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Black Officer Navigates '2 Incompatible Worlds' On N.H. Police Force


We're hearing from voters this week about identity and politics. It's part of our election year project with some member stations called A Nation Engaged. Sgt. Lakeisha Phelps is a police officer in Nashua, N.H. She's one of only two black cops on a force of over 170 that serves that increasingly multiracial city. Emily Corwin of New Hampshire Public Radio spent some time with Sgt. Phelps, and she brought us this contribution.

EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: Police Sgt. Lakeisha Phelps says even driving her personal SUV with a car seat in the back, other cops pull her over about once a month. It used to be worse.

LAKEISHA PHELPS: I can remember when I first got hired, I had a little blue sports car. And one of the troopers would stop me, like, once every other night. I'm like, how do you not know my car by now? (Laughter) It's - I worked midnight shifts, so I would be coming to work 11 o'clock. He would be in the turnaround. And I would see him come out and I would just start pulling over.

CORWIN: Being a black officer in Nashua these days, Phelps says, feels like living in two incompatible worlds. There are her colleagues at work...

PHELPS: You look at all these incidents involving police shootings. It's like, he didn't shoot him because he was black. But you don't know that. You're just speaking on you wouldn't shoot somebody because they were black. But I absolutely know that I can get shot just because I'm black.

CORWIN: And after work, when Phelps goes home...

PHELPS: I'll get from actual family members, cops [expletive] suck. Not you, Auntie. And it's sort of like, but I'm here.

CORWIN: I first met Phelps in July, just a few weeks after that Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas where a gunman ambushed police officers, killing five. She was at a community meeting to discuss race and policing. About 30 people sat in a circle. A young black man asked the officers, what went through your head when you learned another unarmed black man was shot dead by police? Sgt. Phelps stood up.

PHELPS: I woke up. I never felt such hopelessness, despair. I felt miserable. I looked at my 2-year-old son. And I said, how can I explain to him that people that dress like me - because he knows that I'm a cop, he comes to the station all the time - people that are dressed like me are killing people that look like you. Not that they're not killing white people or Asians, but this is a personal - now I'm speaking as a person, not as a cop - that was my personal assessment. How do I explain that to him?

CORWIN: Then Sgt. Phelps remembered her stepdaughter's reaction the morning after the gunman ambushed officers in Dallas.

PHELPS: My 14-year-old white daughter came downstairs and said, you're going to work today? I said, yep. 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 that look like you, you, you, no matter what.

CORWIN: 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. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin in New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Corwin covers New Hampshire news, and reports on the state's criminal justice system. She's also one of eight dedicated reporters with the New England News Collaborative, a consortium of public media newsrooms across New England.