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Thursday, February 25, 2021

The three-word confession you must make to start a career as a police reporter

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At 24 years old, I was blacklisted from writing about race. I realized this fact only too late. Even as the number of black people in police departments increased in the past few decades, it hadn’t opened the gates to me. In reality, writing stories about race and people of color for some outlets had become the work of detective work.

In retrospect, it was predictable. When I was asked to come in for my interview, my editor insisted that my answers be written down. This wasn’t because of the test we’d given her to reflect our success, but to make sure I wasn’t remembering things from when I was 18 or 19, or that I was writing about “the way things used to be.” She specifically asked, “You’re very analytical and analytical. So you like to think you’re a good writer. In general, do you think you’re a good writer?”

I went blank, embarrassed. I confess I never liked this part of the job. I had always been comfortable with descriptive writing, and I was well-prepared in case there was an issue that had nothing to do with race. In fact, I would often use it as an excuse to avoid writing about the most sensitive issues of race. But the more I continued to ask the question, the more it seemed that my presence was a handicap, since my feelings of boredom and unease could only be exposed if my work came back subject to the test. I thought about going to my network, recommending a friend. I talked about covering events involving a very sensitive topic, rather than writing about them. There was only one reason to continue: I needed the money.

Because this experience has to do with a large publication and the race of the people, and the fact that, actually, it’s possible to be both brilliant and miserable at writing about race, I feel that I have something to contribute. People start a new career. They might need something to persuade a friend or family member to write their story. I guess I have one.

* * *

There was a character in a novel that said, “You can’t love a place that doesn’t love you back.” This may not be true about a small black organization like a police department, but it would not be untrue about any group. One of the great things about a police officer is the group idea. We can’t see race and, usually, those who act and work together do not find it easy to mask their prejudices. One of the great problems is that we don’t tell the truth.

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