Last summer, Angela Averiett’s sister sent her a text message through the family group chat. The message contained a photo of Averiett’s niece on the front page of a local newspaper. She was holding up a protest sign. The whole family was proud, including Averiett. Then Averiett, a veteran police officer, read the sign.
“It said something like, ‘Police save lives,’ but ‘save lives’ was crossed out and it said, ‘Kill,’” Averiett said. “And my niece was holding the sign…I was so hurt by that.”
Averiett, one of only a handful of Black women police officials in the Bay Area, has worked in law enforcement for 21 years. Since 2019 she has served as deputy chief of community engagement and progressive policing for the BART Police Department. She said for her entire career she’s dedicated herself to making sure she and her fellow officers show respect and professionalism with the communities they serve.
But in the current climate of widespread calls for major police reform, many Black women in law enforcement face a three-part challenge. First, backlash from their family or friends for choosing to work in law enforcement. Second, racism both within their departments and in other parts of their lives. Third, sexism that includes a macho workplace culture.
After police killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and multiple other Black people last year, a fourth challenge emerged — self-doubt. Averiett said her own experience living as a Black woman gives her a certain insight that non-Black officers often lack when it comes to interacting with residents of color and other marginalized groups like the unhoused.
“We have family members, nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles, brothers that could have been George Floyd,” Averiett said, wiping a tear from her face as we talked over Zoom. “It made me question, all this work that I’ve done up to this point, has it been in vain?”
Frictions and suspicions exist between marginalized communities and law enforcement in many parts of the country, and the Bay Area is not immune from them. Walking through downtown Oakland, one sees “Defund the Police” or “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) scrawled across walls and sidewalks.
The fatal shooting of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in 2009 at the hands of a BART officer and the subsequent movie Fruitvale Station helped bring police abuse to national attention.
Many people are firmly set in one camp or the other — they either support Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. Black women who work in law enforcement are left in “no man’s land.”
The challenges are compounded because Black women make up such a small percentage of the profession — fewer than 3% according to the latest published data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016. And not much has changed in the last five years, according to Mangai Natarajan, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York.
In all, women made up just 12.5% of sworn officers working for a California law enforcement agency as of 2019, and that’s in line with the national average. The number of female officers in local police departments throughout the country increased by 36% between 1997 and 2016, but remained about the same between 2013 and 2016.
In the top ranks of law enforcement the sisterhood is especially thin, and women officers are acutely aware of gendered double standards. Last year, Bisa French became the first Black and Latina woman to serve as Richmond’s Police Chief. French has been with the department for 23 years, and in that time she’s held every rank, starting with officer. Once she rose to captain, she noticed differences in the way she and her three male colleagues approached hiring and promotion conversations.
“A lot of times we would look at a woman candidate and say, ‘Oh, she’s not ready yet, but she’s getting there.’ Whereas we could look at a male candidate and say, ‘Oh, he’s really strong. He’s a quick learner. And he’ll get it,’” she said. “It’s like, well, why wouldn’t she be a quick learner? She can get it too.”
French said these situations were common. Sometimes she would bring the concerns she had to her peers, but she quickly realized she had to soften the edge in her voice to get them to listen — in effect, she had to code switch. “My comments were well received once I was able to learn how to temper them and deliver in a certain way,” she said.
Averiett said she has seen a major increase in gender and racial diversity since she began her career with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in 2000. Today’s BART PD is a “melting pot,” she said.
More than 130 of the 207 officers, sergeants, lieutenants, and deputy chiefs in the department are non-white, including 19% African Americans. But at two of the highest ranks — lieutenant and deputy chief — only nine people of color hold positions, just three of whom are Black. Women make up just 10% of the department, and only four — including Averiett — serve as lieutenants or deputy chiefs. In total, there are nine Black women on the force, and Averiett is one of only two who serve in the two highest ranks other than chief. And she was the second Black woman to rise so high.
“There have been a couple of times when I’ve been the first of something,” Averiett said. “I’m tired of being the first. I shouldn’t continue to be the first. But that just proves that we got work to do.”
Natarajan’s recent research has focused on increasing recruitment and retention of women in policing. In a recent survey she conducted of 105 women in law enforcement, some of the most common challenges respondents listed were male colleagues’ attitudes, male supervisors’ attitudes and a lack of female role models.
“Police culture itself is a male-dominated culture,” Natarajan said. “It’s all about the boys club. So the 12% of women, they have to go along with the male dominated culture.”
Black women and other women of color have even fewer role models who look like them in the profession. But in her new role as Richmond Police Chief, French hopes to add a name to the list.
French noticed how her own lived experience affected her approach to policing when she and other officers were called to scenes involving Black residents or other residents of color in Richmond. There have been multiple times throughout her career when she was able to communicate with Black residents in a way that officers who weren’t from that community might not have been able to.
“We just have a comfort level because you know, it’s no different, it’s our families, it’s people we grew up with,” she said.
This idea — that police departments should reflect the demographics of the communities they serve — is central to Averiett’s mission, too. The day she decided to become a police officer, she noticed that no one at the Hayward PD looked like her. So she changed that.
Averiett said it wasn’t just about diversifying law enforcement. It was also about increasing trust between the police and community by recognizing everyone’s shared humanity.
Female police officials like French and Averiett are bringing a perspective that often wasn’t there before.
“Police officers, we’re taught you go to a scene, you take control, you ask questions, solve the problem, you leave,” Averiett said. “Now we’re realizing, well, wait a minute. Maybe we need to slow it down, maybe we need to take some time and listen to people.” She said as more women, and especially women of color, enter the profession, the need for these changes starts to become more evident.
“We have the ability to take someone’s life. We have the ability to take away someone’s freedom. Those aren’t things that you can take lightly,” she said. “We also have a responsibility, though, to be professional and to help people when they are in need and also to just be human.”
At the end of each day, around 4 p.m., Averiett returns to her home in Hayward, takes off her uniform and becomes another Black woman in America. Some days after work, she and a coworker go for a bike ride. Riding along the Iron Horse Trail or the Golden Gate Bridge, Averiett pauses to take in the fresh air before returning home. The next morning at a quarter to six, she starts all over again.
Averiett and French both went into law enforcement to make it better. They both rose through the ranks and have tried to use their influence to recruit and retain more women of color and improve relations between the police and Black communities. But to so many, being Black and a police officer still seems like a contradiction.
“Law enforcement officers are traditionally pretty conservative,” French said. “We’re law-and-order type people. But what we saw, like January 6th, and other times over the last few years, I’ll say, really made a lot of people think, what is it we’re actually supporting?”
She’s referring to the rhetoric Donald Trump used to endorse the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year, among other things.
“Normally we support candidates that are law-and-order, but as an African-American person, we can’t always just support somebody that’s law-and-order that is detrimental to our communities.”