How a Black, Female LAPD Cop Would Change Policing, Part I

A Conversation with Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey (Ret.)


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Monica Westfall: In one interview, you said that you “try to prepare folks going into the force to know what really goes down.” What do you believe to be the biggest difference in what new recruits encounter in training versus what really goes down?

Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey (Ret.): Well, it’s probably not that different from any other occupation, I would imagine, in that you’re taught in a very sterile environment. You’re taught the proper way, the by-the-book way. Then when you get out of that sterile environment into the real world - the old salts, the old guys who have been around would tell us young whipper-snappers, “Forget everything you learned in the academy, this is how we really do it. Some of it was still by the book, but some of it not so much.

What do potential recruits seem to find most surprising about the reality of the job, and do you find that the reality of policing tends to cause those considering police work to change their minds about becoming officers?

So, I think what may hamper folks from becoming a police officer is largely based on their lived experiences. I think a lot of it, particularly in my community - the black community - is a lot of bad-mouthing of the occupation. So, I think young people tend to get discouraged from joining by friends and family. When I was a young recruit candidate, a young man I was dating at the time told me if I joined the LAPD, he would dump me – and he did. I participated on a panel with a research professor who surveyed black and brown males at various ages between elementary school through college. How they thought and felt about the police was very similar but for different reasons. The elementary school aged males held opinions regarding the police based on negative interactions expressed by a relative. If children hear negativity about police at home, they begin to form the opinion that police work is not anything they’re even remotely interested in doing. That was true for me growing up. But ultimately, I needed a better paying job with good benefits. High school and college aged males expressed negative opinions of police based on their own experience of racial profiling. Then once I entered the academy I was not being told truthfully what to expect from my peers. I was na├»ve and unsuspecting. My problems were mostly internal – never with the community.

In the 1980s, I worked with white male partners who didn’t think women had a place on the job, especially black women. Nobody ever told me to get ready for that in the academy! You know, they showed me how to put on handcuffs and how to fire a gun, how to handle radio calls but not institutional, systemic racism and sexism. No one trained me on exactly how to resolve conflict when you have it with the person who’s sitting 12 inches away from you in the car! And really, what you learn post-academy is to just suck it up! Just get tough! Get over it! I talk about it in my book, Black and Blue, I had to learn to turtle-up. There was no safe place to report my partner who treated me poorly, or when my supervisors ignored maltreatment, misogyny, and sexual harassment - there was nowhere to go without being ostracized for airing dirty laundry.

“Just toughen up” is not a great solution. I mean you have to do it, but do you think that made you toughen up in a way that affected your ability to still have compassion towards the community?

I think it affects different people in different ways. I was never conflicted. I treated people right because it was the right thing to do. I witnessed the police being abusive in my community. I vowed to never become that type of officer. I was the mother of sons. So, I didn’t take it personally if a citizen was not happy with the service I was obligated to provide. I could take you to jail and allow you to have your dignity on the way. Most officers I worked with acted appropriately but there were a few who in my opinion, didn’t have the temperament, or were ill-suited for the job. I think right now police departments are not doing enough to identify errant officers during hiring, training, post-training, and in service training. Not everyone who wants to be police should be.

How do you think training could better address the gap between the classroom/textbook training and what is actually learned when you get out on the streets? Should time spent with a field training officer be after classroom training, or before, so they can see what it’s really like on the streets prior to training?

I spent six months in the police academy and then twelve months in the field with rotating training officers; a total of 18 months to demonstrate competency. I think that’s a good model. If there was a way to standardize training so that it were uniform across all 18,000 police departments and provide recurring psychological evaluations that would be a good starting point. Training is important, but you know, I say all of the time that if sense were common, everybody would have it. That’s something you can’t teach. You can’t teach empathy, you can’t teach someone to look at another person, another human being, and think of them as your mother, sister, or child. Most people have to learn that on their own. So recruits are taught law, tactics, and firearms training. But, if they don't have any common sense, then what?

There has been some discussion regarding police training academy instructors: those positions being filled by officers as they move up the ladder, so that the majority of training instructors lack any actual background in the field of education. They may just be good at a certain skill, such as self-defense. Do you think this has some bearing on their ability to train officers? What do you think about that?

Education is important but practical experience is critical. How does one train a patrol officer if you know nothing about the streets? I believe back in the ‘80s, under the command of Police Chief Daryl Gates, the LAPD was the standard by which other departments were measured. As a field training officer and patrol supervisor I had been well trained, and as such believed I had an affirmative responsibility to train, monitor, supervise, and evaluate my officers to help develop them. And if it's just not working, then it's just not working! We carry guns. We have the ability to take a life, and there's nothing more sacred than life. When an officer fails to follow training and violates policy resulting in an unnecessary use of excessive force, they should be held accountable to deter bad behavior. Victims’ families want accountability. A police department is ineffective if the community can not trust its officers. A lack of honesty, transparency, and accountability by police chiefs leads to community distrust.

Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey (Ret.) spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and was their first ever African-American female Officer-in-Charge, Newton Area Vice. As a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, she uses her expertise in police training, community relations, sexual assault investigations, procedural justice, racial bias, and PTSD/mental health issues in law enforcement to improve the justice system and public safety.
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Monica Westfall is the Program Associate at the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. 


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