Robbie Williams serves as lieutenant, community affairs bureau commander, and Responding to Mental Health Crises instructor for the Hawthorne Police Department in Southern California. Over the last 25 years, he has focused on improving relationships between the community and officers, and his program Coffee with a Cop has since been introduced in 27 different countries and was included in former President Barack Obama's task force on 21st Century Policing. Here, Williams, 51, talks to PEOPLE about the difficulties he faces in balancing his pride for the profession while also supporting the Black community in the fight against racial injustice.
I never had a trusting relationship with police officers in my Texas hometown, where I lived in the housing project. There was a lot of violence, crime and domestic issues, and all I saw from the police department at that time was that they would come to our neighborhood and take people away.
Then I got older and had traffic stops where the reason for them stopping me wasn't very clear, but they desired to search my car and embarrass me. I felt powerless. In 1992, I got out of the Marine Corps right at the beginning of the riots in South Los Angeles. I was shocked that California had the same problems of racial inequality and police brutality that we had in Texas.
I remember thinking, "Why is there such a divide? Do the police really understand that this citizen group are our bosses, and they have a say in how they want to receive police and services?" So I started applying for a police officer job against the wishes of my father, against the wishes of all my friends and family, because their relationship with the police was equally as distrustful.
Those first two years, I was on pins and needles. There was one time I was sitting in my police car and another police car drove up behind me, and I got nervous. I remember telling my two training officers this, and one said, "Ya got something to hide?" I'm like, "You don't understand. My whole life, if I saw a police car behind me, that was a possibility of me getting pulled over." It was that knee-jerk reaction.
Even though I've worked hard on my degrees in criminal justice and counseling, and building myself up from absolutely nothing, there's still a possibility that on any given day, a person with racist ideology who represents a government with some level of authority or power could try to reduce me or my family to the point of death. That's how vulnerable I still remain after 25 years of work, and that's troubling.
George Floyd was from Houston, Texas, and I was born in Houston. That could have been me. It could have been my two sons. I can't even imagine the heartbreak from that. That fear, that anxiety. We try to push it away, but there are things that cause those emotions that I have no control over.
What the former officer who ended Floyd's life did was completely unlawful. And those officers that stood by, they're wrong, and they need to be prosecuted. Officers that misbehave like that, they are doing a disservice to people like me, and I take it very personally.
This past week, I walked around my city in a uniform, kind of doubting if I'm going to get a smile and a wave; kind of doubting whether guys that I've always known on my old block are going to trust me. I was worried about what the kids I've worked with are thinking about me. Do they think that I'm that kind of person, too?
I don't want to doubt that. I want to go out there and smile and wave the way I've always smiled and waved.
I know that as a Black police officer, it feels like you're too Black to be blue and too blue to be Black. And I find that to be very interesting because the same lack of benefit of the doubt that I get from white people as a Black man out of or in uniform, somehow it's the same thing I get from other Black people as a police officer.
I want to be able to move the needle away from the idea that all cops are bad. I've worked at the protests, and when people bash the cops, I want to explain to you why we're not that. But it's not the right forum — logic and emotion don't mix well.
My job in that moment — if safety is not the concern — is to make people feel at ease. I want them to feel comfortable knowing that this job, this uniform, is here to represent you, to advocate for you.
I'm going to get out of my car and I'm going to talk to people. And I'm going to be available to answer any questions they have, because there are police officers out there every single day who are looking for an opportunity to change the narrative. Seven-year-old me didn't have enough information about all that, because no one was willing to stop and have an interaction with me.
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At times, this hurts a lot, and I've been dealing with it by doing a lot of walking, meditation and working out, until the moment that I feel exhausted. I allow myself to rest for a minute and then I spring up because I know that this offers the opportunity for dialogue.
I'm not willing to allow the actions of four officers and their illegal activity while wearing the same uniform that allegedly represents the same thing I do deter me or slow me down from doing what I want to do.
There's no time for spectators. This is the time where I need active people. It's time for people who are coming to the table with some viable solutions. Let's start moving towards strategies to make a better tomorrow for me and you. Don't allow this moment to escape.
- As told to Joelle Goldstein
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.