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Op-Ed: I Am a White Officer Who Can No Longer Sit Idly By

The following op-ed is written by Doug Ullrich, a specialist with the Covington Police Department

I am a white police officer in a large department in an urban area. I can no longer sit idly by without offering my thoughts and feelings on the events across the country:

I grew up with every privilege and advantage one could hope for, a loving two-parent family, economic stability, high-quality private school education, success in college and in graduate schools, residential stability, and a tremendous support structure.

When I was a sophomore in high school, in 2001, I watched as the city I live in underwent protests and riots. I simply couldn’t understand them. I then saw an article in a national news magazine that listed “Ten Centers for Hate in the USA.” 

My high school was on that list. I didn’t understand. 

My early interactions with diverse populations was colored by my experience as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. I met some exceptional diverse people from all walks of life and took part in hard discussions about race. I tried, but didn’t really understand. 

I went off to college and decided quickly that my calling was to become a police officer, to be the change that I wanted to see, to be the example of quality policing that “didn’t see color.” 

I still didn’t understand what that meant. 

Eventually I landed in Covington, Kentucky at one of the largest police departments in the Commonwealth. 

It truly was the luck of the draw I ended up there because they were the first to offer me the job. I had no experience of Covington, I knew nothing about where I was going to be spending my future. I quickly found an apartment in downtown Covington, I wanted to live in the place I worked, I wanted to buy in and understand what this community was and what it needed. 

I completed all the standard training, entered the field training, and eventually came to be patrolling this city on my own. 

I quickly experienced things I just couldn’t wrap my brain around. 

I frequently quip that I’m not good at interacting with normal people anymore because I spend most of my time with drug dealers and prostitutes. I clearly didn’t understand.  I saw poverty like I have never known. I saw people for whom education had failed so miserably that they had no chance of “getting out.” I saw domestic violence between partners, parents and siblings and families. I interacted with people whose entire lives were ruined by drugs. I saw people so desperate that they burglarized churches. 

I have clear memory, like it was only minutes ago, of the first time I held a lifeless infant in my arms. 

I remember the first murder victim I stood over. 

The first suicide victim I located. 

The first time someone tried to take my life. 

The first time I pointed my gun at someone and believed that I was going to have to shoot them. 

I didn’t understand how or why people could be in these situations.

I also saw other things; I saw everyday citizens caring for each other. 

I saw people battling their inner demons and overcoming them. 

I saw men and women, dressed in my uniform, do incredible things. Literally talk people off the edge of bridges. 

I saw officers that routinely ate at the local soup kitchen for lunch, so that they could sit amongst our homeless, speak to them and try to know them and have them know him. 

I saw a night shift officer that began a program in which police officers were invited into the local grade schools and spent quality time with students to help us humanize each other. 

I saw officers run towards gunfire. 

I saw officers run into burning buildings. 

I saw officers cry alongside family members who had just lost loved ones. 

I saw officers, on a consistent basis, coming in on their off time, to give back to their community because they love their city.   

I have never seen overtly racist actions by my brothers or sisters in my department. In fact, I believe that my department is on the leading edge of “doing it right.” 

I have seen things in the media, across the country, that make me know that this is not the case everywhere. Policing does not need to change, it needs to evolve. We need more black police officers. We need more Hispanic police officers. We need more female police officers. We simply need more officers that mirror the diversity and inclusivity that is America. 

But, I also believe that there is far more than an issue with policing in America. There are issues with public education, fair housing, health care, employment opportunities, voting, diversity in representation, and cultural stigma, which all play a part in the scenes that unfold on our city streets between Americans and their police officers. 

Suggesting that a change in police tactics will solve these issues is myopic, we need to evolve in every aspect of our world. If we can increase equality in each of these areas, it will help in all of them. 

This is a huge web of interconnectedness that must grow and change as a whole. 

Despite all of this, I understand that I cannot ever fully understand. 

I will never know what it is like to be black, to be a woman, to be disadvantaged, to be in a place where I felt the need to fear the police. 

I hope that I can continue to grow, but know that I can’t ever fully comprehend what it is like for someone who is not me.

I stand with, and for, George Floyd. 
I stand with protesters. 
I stand against hate. 
I stand against abuse of power. 
I stand with the police. 
I stand for love. 
I stand for you.
I stand, as firmly and as evenly as I can, for justice and equality.

-Doug Ullrich, Covington Police

Photo: Protest at Covington Police headquarters on Sunday (Brian Frey/RCN)