Updated: Nov 24, 2021
By Special Guest Writer
Emergency Communications Officer II
Race and American politics. Those are two topics that my mother wisely engrained in me to never bring into my workplace. She taught me to proudly uphold my beliefs, maintain my values and stay true to my convictions, but she also taught me to pick my battles carefully.
"Know when to show your cards, and know when to hold back and stay silent.”
I can hear my mother telling me, time and time again. It's a lesson that I’ve tried to live by since I first entered the workforce a decade ago. However, it was in 2020 that I found myself facing a very difficult predicament. Because try as I did to not insert race or politics into my daily conversations on the job, they still seeped in—poured in rather. Most days it was all on anyone’s mind; colliding with our routines, dominating our news outlets and social media, and filling up the banter around our dinner table. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone was picking a side.
The general consensus seemed to be that there were two central arguments here. One that promoted the message of Black Lives Matter and supported the need for social justice reforms, and the other that countered that the lives of police officers mattered just as much and that the uniform shouldn’t be automatically synonymous with evil and injustice, because for every “one bad apple” there were a dozen more good police officers. Eventually, the hardest thing to me was only hearing the one-sided narrative from either side. Sure, any decent person would agree that life matters, period. Certainly, there are still some tragically grave numbers to solve in regard to racial disparities in policing. And yes, the bad apples do seem to overshadow the good officers we have, but these bad apples cannot be ignored either.
It's been over a year since I laid my heart bare in a guest blog addressing my thoughts on the BLM movement, and the challenge of being a person of color maneuvering the tense racial climate while serving in public-safety. I wrote the piece “Bigger Than the Bias” within an afternoon at work back in August 2020. I was working a radio and fielding calls from citizens, some of whom just wanted to vent their frustrations about the recent officer-involved fatalities (Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, etc.). I still very much believed in the work I was doing and I believed in the essentialness of law enforcement in our communities, but I was struggling with feelings of guilt too, as though my silence in the workplace and perceived neutrality on the issue of race, meant I was condoning the unfortunate demise of these individuals.
I sought to know what others in my profession were feeling about the whole situation and found myself seeking validation for my conflicting thoughts, but everywhere I looked I was presented with the options to either “back the blue,” or stand up for social justice and call for defunding the police. Where was the middle ground for those like myself who cannot wrap their head around defunding some of the most loyal, most passionate, most compassionate, and bravest people I’ve known to wear a badge, but also recognizes that the outrage over racial inequality in our criminal justice system and in public-safety is absolutely warranted too. There is plainly and simply a disturbing trend for lethal police violence among a certain demographic; a statistic evidenced by a recent study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The detailed analysis, which was published in the journal The Lancet , shows how disproportionately Black people are affected.
So, when I pitched my essay to Sara Weston for her to consider publishing it on her 911der Women blog, I was more apprehensive than anything else. It was something I felt needed to be said, and it was a perspective I thought was not being offered, but I wondered if I was really the right person to contribute to the conversation. What made my viewpoint so special? Would anyone even want to hear what I had to say? In truth, I was writing for myself most of all, because I needed some closure personally.
My volcanic eruption was the evening of my little sister’s birthday when it struck me that the young, promising emergency medical technician, Breonna Taylor, would have and should have been turning 27-years-old that day. I watched my sister blow out the candles on her platter of cupcakes and I whispered a heartfelt “thank you God” that we could have her here to celebrate another year of life with us. I emailed Sara on August 8th and she responded back the next day. Her reply was warm, empathetic, and encouraging. She saw the merit in the message I wanted to share with the world, and she agreed to publish it. By September 1st, my guest blog was live on the 911der Women website. I awaited the feedback I was sure to receive from coworkers, supervisors, and admin at my center, but I never imagined just how far-reaching my words would be.
Over the next several weeks after my blog was posted, I received emails from fellow 9-1-1 dispatchers at agencies all over the country praising my message and hailing it as forward-thinking or eye-opening. I opened up messages at my LinkedIn account from Black and brown public safety communications professionals who thanked me for giving a voice to what they were feeling all along. I also received messages from officers, detectives, and leadership staff in other departments of my county who acknowledged that I had made some honest and valid points in my essay.
The support was overwhelming and I felt like I had done the right thing. I watched as it was shared, and reshared, and discussed about. I appreciated every coworker who approached me about it and expressed how much it resonated with them. I replied to every email or LinkedIn message that came into my inbox with a grateful heart, and I made a lot of connections from it in the process. A big part of me felt assured that my message was not in vain, but still a small part of me wondered if I had overstepped some invisible boundary, or if I had drawn the ire of some people in my profession by being sympathetic towards such a controversial movement. But after months of hearing other dispatchers’ perspectives ranging from exasperation to criticism to cynicism to vexation, I felt justified to spotlight a new opinion that doesn’t take sides blindly or naively, and doesn’t excuse moral cracks in an institution with the “bad apples” example.
It’s now over a year since “Bigger Than the Bias” was published and I still get great feedback from it. After my guest blog was shared by the Chief of Police in my county, it found its way into the inboxes of both active and retired department personnel. One of the most inspirational compliments I’ve gotten was from someone on the leadership staff in his police department who told me that my words inspired him so much that he stopped looking at his position as a burden, and instead realized it was a blessing. He could impart in the new officers coming up in his department the importance of personal accountability and encourage them to have those necessary conversations on bias, discrimination, and police brutality. He summed up his feedback by praising “my generation” for “representing the change we need in our society.” I’ve been blessed to have written op-eds in local and national publications on my experiences as a Black woman in public-safety. I’ve written about learning to stay above the din and the noise of people who’d rather not fix a system they don’t perceive as broken. I’ve wrestled intellectually with acquaintances and colleagues in public-safety who are not as open to changes in their organizational culture. I’ve taught workshops on being more empathetic and compassionate call-takers, and understanding of how race factors into the public’s perceptions of public-safety, especially law enforcement.
While the response to my article has been mostly positive, there were some in my social circle who felt challenged by my views or misinterpreted my words as subjective. I’ve seen some connections of mine fizzle out as they wondered “what side do you really stand on?” My answer has been: I’m on the side of truth and fairness for all, which is the same side you should be on too. I’ve been confronted via text message by others I know personally about what I wished to accomplish with my piece. My answer to that remains the same: I just wanted others to know that I get it. Having a foot in both worlds. Identifying with a racial minority group and also a group within the public-safety sector.
I get that some things aren’t always clear-cut. I also get that change isn’t always a comfortable, stress-free process. Sometimes it is very uncomfortable and disquieting. Thankfully, the right conversations are finally being had, and this monumental push for diversity and inclusion efforts in all aspects of this industry are making wonderful strides. I do not speak for every officer or dispatcher in every single state; I speak for myself and for the Department of Public Safety whose emblem I proudly wear on my chest. And I say that we are getting there, we are getting better, and although we still have our work cut out for us, it’s nothing we can’t accomplish...AS ONE FORCE TOGETHER.
Work Cited and Suggest Reading
 Elsevier Ltd. (2021, October 2). Fatal police violence by race and state in the USA, 1980–2019: a network meta-regression. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)01609-3/fulltext. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
About the Author:
With over six years of experience as an Emergency Communications Officer II with Cobb County E-911 (GA), Samantha's passion is training and emphasizing humanity and compassion in public safety. She is a regular contributor to the Journal of Emergency Dispatch, and has taught at various state and regional workshops. She's also a member of her agency's Community Outreach Team. As a Training Officer, her goal is to teach 9-1-1 professionals on combating bias in the workplace, putting your caller first, and the importance of empathy and kindness as it relates to 9-1-1 call-taking.