WKU’s Mitchell, Gray reflect on the challenges of being black in a police uniform

Officer Tim Gray of the WKU Police Department walking alongside protestors. 

Gabrielle Bunton

Mitch Walker and Tim Gray have their feet planted in two worlds.

As Black men, they understand the protests that have dominated the country in the weeks following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police. As WKU’s two most visible police officers, they live daily with the expectations of law enforcement amid a nation in turmoil.

“What I do as a police officer is what I do for a profession. Every day I put the uniform on, at the end of the day, I take the uniform off,” said Gray, public information officer for WKU Police. “I’ve been black for 37 years. That’s not something you put on and take off. That’s with me every single day for the rest of my life. It always has been.

“The thing that changes is the perspective. It’s tough being in law enforcement, period, no matter the color of your skin.”

Walker, WKU’s chief of police, said the hardest thing is society pushing him to pick a side. While he sees this as a challenging time for his profession, he battles with staying true to himself and standing up for what’s right.

“It is challenging. I have to stay true to who I am as a person, who I am as a black man,” Walker said. “My faith in Jesus Christ helps me guide through these difficult times. I try to make a decision as to what is right and how I navigate through that as a black man.” 

Gray said the hardest part of being a black police officer is not being a black police officer but being a police officer in general. “For a lot of people, as soon as they see the uniform, they start associating negative things,” he said.

Black police officers have a connection with the Black community that others may not. Some had had their own run-ins with the police. Gray recalled when, as a teenager, he and his friends were walking home from the library late one evening and had a run in with the police. 

“It didn’t sound like anything strange to us because we had summer book reports and reading projects we had to do, so walking around with backpacks wasn’t strange to us,” Gray said. “From a law enforcement perspective: ‘suspicious black males, carrying backpacks, there in the area of the projects…that’s coming out as suspicious.” 

Gray grew up on the Southside of Nashville and said he had negative run-ins with the police early on. Although they were never violent, he said, as a young person it came back to this perception: “Am I being harassed because of the color of my skin?”

In the wake of Floyd’s death, police tactics have been questioned due to the amount of force used that resulted in deaths.

“In the case of George Floyd, it was absolutely unnecessary,” Walker said. “That police officer abused his authority and knew what he was doing was wrong — especially in this day and time with our police training. That’s something I don’t agree with and don’t support.” 

Black police officers not only face the challenges of the constant and ever changing opinions of society, but also dealing with a system that some say is rooted in keeping people who look like them in check.

“I think it’s going to take a lot for us to trust the police,” said Anne Onyekwuluje, a WKU professor of sociology and a post civil rights activist. “As I believe in my heart, the police are there to represent the communities, which they work in and where the people live. When that trust is not there, it’s not easy to believe that the police are on your side.”

Onyekwuluje said she was affected by racism at the young age of 7 on her first day going to an integrated school. Even though she was humiliated by being treated differently because of the color of her skin, she has spent her life motivated to make a difference.

“In America, we’ve had a hard time facing slavery and Jim Crow. We just haven’t moved forward enough. I think we are trapped in systemic racism,” she said. “Maybe it’s white supremacy is the reason that we are trapped and for some reason we can’t move away from that or what that means.” 

With both sides fighting strongly to get their points across, Black police officers have the viewpoints of both sides. 

“The challenge is that I can see both sides,” Walker said. He said he tries to get both sides and sort out the facts, knowing that people are passionate on both sides. 

Getting people to listen can be difficult with everyone focusing on what they want to see or what is trending. In the case for the police, the actions of certain officers have overshadowed any good things they have done. In the case of protestors, the message of wanting accountability, equality and acknowledgement of racism has been clouded by the acts of violence, destruction of property and so much more.

“I’m tired of arguing, I just want to listen, but I can’t hear you over the flames though,” Gray said. “I can’t hear you over the windows crashing. I can’t hear you over the rocks being thrown, it’s too loud. Now I’m at a press conference talking about those windows being broken, graffiti and fires and that’s not the point.” 

“Floyd’s death was not so that fires could burn — that’s not what we need to be talking about,” Gray said. “We need to be talking about race. We need to be talking about inequality. We need to be talking about equal rights for all. We need to talk about equity.”