SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — When you pass a police officer on the street, what do you see? For San Francisco Police Officer Shante Williams, it’s a complicated answer.
“The uniform has a history,” said Officer Williams. “There have been a lot of awful things that this uniform has represented.”
Williams joined the force to write a new chapter in that history, in hopes of making present-day policing different from the past.
He came from humble beginnings, growing up in the projects. He learned what community distrust looked like at an early age from his environment, but he saw beyond perception. He saw the chance to help.
“It hurts when you're in the community that you love, that you want to service, and just because you're doing your job, ‘Oh, you're a sell out’ or ‘You're an Uncle Tom. You're just doing this for your boys.’ No, I'm doing this for the community. I'm doing this for me. I'm doing this for you,” said Williams of the stereotypes he fights to break in the community each day.
Even after years of facing negativity and distrust, Williams was not prepared for what was to come in 2020. The death of George Floyd rocked his profession as it rocked the world.
“George Floyd was just like, enough," he said. "And if people think that looking at that video and being a Black man and being a police officer, that I didn't feel the way that they felt, I saw the uniform and I was disgusted. I saw another human being kill another human being and I was disgusted.”
George Floyd’s death left this officer wondering where was his place in this moment, and in this nation?
“I had conversations, I got phone calls, 'Are you Black or are you blue?” recounted Williams. “Why can't I be proud of both? Why can’t I be proud to be a Black man, and why can't I be proud to be a Black police officer? And why can’t I be ashamed of also being a police officer because one of my own committed a heinous act?
For officers of color across the country, the movement for social justice forced an identity crisis in the midst of the community crisis.
“It made my job difficult, but I signed up for difficult,” said Williams.
As the trial for Floyd’s killing is getting started, Williams said he has a message for the community from an officer wanting to build bridges, not separations between his department and the community.
“On the eve of the trial, someone lost their life,” said Williams. “I'm very sorry for that family. I'm very sorry for that community. I'm very sorry for the world. I'm very sorry for whoever saw that video. Your pain is my pain, I feel it too. I'm a Black man. I'm a Black police officer, and regardless if he was Black, blue, purple or yellow, that man was killed. That officer should be held accountable, and that should be the end of it.”
To make an impact in such a critical time, Officer Williams took on a new challenge: leadership in the San Francisco Police Officers Association. He’s breaking barriers alongside the new Vice President, Lieutenant Tracy McCray.
The two worked together patrolling the housing projects in San Francisco for years. It was a time they both hold dear, helping families similar to their own.
Lt. McCray has been on a mission since she took on her leadership position to break down old policy, procedure and bring it into the present day.
She’s used to making history. She’s the, “first female, first Black female, first lesbian female to hold this title in this organization,” she said. Next on her list is introducing better training and for her police department to better interact with the community.
Together, Lt. McCray and Officer Williams believe they are paving the way for a new kind of officer.
“We have policies that are like 25 years old, and we can’t have that,” said McCray. “You need to be updating and making sure you’re on the forefront of change and directing and driving that change.”
The department has already incorporated “8 Can’t Wait” a list of eight policing reforms called for by the community.
Lt. McCray said she wants the community to know this department is trying to show progress, not just talk about it.
“I would hope people could come out and say, police organizations, police departments, that we did listen. We did buy into change. We weren’t the obstructionists the critics think we are,” she said.
“If you don't change, you're going to get run over,” said Williams. “And when I say run over, you're going to be a victim to your own stupidity. You have to be willing to change.”
The San Francisco Police Department saw many cops unwilling to accept the change. Record numbers of officers resigned in just the first half of last year. The officers still standing are glad those who resisted are gone.
“What this year has done as far as the growth of the department is….we're all looking for that one person to get them out of our profession because we hold this near and dear to our heart,” said Williams.
Williams said he and Lt. McCray are encouraging officers to speak up and call out the "bad apples," so officers who are doing the right thing are not grouped with those who are not.
This culture shift isn’t the only change. The police department is moving funding from policing to community initiatives, and these cops welcome it.
“I think police officers need to stop being so sensitive thinking that we're going to lose our jobs,” said Williams. “There's a lot of work to be done in every single community, and we don't have to do it all. That can be shared. There are a lot of calls for service that we go to that can be better served by someone with a higher level of training.”
Lt. McCray agrees that more social workers and specially-trained medical professionals could handle some mental health calls. However, she said police officers need more training in that area, too.
“We can re-imagine a whole bunch of stuff, but the reality is we are so far away from that it’s going to take years,” said Lt. McCray of separating policing from mental health crisis response.
She said she hopes cities and departments will invest in this idea for the long-term.
These officers’ work supporting progress is more important than ever as the trial for George Floyd’s killing begins.
“We're all are held hostage by this one act,” said Lt. McCray. “We're all condemned now, you know, because sometimes you put on the uniform, they see the uniform they don't see the person wearing it.”
But these two aren’t giving up because of that. They’re just getting started.
“How do we build trust? You got to get out,” said Officer Williams. “You've got to meet people.
They have hope that in time, the small changes they make today will soon be seen as the first steps in a new era of policing.