(BRIDGEPORT, Conn.) — Officer Mark Blackwell knows the streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, well. Not only did he grow up in the area in a family of cops, he’s a member of the local police force.
But for Blackwell, an African-American police officer, this week feels different.
In the wake of the Dallas ambush, in which a sniper targeted officers during a peaceful protest for the controversial shooting of two black men by police, Blackwell said, “It feels like there’s a bull’s eye on our backs right now.”
“We have to be more cautious, more alert than what we’re doing,” he continued. “We’re always trying to cover each other, but with the incident that happened in Dallas, you know, we all want to be able to go home to our loved ones.”
Blackwell’s newest loved one is his 6-week-old daughter.
The 45-year-old first donned the blue uniform and badge for the Bridgeport Police nine years ago — a badge that is now shrouded in mourning for “blue lives” lost in Dallas, as protests for “black lives” shine a spotlight on a painful racial divide.
The deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, at the hands of police last week launched a rallying cry for nationwide protests, some over the weekend starting out peacefully but ending in multiple arrests.
There were at least 42 arrests in New York City, 19 in Chicago and 102 in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the past few days. Deray McKesson, one of the most prominent national leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, was among the 125 arrested in Baton Rouge. He Periscoped his arrest live as he was led away in handcuffs.
On the other side of the line, 21 police officers were injured by rocks and bottles thrown by protesters in St. Paul alone. One officer even had his teeth knocked out.
For Officer Blackwell, he said his shift rarely involves a violent confrontation. In fact, he said he has never fired his gun in the line of duty.
When a situation starts to get tense, Blackwell said they rely on their critical training to defuse a conflict.
“That’s our primary goal, to de-escalate the situation without the need of an arrest,” he said.
Blackwell and his partner, Officer Joey Agosto, a Hispanic police officer who has been with the Bridgeport Police for 16 years, believe in community policing and try to ease tensions between people of color and the police. They spend much of their time out on patrol, talking with local Bridgeport residents.
It’s not just friendly chit-chat. To them, it’s quality police work.
“In some cases in dealing with the public, I could sometimes de-escalate a situation,” Blackwell said. “Not sure if that’s because I’m black…. We all pretty much function the same, we’re trained the same.”
They even play basketball with some neighborhood kids — teenagers who say they have already had those tough conversations with their parents. One teen said his parents told him not to run if stopped by the police because “you end up getting tased.”
When Blackwell sees these kids out in the neighborhood, he said he always tries to interact with them.
“Even if they do something bad, I try to turn it into something good,” he said. “We’ve had to arrest a few carrying weapons, firearms. It hurts to know that a young person whose mind is still developing is walking around the city with a gun not realizing that once you pull that trigger it can either end a life, end your life, or you could lose your freedom.”
Bridgeport, like many other urban areas, has faced its own painful questions about police brutality. A video from May 2011 that captured two Bridgeport police officers tazing and kicking a man launched an FBI investigation. The two officers each pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of depriving a person of their civil rights and were sentenced to three months in federal prison.
The graphic videos that documented the recent deaths of Sterling and Castile renewed a groundswell of public sympathy for #BlackLivesMatter and the movement.
After Dallas, Rev. Anthony Bennett of Mount Aery Baptist Church, a historic black church in Bridgeport, and community organizers were hearing calls to postpone their march on the local police headquarters.
But hundreds gathered in Bridgeport over the weekend to march, refusing to let one tragedy eclipse another. It was an army of raised hands holding cell phones, many live-streaming the event.
“I personally think everyone is forgetting the message,” said one girl participating in the march. “It’s not that we’re disregarding other lives, we just need to focus more on the black lives that matter because we’re the ones being affected the most.”
The backlash against police is something Bridgeport Officer Agosto, Officer Blackwell and their brothers in blue contend with on a regular basis.
“For me, with everyone having a cell phone today, it makes our job more difficult,” Agosto said. “Not because where I’m concerned, nothing to hide, nothing to do, but it interferes with our job when we’re trying to deal with a suspect, contain somebody.”
“We’re judged on a split-second decision,” Blackwell added. “It could be a deadly situation for us, where the public, the media, they can analyze the same video for hours, pick it apart, look at all the flaws, not showing the whole thing of what happened. Put in those situations, all humans make mistakes sometimes.”
Agosto and Blackwell said they have gotten harassed and cursed out while trying to control life-and-death situations, with bystanders shoving cell phone cameras in their faces.
“When we’re in a situation and we’re trying to contain it, people are pretty much in your face with a camera … they don’t want to move,” Blackwell said. “It’s tough, it’s tough … [but] nobody wakes up to say, ‘I’m going to come to work today and I want to kill somebody.’ Nobody wants to be put in that situation.”
At the Bridgeport protest, there seemed to be a shared frustration between protesters and police over the rampant violence and needless loss of life.
Agosto and Blackwell pointed out a memorial in town, commemorating one of the most horrific nights in their memory, when three gunman opened fire last June, killing one person and wounding eight others.
“Black on black crimes is out of control and we should be addressing that,” Blackwell said. “These other issues you can resolve with dialogue, but black on black crime … everyone steers away from that and we need to address that.”
The killing left its mark on the Bridgeport community and its officers, who said they took these jobs to prevent violence like that from ever happening again.
“I love what I do,” Agosto said. “Every day I go out, yeah I’m scared, but it’s what we do. You have to be smart when you do this job, but it’s what we do to protect other people.”
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