The complexity of being a Black cop in 2021

Before he died, Deputy Clyde Kerr told the world he was tired of being one of the hunters and the hunted.

Race in America

Deputy Clyde Kerr III almost made it to his 44th birthday. That might not feel like an accomplishment but considering the circumstances, it was extraordinary. His responsibility to serve and protect his community in Lafayette, Louisiana only scratched the surface of what weighed on him daily.

In the months before he took his life on February 1, 2021, Kerr posted particularly somber videos that expressed the personal toll of seeing police officers murdering Black Americans without consequences. As he explained, Kerr was tired of serving a system that didn’t care about people who looked like him.

Coincidentally, Kerr’s birthday fell the day after Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison on June 25, 2021. From Kerr’s posts, it was apparent that he wanted accountability from Chauvin’s criminal actions. I sometimes wonder if Chauvin’s unprecedented conviction could’ve saved Kerr’s life. I wonder if it would have provided the hope that we all so desperately needed — the minuscule crumb of a chance that the justice system was finally changing.

I’d met Kerr, a New Orleans native like myself, a few times. But I knew his father, Clyde Kerr Jr., quite well. He was my high school trumpet teacher in the late 1990s. And while some student-teacher relationships are casual, Mr. Kerr reflected the sacred musical mentor culture of New Orleans. He was a father figure. In fact all the Kerr men were modern-day chieftains in the community. An old photograph of Mr. Kerr performing with his father’s big band hung on a wall in his classroom at the New Orleans Creative Center for the Arts.

Kerr, Jr. transitioned at the age of 67, in 2010. At his service, I took photos as the pallbearers walked out of the church, a brass band wailing a dirge behind them. I can still see Kerr III burying his father. I took a photo as a grandson stood behind the hearse, silent and pensive at the casket of his grandfather: a final farewell. Only 11 years later, I experienced an unexpected farewell to Kerr III, a military veteran, law enforcement officer, and fitness enthusiast.

I found out about Kerr’s death after reading the headlines — “Police Officer Kills Himself After Posting Videos,” but didn’t put two and two together, at first. Days later, I realized it was Kerr III when I saw a news photo of him smiling in his uniform. A dark chill pervaded my body.

I immediately thought about the Kerr family — my former teacher and his son, and his two children. I thought about my own family, and how becoming the father of two sons and a daughter transformed my life’s purpose.

I then thought about my time in law enforcement: two weeks. I was 19. After I completed my training as an Orleans Parish Deputy Sheriff, I never returned. The job didn’t sit well with my soul, either. I didn’t see the videos that Kerr posted until after his death, but it was clear that, even though he’d fallen deeper into it, a career in law enforcement hadn’t sat well with his soul, either. Yet, I would not have suspected that the end was looming.

“You have no idea how hard it is to put a uniform on in this day and age, with everything that’s going on,” Kerr said in one of several videos he posted before his death. “None.” This, coming from a man who served in the Army, did tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and became a Lafayette Parish Deputy in 2015. He also worked as a school resource officer at St. Genevieve school system in Lafayette.

Jeremy Baquet, one of Kerr’s cousins, tells me that Kerr was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back. “My entire life has been in service of other people, and they really don’t give a damn about us,” Kerr said, in a video he posted a few months before he passed. His direct gaze solemn, he vividly described witnessing the inner workings of a “demonic system” void of justice. He named Botham Jean, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Trayford Pellerin in Louisiana — who were all killed by police, their deaths leading to a so-called “racial reckoning.”

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Yes, some people are reckoning now. But Black people’s relationship to law enforcement in America has been guided by terror for centuries. And that generational trauma related to the broken justice system is not always abated when the the officer enforcing it is also Black. In fact, it can feel even more insidious. Why would we, on any level, participate in the oppression of our own people?

“In white communities, when the police show up, they are welcomed in. In Black communities, when I show up, I’m looked at like a traitor,” Marvin Deon, a 25-year veteran of police departments in New York and Virginia, tells me.

It can all take a toll on a person, especially one who exists in the fraught intersectional identity of being both Black and an instrument of American law enforcement. Deon describes feeling an obligation to correct injustices and make things right on both sides, both for the Black community he serves and belongs to, and the police department that employs him. He admits that sometimes it's not possible to do both, “but you feel the urge.”

Deon reminds me that being a cop demands perpetual decision making, sometimes in life-or-death situations. “There are a lot of people who should not be doing this job because they don't have the temperament to do the job,” he says. “This job is a calling. Just like being a doctor is a calling. Just like being a lawyer is a calling. You're interacting with people. And when people call you for this job, they're calling you on their worst day. They need help.” Admittedly, being a Black cop requires an entirely different set of decision-making skills. Some cities’ Black residents (New Orleans’, for example) have a less contentious relationship with Black cops from their community. Still, feeling both identities — police officer and Black American — clash internally can feel like a constant struggle.

At this point, the Black community has had more than our share of collective grief. While sleeping, playing in the park, shopping, relocating for a job, selling cigarettes, and countless other innocuous and mundane pursuits, we have encountered police officers with the wrong temperament for the job — and a general disregard for human life. For Kerr, a principled man, each slaying had to have compounded the chasm of his cognitive dissonance.

