“I feel like I am a child caught between two fighting parents, so to speak, that cultural identity and that law enforcement identity.”
SEATTLE — Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted across the country this spring after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis at the hands of police. The ongoing protests have put law enforcement officers under increased scrutiny over police brutality and calls to defund their departments.
But many officers in recent months have dealt with increased hostility from crowds, even violence, for simply wearing a badge.
KING 5 reached out to 10 different law enforcement departments in western Washington to talk with police officers, but most declined or never answered. But a few times over the past several months, some officers have shared what it’s like on the other side of the protest line.
“I love my job,” said Washington State Patrol Sergeant Johnna Batiste during an interview in June. When asked how she felt after seeing the video of Floyd’s death, she said, “It was horror. It actually made me physically ill.”
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While protesters called for defunding the Seattle Police Department by 50% this summer, representatives from the Seattle Police Officers Guild spoke out in support of officers.
“It takes a specific individual, a human being to do the job of a police officer. We’re willing to give our lives for the sake of that oath of service to complete strangers,” said Mike Solan, the guild president, in August.
“There’s a quarter million deaths on the operating table each year in this nation. Does that mean every doctor is bad? No, not by a long shot,” continued Solan. “On average police officers across this nation unfortunately have to shoot about 1,000 people. You compare 1,000 people compared to a quarter million operating room deaths?”
Meanwhile, some of SPD’s newest recruits reacted to the community’s outrage.
“The whole reason why I got into this job is because I wanted to make a change and be that bridge, that open line of communication for my community who has been pretty underserved,” said Mia Nguyen, a newer officer at SPD.
“The cries of frustration that we’re seeing across the nation, yes, it’s real, but on the same token, people gotta know that we’re also reaching out, trying to do everything that we can in this department to rectify some of the issues that we’ve been facing,” said SPD Sgt. John O’Neil.
“We’re public safety peace officers. We deal with crime. We deal with saving people. We deal with helping people out,” explained Solan. “And yet we’re vilified and we’re pushed aside as if we’re outcasts when all we want to do is serve this community.”
Seattle Police Officer Elyssa Khalifé, who goes by Officer Ellie, was one of 59 members of the police department who said they were injured in July during a clash with protesters outside the East Precinct.
“They threw a homemade explosive of some sort at the wall of the precinct and it made an 8-inch hole and we could see through it,” explained Khalifé in an interview with KING 5 after the incident. “It just felt like they were there to hurt us.”
“I’m caught between two warring sides: my identity and my profession,” explained Batiste of WSP, who is a Black woman.
A.J. Burke is the only Black officer in the Lynnwood Police Department. He was the victim of a racist rant by a community member earlier this summer.
“I have been called an Uncle Tom, a traitor. I’ve been called that numerous times by people who look just like me and that’s painful,” said Burke.
Batiste said she has felt similar resentment.
“I have worked protests in Tacoma. I have been yelled at to quit my job,” said Batiste. “I feel like I am a child caught between two fighting parents, so to speak, that cultural identity and that law enforcement identity.”
“I can take this uniform off, but I can never take my skin off. So I’m in the fight. I’m in the fight for everyone,” Burke said.
“That law enforcement blood, it is something that runs through my veins,” said Batiste. “Right or wrong, it does define me, so to speak, just as much as my color does. This is me. This is my truth. I am here to fight the good fight.”
This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.