I was looking for an average, work-a-day black cop. Nobody extraordinary, just an officer looking to talk about what it's like standing on that side of the law.
What about divided loyalties, being an overseer among massahs, a uniformed black man divvying out white authority to uncoiled black rage?
When a black cop buttons his uniform in a divided city, does he compromise some fundamental part of himself or seal in his identity? What separates him from the black men he apprehends or protects? Where's his membership?
"I know where I belong," says District 1 Sgt. Andre Smith, a 36-year-old black officer. "I belong on the side of truth."
Cincinnati didn't just arrive at bubbled-over, untethered frustration in the wake of Timothy Thomas' shooting death. We've been a covered pot left boiling too long.
"Based on the circumstances, I'd be hard-pressed to justify why he was shot," Smith says of Thomas. "Can I forgive an officer for making a mistake? Yes, I can. But we have a responsibility to be forthright and to acknowledge when we're wrong."
Riot fallout for Smith was bittersweet. It's been a time of self-realization and undeniable blackness.
"I can honestly say I never really felt torn until the time of the riots," he says. "On the front lines, all I saw was brothers and police squaring off. I pulled up to a group of brothers holding signs saying, 'Honk for justice,' and I honked. I also told them to be careful. For the first time with the young brothers, I saw a man looking at me who just looked right through me."
Smith says blacks question his loyalties and his sensibilities as a black man.
"With me, I have two strikes against me," he says. "They'll see me and see me as a police officer. They'll see my black face. They may see me as a sell-out, but inside they're hoping I'm a black man, so they'll give me a shot.
"(The riots) gave me an opportunity to talk with them, to dialogue with them. It's unfortunate, because there are a lot of good white cops out there who don't get that shot because of the actions of others."
Smith is confident and outspoken, a barrel-chested, fire hydrant of a man, a 14-year veteran of the Cincinnati Police Division and a native of Chicago's south side. He's shot his gun once in 14 years.
A 1997 shooting stemmed from a traffic stop of Calvin Way, who was driving erratically. Way crashed his car and fled on foot carrying a 9-mm pistol. Shots were exchanged. Smith shot Way in the leg. Pretty routine work for a cop in a city this size.
"I've been in the highest of intense circumstances that you can be in as a cop," Smith says, "but I still think you should be expected to perform as a professional in those situations or you're in the wrong field."
"In those situations" refers to incidents more life-altering than he lets on, some of which occurred within the department. Smith has been a flashpoint since he left Chicago State University his senior year to sign on as a Cincinnati cop.
Also in 1997, Smith circulated a petition critical of police investigations following the shooting of Lorenzo Collins, the brick-wielding, escaped mental patient gunned down in Clifton. His superiors slapped Smith with a "failure of good behavior" charge. Smith refused to sign the reprimand.
He's been suspended, fired, rehired, ostracized, demonized, inspected, investigated, grilled and suspected. The string of incidents could be considered professional recklessness if it hadn't all been capped and defined by one word — nigger — that stomped his identity like a roach.
Remember Smith now? He's that black cop who filed a complaint last year against Chief Thomas Streicher claiming Streicher called him a nigger during a training session.
He's also that black cop who resigned in April from the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter to protest racism within the force and his dissatisfaction with police leadership.
Smith says across-the-board ramshackle city leadership is deeper than any racism within the force, more detrimental than the repercussions of his allegations against Streicher and more damaging than rubble left by the April riots.
"I think the structure needs to change, and that would be a testament to whether or not the leadership needs to change," he says. "We've got a City Council that doesn't have to be accountable to anyone. The system we have right now does not allow the community to control the police division, and they should. We work for them."
Smith says city leaders were rocked to their collective core by national attention from the rioting, that blacks rioted at all and the degree to which the rioting has turned into protracted protests.
Ironically, he says, the rioting legitimized blacks' long-standing claims of racism and disenfranchisement.
The irony for Smith? Being a black cop during these times. Beneath the politics of race, he's a black man doing a job he loves.
"I'm a black police officer, but I'm a black man first and I know black men get stopped and arrested," Smith says. "My blackness causes me problems and I accept that, but I know (black men) do wrong sometimes."
NEXT WEEK: More with Sgt. Andre Smith
contact Kathy y. wilson: [email protected]