelso: Well, culture, certainly popular culture has an impact on everything and sadly we’re getting more of it than ever. It used to be you would only get it on television and in the movies, but now it’s television, movies, it’s on your phone, it’s in the social media. You’re constantly being bombarded with that, with imagery and all of those things that really reflect negatively. And sometimes I think it sets a set for really this false ideal. Because we really have a lot of anger and it’s righteous when we find that officers’ actions towards people are injust. But what we really miss is every day officers are going out there, and they are doing the right thing, and they’re going above and beyond to serve and protect, and that doesn’t make popular culture. It’s not popular, it’s boring. All right?
Lt. Ben Kelso: There are officers that go out, they contact people, the contact is great. It’s friendly. The people feel like they’ve been protected. They feel like they’ve been served, but that isn’t what we see. We don’t see that. And we don’t see movies about good cops that are out doing good work. That’s not popular. And sometimes we see stories. We see stories in the media about officers that are out there doing great things, but those are exceptional things. But the little bulk of policing is a pretty sterile, pretty boring, and there’s a lot of good people out doing that work, and it’s really sad that they get tarnished by these other incidents where officers have taken action and the outcome has come out bad, whether it’s intentional or not.
Jeff Schechtman: Is this something that you and your colleagues are talking about now, given that everybody else seems to be talking about it? Is this being talked about inside the department?
Lt. Ben Kelso: Well, it’s certainly being talked about inside my organization. We are part of a national organization and we have these conversations quite frequently. Depending on your agency, the leadership within the agency can reach out and ask for input, kind of check the temperature, so to speak. Sometimes we probably need more of that. We need more collaboration. We need law enforcement leadership to look at the big picture and take advantage of the different organizations that have relationships in these communities, to give them input and insight, trying to help build that bridge between community and law enforcement. I think if we do that more, that will be helpful. We’ve still got to make some changes though, because it just, it’s never going to look good to see an unarmed individual seriously injured or killed when they didn’t have to be, and something else could have been done. That’s never going to look good, and no matter what we do in law enforcement, we’re never going to be able to overcome that. That doesn’t mean that situations don’t take place where those things happen, and you know there was nothing else that could be done, but we really do got to take the time to focus on eliminating those ones that don’t have to be done.
Jeff Schechtman: Are you surprised by the extent of the reaction to the George Floyd killing, the way in which this feels like some kind of moment of change?
Lt. Ben Kelso: Well, I’m not surprised, but I do understand it. I mean, we’ve experienced this before. We’ve all experienced this with Trayvon Martin. We experienced this with Eric Garner. We experienced this countless times over the last several decades. I mean, all the way back to Rodney King, we’ve experienced it before. What’s different about this one is we watched it. We watched it happen for almost 10 minutes, live. Right? And normal law enforcement response is to, well, let’s wait for all the facts, let’s wait for the investigation to be completed, but when you are a witness and we were witnesses to it, by watching 10 minutes of footage, then it makes it a lot … it’s a lot harder to digest. And it brings up feelings that makes you think about being on the right side of history. It makes you think, wow, that was … no matter what he did, he did not deserve to be handcuffed face down on the ground. With three offices on him and one officer with his knee on his neck, while he pled for his life for nearly 10 minutes, and then he died in front of us. And that’s traumatic to the whole world. That’s why we have this outcome.
Jeff Schechtman: The fact that the protests, that the outcry is as diverse as it is today, and certainly that’s different than some protests in the past, to what extent does that give you hope that maybe some real change will come from this?
Lt. Ben Kelso: It’s actually pretty uplifting to see that there’s allyship now. That we don’t just hear communities of color crying out about abuse saying, “Hey, we’re not being treated the same. We are being abused by law enforcement.” And suddenly now, because people saw it and they were just as outraged by it, then they start … they changed. Suddenly, now Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against police brutality wasn’t about the flag or the military. It never was, but there is a group of people and, largely in the nation that felt that, hey, it was disrespectful to the flag. Right? And it was never about the flag. Now you see the NFL has completely did a 180 on it.  And you see corporate America, and everything else, they’re all going, hey, maybe we do need to look at this a little bit differently. Right? The whole Black Lives Matter movement was simply about police accountability. That’s all it’s been about.
Lt. Ben Kelso: Now, that doesn’t mean that in these protests, marches, there haven’t been atrocities committed. People have been injured and killed, including law enforcement officers. But the underlying message is that, hey, people of color aren’t feeling valued. And when you say all lives matter, it’s only lip service if they continue to see people of color being killed by law enforcement, unnecessarily, or unjustly.
Jeff Schechtman: What can police officers do today to not be so defensive? To not overreact to all the criticism? To realize that something does need to be done, and this is more of an opportunity than something to be defensive about?
Lt. Ben Kelso: A lot of people have to take personal reflection time. You got to really think about your values. And think about the greater picture. Right now, we’re kind of focused on it ground level. But when you start to take a look at it from the 10,000 foot level, or the balcony level, you get a different view. You get a different understanding of things. And if you can do that, and have some empathy and really just kind of listen. Listen without judgment, listen to what’s really being said, because a lot of it is nuanced and contextual. We hear things, and we say things and sometimes it’s not exactly what we mean. The message isn’t being translated properly. But what’s very clear is that people in this nation are very, very unhappy about what happened, so much, that they’d been in the streets protesting for two weeks. Some of those protests have been violent; most of them have not. But it’s not going away this time. We do have to take stock and make some changes as a law enforcement industry, and we have to make changes in our communities as well.
Jeff Schechtman: However, the problem again and again is the defensiveness that prevents so many of your colleagues inside departments from opening up and allowing some of these ideas to come in.
Lt. Ben Kelso: It’s all or nothing. It’s really difficult, because you can’t really, you can’t convince them about it and just listen, just wait, we have other perspectives that, and they’re just as valid. But in law enforcement we’re zero sum game sort of people. It’s black and white on everything and it’s not. Everything is really gray. Whole lot of gray. And what’s funny is law enforcement officers are actually people who deal in gray every day, right? Do you write this ticket or not? Do you stop that person or not? Who do you talk to? Well, if there’s that person or that … you know what I mean? There’s a lot of variation in what they do, and how they make decisions. But they have a really hard time attributing to that sort of thinking to this conversation, to conversations about race and about profiling and just communities of color in general. And how they got set up and people not recognizing that we’ve only had 56 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act. There was 400 years of slavery, another 100 years of Jim Crow segregation. We have 56 years since passing the Civil Rights Act. That’s it. That’s it. Maybe it’s not enough time. Those attitudes get passed down generationally.
Jeff Schechtman: Lieutenant Ben Kelso, San Diego Police Department, president of the San Diego Police Department’s Black Officers Association. I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast, and for sharing your thoughts with us.
Lt. Ben Kelso: Great talking to you. I really hope that people take the message, and just try, just absorb it, just think about it.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
Lt. Ben Kelso: All right. Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from University of San Diego and San Diego Police Officers Association.

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