At 8:30am on Friday, when the Ferguson police department released the name of the officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, Darren Wilson started getting texts from friends and family, telling him to be careful. The Ferguson cop who pulled the trigger happened to have the same name as this Darren Wilson, a sergeant on the police force in neighboring St. Louis. Within a few hours, the threats and hate mail came flooding in. Someone online pulled his portrait from the website of the Ethical Society of Police, where he is president, and overlaid the words, ‘I Killed Mike Brown.’ His son started receiving threatening texts and was pulled out of high school. The campus police where his daughter attends college were put on alert. The family moved out of their house for a few days.
But Sergeant Wilson, who is black, has spent much of his 18-year career in law enforcement working to promote black officers and fight against the racial bias he says pervades the police force. He spoke with Newsweek about how black officers are disciplined differently than white officers in St. Louis, how glad he is that the people of Ferguson are protesting racialized police brutality, and how the pure chance of his name has momentarily upended his life.
What do you think is wrong with the police department in the St. Louis area?
This is a conversation that we’ve been having in the department for at least two years now. I’ve been the president of the Ethical Society of Police since 2012. One of the primary topics of discussion is diversity within the St. Louis Police Department. In a city that is over half minority, the police are less than 30 percent minority. We do not have a department that reflects the people of the city.
The issue is the way police are hired, and the way police are ranked. Out of 12 or 15 police captains in the city, only two are black. Those are the ones that are in touch with the community, that people are more likely to see on the street. We [police of color] are far and few between in the department. Up until a month ago, we had no black detective sergeants, who are two ranks below captain. Zero. Now there is one black detective sergeant, and that only came off the heels of a controversial promotional exam, where out of 72 police who participated, around 25 or 30 were black. Of those, only one scored high enough to be eligible for promotion to the rank of lieutenant. Only one! Recently I attended the conference of the National Black Police Association, and I learned that this is a trend [in promotion exams] in departments across the country. I didn’t know that.
I was appalled to learn that only three officers in Ferguson are black. I feel sorry for them, going into work every day in that environment. I know how they feel. My heart goes out to them. Something has to change. That’s the reason that the community is outraged. How on earth can we have a fair and equitable investigation with this demographic makeup of the police department?
We [the Ethical Society of Police] definitely support the protest. We think they should take it from the neighborhood to City Hall, until the message is felt, that we want more representation on the police force and in the local government as well. We need to keep the momentum going. Something drastic has to occur now to regain the public’s trust in law enforcement.
I applaud the people for stepping up and taking a stand. They should continue to protest, not riot! But protest. And let the world know that you cannot continue to neglect them.
Are African-American officers treated differently than white officers?
Absolutely. There are disparities in assignments, in hiring, in promotions and in discipline. I’m talking from my experience. When people are involved in problematic scenarios, they call me. Oftentimes, when a black officer is the subject of an internal investigation, they are suspended without pay. We are learning that a lot of our white counterparts [who are disciplined] are taken off the streets, but usually given a desk job, so they still get paid. One of the [white] officers in 2011 was placed on disciplinary leave, with pay, and placed on a night shift, so his pay actually went up. There was already a directive explicitly barring that—putting officers on night jobs while they are on leave. That’s something that shows that the policies aren’t even followed.
What about disparities in hiring and promotions?
In 2005, we had a police academy class that was all white. An all-white police academy class! The excuse—and we get the same excuse today—was, "Hey, we couldn’t find enough black applicants." We haven’t had an exclusively white class again, but they are typically unbalanced.
It is the same with promotions. Last year, we had 15 white sergeants promoted in a single session. There were a lot of issues surrounding that. The sergeant says the test yielded that result. But the test is very subjective, and we are still using internal assessors as well as external assessors, meaning people within the department are evaluating these exams. That is a very outdated approach, to have internal people assessing.
The exams are so subjective because, besides the 20 percent that is written, 80 percent rests on your assessments, where they throw examples at you to respond to. This is highly subjective and plagued with the internal assessors. It is definitely suspect. This is pure discrimination and it is why the numbers are unbalanced. We believe they are racially biased.
Have you personally experienced racial bias while on the force?
Oh yeah, I have. There was one white captain that I criticized for not attending the funeral services of a black sergeant’s daughter who had passed away. I published it in the local paper. [The captain] called the next day. It was not pleasant. He had some choice expressions for me. I explained to him that it was about how black officers feel devalued. Then, less than a year later, this same captain was sitting on one of my assessment panels to become a lieutenant. Could that incident have been in the back of his mind while he was assessing me? Absolutely.
Meanwhile, in the police academy, just this past May there was a black female sergeant and a white male sergeant up for the same job on the academy command staff. The academy said they wanted a black female sergeant to fill the role. They were both qualified, and the only difference was that the white sergeant had taught in the academy previously. But the black sergeant had a master’s degree and was well-educated for the job. She got hired. Then [the white sergeant] filed a reverse discrimination lawsuit and he won.
How would having a more diverse force change how cities are policed?
There’s a difference between how blacks police and how whites police. There’s a cultural difference to how we interact with our communities. You don’t get that “us against them” mentality. Even [St. Louis Police] Chief Sam Dotson admitted that there are differences in the way we police North St. Louis, which is predominantly black, and South St. Louis, which is more white. There is more discretion exercised in the white areas.
How has your life changed since the name you happen to share was revealed as the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown?
It has been interesting, I’ll tell you that much. My children were receiving comments, they were all a bit uncomfortable. I was getting a lot of negative messages, like, "Darren Wilson should be this that and the other thing." It was pretty graphic. I wrote it off. There were pictures of me posted with captions like "I Killed Mike Brown." Someone even sent some mockery of me as Kermit the Frog. I have a daughter in college and a son in high school and I had to call campus security and pull my son out of school for safety reasons. I did leave my home for some days, not to take chances.
There was no property damage or anything like that.
You’ve been on the force how many years?
I’ve been on the force for 18 years, working primarily in the north St. Louis area. I joined as a patrol officer. In 2007 I was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Why did you become a police officer?
I came on here with my eyes closed. I didn’t know anything about being an officer. I got the job because I needed the job. I was a theater arts major, and of course you know when you’re in performing arts it is very competitive, you’re in limbo a lot, you live off of auditions. I could not continue that. I was working locally at a retail store called Grandpa Pigeon’s, which is like a local version of a Walmart. It just wasn’t enough to support the family on. My neighbor, Otis Williams, was a police officer and very professional. I admired him. He was black, and I said, Hey, how'd you like it? He said, I love it. He told me to apply. I was doing a lot of work on the community theater level at the time.
It’s funny, because I’m still in theater, and I see similarities. Like, when is the world going to get it? Recently I closed a play—it was The Wiz, at Florissant’s community theater group called the Hawthorne Player. My kids were in it, too. It is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz with an urban, diverse twist to it. The demographics of Florissant have changed significantly—it used to be predominantly white, and now it is more colorful. This traditionally white theater group knew they had to change their approach to get the community to see their shows. In 2012, they took a risk and put on August Wilson’s Fences, which is relevant to black people. Crowd numbers were through the roof. They realized, hey, black folks like theater! So then they put on The Wiz and it was a sold out crowd.
If the police would adopt that same approach, to say hey, we’re going to cater to you with something that is relevant, something that is germane to you, they’ll probably have a much better response.