Sitting in a church service several years back, listening to his pastor speak of the obligation to confront what is wrong in society, Branville G. Bard Jr. thought about being a Black man and a top police official too.
“I know some of you think you’re helping,” Mr. Bard recalled his pastor telling parishioners that morning. “But you can’t actually help and be silent.”
That remark moved Mr. Bard to openly confront what he considered an agonizing truth: He was part of a system “built on oppression and, structurally, on racism,” he said.
“Not to acknowledge that means a failure to acknowledge the past,” said Mr. Bard, who became the police commissioner in Cambridge, Mass., in 2017. “Folks are just going to continue to resent your failure to acknowledge that.”
As police chiefs struggle to reform their departments amid a national reckoning over police abuse, those African-American officers who have risen to the top say they face particular challenges. The expectations they face are outsize, coming from those chanting “Black lives matter!” as well as those subbing out the word Black for blue.
Some Black chiefs have had negative interactions with police officers while out of uniform, and they are expected to smooth out tensions between Black residents angry at the police and officers who recoil at the suggestion that they harbor racial bias. The chiefs are lauded for trying to change the system, but also knocked as traitors by some of those in blue and in the communities they come from. Some chiefs have knelt with protesters, but they have also overseen officers deploying tear gas at demonstrations.
“You feel something, as an African-American male, that there’s extra pressure on you to somehow wave a magic wand and you can make some of the things go away,” said Kenton Buckner, who became the Syracuse police chief in late 2018.
“A chief is every day walking a tightrope of trying to please his appointing authority, Police Department and the community, and treat them all as your wives,” he added. “And they’re all extremely jealous of each other, but you have to walk that tightrope each day to make sure that you’re in line with all three of them.”
The precarious nature of being a Black chief in this moment was apparent in recent days when the leaders of two departments announced they would step down.
Chief U. Reneé Hall of Dallas said she would leave the force in November after receiving heavy criticism for her officers’ response this summer to protests against racism in policing. And Chief La’Ron D. Singletary of Rochester, N.Y., joined his entire command in stepping down amid intense backlash over his handling of the death of a Black man in police custody in March.
Those resignations came about a month after a Black police chief, Carmen Best, announced she was leaving the Seattle Police Department because of budget cuts and restructuring to her force that she felt the city’s political leadership executed without properly including her.
While Ms. Best received heavy criticism for not reining in her officers’ aggressive response to protesters, some of her supporters said she faced discrimination from city leadership, which can be a roadblock for African-American police leaders. Ms. Best, the first Black woman to serve as the city’s police chief, said she could not say whether her race or gender influenced how the City Council dealt with her.
“I don’t think I’ll ever know fully what was in the hearts and minds of the various council members,” she said. But, she added, the efforts to defund the Police Department “without having a conversation with the police chief, and being highly dismissive — it does bring one to question what the motive was there.”
M. Lorena González, the president of the Seattle City Council, said race played no role in the differences she had with the former chief. Rather, it was Ms. Best’s failure to embrace transformational change, Ms. González said.
“I know that self-proclaimed progressive police chiefs across the country pledge fidelity to reform but few operationalize those pledges or push reform beyond the edges,” she said in a text message. “That is in part because of the systemic oppression that pervades policing and even leaders of color within those systems are not immune from that oppression.”
Through lived experience, Black leaders in law enforcement can sometimes bring an understanding of the nuances of community tensions with the police.
Commissioner Bard, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on racial profiling in policing, is rolling out a record-keeping system in his department that will allow it to keep detailed data on police stops and analyze whether racial bias is a factor.
Donny Williams, a native of Wilmington, N.C., who became that city’s police chief this year, said he tried to limit the number of officers who showed up to calls. He attributed that goal to a sentiment he heard coming up in a Black neighborhood, where people would complain of “carloads” of police officers showing up in their communities. When 10 officers respond to a traffic stop in which four would suffice, that can seem like over-policing, he said.
He also does not allow his officers to wear armored vests as an outer layer or other militarized-looking apparel when it is unnecessary because he wants his officers to appear approachable, not like soldiers, he said.
