As a rookie officer in Nashua, N.H., Sergeant Lakeisha Phelps owned a little blue sports car. “One of the troopers would stop me like every other night,” she says, laughing. Phelps worked midnight shifts, and arrived in Nashua around 11 at night.
“He would be in the turn around, and I would see him pulling out, and I would just start pulling over.”
Eighteen years later, in her SUV with a car seat in the back, Phelps says, she still gets pulled over on her way home from work, about once a month.
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Phelps is one of two black police officers on a force with 176 police officers, and in one of New Hampshire’s most diverse and most quickly diversifying cities. These days, Phelps says she feels like she’s living in two increasingly incompatible worlds.
Phelps says because her white colleagues don’t experience racism, many don’t believe it happens. To be fair, she says, she wouldn’t believe racism happens either, “if it never happened to me.”
“You get it from both ends,” she says. “I get it from law enforcement friends ‘I don’t get this Black Lives Matter thing, why does race matter?’ You’re sitting there saying ‘what if I am a part of that movement?’”
For Phelps there’s little respite at the end of the work day. “I’ll get from actual family members ‘cops f**king suck, not you Auntie!'” Usually, Phelps gets up and leaves the table.
In her head, she’s saying, “if you can take me out of that equation, you have to do that to every other cop, aside from that one that you have some issue with. So deal with this on a personal level. Whether it’s a black and white level, let it be that, but don’t judge the whole community of police officers based on the actions of this one person.”
I first met Phelps in July, just a few weeks after the Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, where a gunman ambushed police officers, killing five. Phelps was at a community meeting to discuss race and policing. About 30 people sat in a circle and a young black man asked the officers:
“I just want to know how do you guys feel and take it when you hear about the young black males getting shot, obviously by the police, what happens in the police office, what do you guys talk about?"
Phelps stayed quiet, at first. Later she told me, “the whole time I was there I was like ‘Lord I gotta keep my mouth closed because something wrong is gonna come out.”
When she did stand up, the room went silent. She spoke for seven minutes. She began describing what it felt like to learn about the deaths of black men Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling.
“I woke up, I never felt such hopelessness, despair, I felt miserable. I looked at my two-year-old son. I said how can I explain to him that people that dress like me, 'cuz he knows that I’m a cop he comes to the station all the time, how can I explain to him that people who dress like me are killing people that look like you. Not that they’re not killing white people or Asians but this is personal, now I’m speaking as a person not as a cop, that was my personal assessment, how do I explain that to him.”
Then, Sergeant Phelps remembered her step-daughter’s reaction that same week, after learning a gunman ambushed officers in Dallas.
“My 14-year-old white daughter came downstairs and said ‘you going to work today?’ I said ‘yup.’ [She said] ‘How can you go to work when you know that there are people that look like you, killing people that are dressed like you?’ This was a choice that I made to put this uniform on, and protect people who look like you, you, you, no matter what. It’s not a choice of, ‘yup, I’m going to treat her different because she’s black, I’m going to treat her different because she’s white.’ I made that decision, and I made that decision for Nashua… I don’t live in Nashua so I’ll tell you that, but I wanted to work here.”
Phelps doesn’t know how this country can bridge the chasm she straddles every single day. But – for those of us listening in that room that night – hearing her story felt like a start.