It feels heavy, to say the least. Change seems impossible, even after Chauvin’s conviction. The scales of justice are rarely, if ever, calibrated toward Black folk. If truth and justice is hinged upon our beautiful melanin, we’re screwed. It’s an ugly fact. Without a crack in his voice, Kerr told us, through his posts, that he was tired of being one of the hunters and the hunted.

Ron Bechet, a New Orleans-based artist and educator, was raised by Black parents who were both in law enforcement. He recalls the adversities they encountered as pioneering Black police officers in New Orleans and the effects it had on their family.

Bechet’s father, Ron Sr., joined the New Orleans Police Department around 1963, and retired after 20 years. Ron Sr. was actually a musician at heart and law enforcement was a means to provide for his family. Bechet says that his father was in constant conflict. Though Ron Sr., was discriminated against by his white counterparts, he constantly over-policed the Black community, as means to prove his worth. “He drank and smoked, and stayed out,” Bechet tells me. “That was his way of dealing.”

Yvonne Bechet became the department’s first Black woman officer in 1968. She faced unwavering indignities and assignments that were menial and disrespectful. Bechet, Jr. recalls when his parents and other Black officers were not even allowed to ride in a patrol car with a white person.

“You have no idea how hard it is to put a uniform on in this day and age, with everything that’s going on,” Kerr said. “None.”

After the early obstacles, his mother excelled as an undercover agent and in community relations. She rose to Deputy Superintendent of Technical Services and retired as a lieutenant in 1990. Bechet says his parents often brought their work issues home with them and eventually divorced around 1973. To his knowledge, Bechet’s father never spoke to a therapist or sought support regarding the stresses of his work. Ron Sr. died at 59.

Conversely, his mother enjoyed being a police officer. “She just loved everyone. Anyone who came into contact with my mother left feeling full,” Bechet reflected last year, when she died at 86.

Black mental health experts are familiar with the dynamics of Black cops’ conflicting inner selves, as well as the mentalities of Black non-law enforcement residents. “It's complicated all the way around. It’s complicated, dealing with the white system, and it's also complicated relating to your own Black people,” says Rochelle Head-Dunham, executive and medical director for Metropolitan Human Services District in New Orleans. People often judge each other by actions that don’t necessarily represent those individuals, she says. And that’s exacerbated by pejorative thinking: “Police officers kill. You’re a police officer. So, you become a threat just like everybody else.”

As I see it, being a Black cop in America is to be both oppressed and the oppressor. They serve in a system that refuses to serve them and their community, while enforcing the edicts in place to subjugate said community.

The crux of policing in this nation was established around 1704 in South Carolina, with the model of slave patrols terrorizing Black enslaved people. From its inception, the American justice system has been innately inequitable toward Black people. So it’s unsurprising that Black officers would experience what W. E. B. Du Bois described as “double-consciousness.” They see themselves through their own eyes, but also through the white gaze. And their innate relationship to the Black community and the law enforcement agencies are often warring ideals.

Even while knowing and accepting all of this, Kerr’s death still confounded me. My perception of how a suicidal person looks and sounds was off. In one of the videos, his thoughts were cohesive. His voice was resolute, as he elucidated on the perpetual ills of being a Black man in America, and his grievances with the unjust police killing of Black people. Kerr also mentioned that he hoped to see the Super Bowl, where fellow alumni from his beloved St. Augustine High School would face off. He seemed stable.

Head-Dunham says that his behavior in this video is consistent with how a person with suicidal ideation may act. “If a person has decided that they are going to end their life, then they usually have a degree of resolve around that that you can't really crack very easily,” Head-Dunham says.

She adds that suicidal people have often been traumatized for years. And all it takes to push them over the edge is one more traumatic event. Once they make that decision, the resolve is usually harder to recognize because there's much less ambivalence about doing it.

But even with an intervention, a person may still decide to go through with it, especially if there is no relief from the situation. Culturally speaking, suicide is not something that is discussed often, and when it is solutions are sometimes quite limited. I was raised in a society where the prescription was too often ‘just pray on it, baby’ regardless of the diagnosis. My people in peril need more than prayer; they need professional help.

In law enforcement, people adhere to codes and customs as if they’re biblical covenants. Head-Dunham says police culture is really not an environment where mental illness or any kind of mental weakness is appropriately acknowledged. And the irony of that, she adds, is that it’s a field with one of the highest incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder, “because of all of the wounded and traumatizing experiences and just the stress that they walk around with on a daily basis.”

According to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that strives to break down stigmas associated with mental health issues of law enforcement officers, 2019 saw a record number of suicides. That year, nationwide, 228 current or former officers died by suicide, compared with 172 in 2018.

Kerr died in Lafayette but his body was returned to New Orleans, where his loved ones gathered to see him off inside a Catholic church. Mourners wept quietly in skipped pews for social distancing. Two deputies flanked Kerr’s casket, draped with an American flag.

During the service, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Kerr lineage once again. I thought about how many people Kerr III protected during his years of military service and law enforcement. And as I sat in the church pews, my heart and eyes shifted to the boy I watched, 11 years ago, studying the hearse carrying his grandfather’s casket. Now he was a young man. He stared at a casket which, this time, held his father.

Clyde Kerr, III survived New Orleans, once dubbed the “murder capital of the world.” He survived military deployments. And he almost made it through a pandemic. But he’d decided enough was enough. I know, intimately, of the torment that had a hand in taking him too soon. Change can’t come soon enough.