His friends and family still have “brutally honest conversations” with him about their issues with the police, he said.
“That’s one of the things that I can see from the perspective, especially of the Black community, it looks like we just come in as a military force in the Black community,” he said.
When he was still a patrol captain in a predominantly Black neighborhood, Chief Williams said he noticed that the officers had no bond with young people, who seemed to have few organized activities.
“I was one of those young Black men,” he said.
So he started programs that brought children and the police together. He recalled that he became interested in the profession when he got to know officers who worked in the public housing project where he lived; they took him on his first trip outside of the city, to the zoo in Asheboro.
As a Black woman who is from Phoenix, Jeri L. Williams, the city’s police chief, said community members sometimes had more patience and trust with her to get to the bottom of a critical incident before casting judgment. She built that capital with the community through years of meeting with residents for “very painful” listening sessions about policing, she said. They have prepared her for this time when there are huge demands for change.
“Because I’m true to my faith, I’m true to blue, I’m true to Black, it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and really take care of the police reform issues that need to be taken care of,” she said. “My unique perspective also reminds me that more work needs to be done.”
This moment seems to have increased the demand for Black leadership in law enforcement.
After just a few months on the job, the white police chief in Portland, Ore., stepped down in June and handed over the reins to Chuck Lovell, a Black veteran of the department known for his deep community ties.
“Part of it is representation, who’s at the table, who’s there when decisions are being made,” Chief Lovell said. “One of the things that’s helpful being a Black chief is you can have some different conversations with folks in the Black community. There’s a feeling that you can be a little more honest.”
In Louisville, where the killing of Breonna Taylor in a police raid has sparked unrest, the mayor appointed Yvette Gentry, a Black woman and former deputy chief, as the interim chief of the department this week. In an emotional address during her introduction, Chief Gentry, moved to tears at times, spoke of the need for broad systemic changes in racial equity across the board, not just policing. She told a story of her son moving into a neighborhood only to have neighbors call in drug dealer complaints against him days later.
“I served 20-something years willing to die for a city that wouldn’t even make my son feel welcome,” she said during the news conference. “Our city is going to crumble if we don’t start telling truths.”
The renewed focus on racist policing followed the death of George Floyd, who was pressed to the pavement by officers with the Minneapolis Police Department, with one of them pushing his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck. The department is headed by a Black chief, Medaria Arradondo, who has faced enormous challenges as street protests have grown violent and his officers have been criticized for abusing and mistreating Black residents.
Amid the tense moment in police-community relations, Chief Arradondo continues to enjoy broad support from Black residents, who see him as one of their own in the city where he was born and bred. Since Mr. Floyd’s killing sparked massive calls for reform and a pledge by a majority of the City Council to dismantle the Police Department, Chief Arradondo has worked with Mayor Jacob Frey to pass several reforms, including a revamped use-of-force policy.
But Black chiefs do not find themselves spared from criticism.
Chief Hall, who is leaving the Dallas Police Department, won early praise from some activists when she came on the job three years ago, said Changa Higgins, the lead organizer for the Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition, an activist group. She engaged with community members, revamped the complaint process and worked with organizers to create a new police oversight office and board, Mr. Higgins said.
But Mr. Higgins said he felt that her tone started to shift last year when activists were removed from the first oversight board meeting. She did not seem to support the board once it was created, he said. Relations deteriorated after the Police Department used what some local leaders and activists felt was unnecessary force on protesters in late May and early June.
Mr. Higgins said he understood that as a Black woman, Chief Hall had to endure racism and sexism in a male-dominated profession that could have hampered her efforts to effect change. But he said he was nonetheless underwhelmed with her leadership.
“I think it’s very important to have police chiefs who understand their community and get the pulse of what Black folks feel about police,” he said. “But even more important than that is having police chiefs that understand what to do about it. Just because you’re a Black police chief doesn’t mean you’re the best-suited person for that job to be a reformer and to transition out of something old into something new.”
Shaila Dewan contributed reporting.