“We all have biases. It’s important to understand they’re there, and that they influence us.”
Photos by Sharon Vanorny
Corey Saffold | Madison, WI
“I grew up on the north side of Milwaukee. My dad drove a truck for a living. He was gone all week on the road and home on the weekends. My mom was a homemaker. She was at home with the four kids—me and my two sisters and brother. We grew up in a neighborhood rich with other kids our age, and we either played basketball a lot or we hung out on our front porch.
We all grew up in church. My dad was the organist, and my mom sang in the choir. I started playing drums when I was about five years old and then started playing for the children's choir—we called it the Sunshine Band. Then when I turned 12, I started playing bass guitar, which I still play today.
I also grew up watching Cops on TV and it just always seemed like a fun and noble career. In high school I took this law satellite class where we would go to the courthouse every Thursday and watch different cases, and then go into the judge’s chambers and he would tell us about it. We would have these different police officers and the public defender come in and talk to the class. I was very interested in it.
I knew I wanted to be a police officer, but I lost sight of that because I started to get into some things that made me believe I wouldn't be hired as a police officer.
When I was 17, I went to this music store with some older friends. There was this beautiful bass guitar; the retail value was, like, $5,800. I looked at it and was like, ‘Man, that's an awesome guitar.’ My friend’s like, ‘Man, if you want it, all you got to do is put it in this bass case and just walk out with it.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I think that's a good idea.’
It was a horrible idea.
I had the guitar for an entire year, and I would be playing it in church. Every time the door opened to the church, I thought it was going to be the police. Every single time I thought, ‘Okay, they finally caught up with me.’
Then also, people would come up to me and say all these good things about my playing, like, ‘You sound so good. You're really anointed. God is really using you to play bass.’ It was just, like, a blow to the gut because my guitar was stolen. It got to the point where I was ready for the police to find me.
The police started to put the puzzle together. They called the church and were like, ‘Do you know someone named Corey? He might play bass.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we know Corey.’ So I was at work one day, and they just came and got me.
There was this detective, he was talking to me. What he did was, he had this educational conversation with me. He said, ‘Based on the cost of the instrument you took, that's a felony. I don't think you really appreciate the severity of what a felony will do to you, so I'm willing to work with you.’
By this time I had mentioned I wanted to be a police officer. He’s like, ‘If you get charged with a felony, you'll have a hard time finding a job. You will be limited.’ He said, ‘If you give it back, I'll make sure you don't get charged with a felony.’ So I did. I gave the bass back. And sure enough, the detective stuck to his promise. I got charged with misdemeanor theft.
To this day, I think about the trajectory of my life: going into policing, doing public speaking on policing. None of that would have happened if I had a felony. That was a huge thing that detective did.”
“I was charged with misdemeanor theft and got a year of probation. That was my first introduction to the criminal justice system. I learned a lot about the system from that point.
What I began to learn is that you have to be very focused and intentional about getting off probation, and very humble. You have to have a strong support system, because the probation system is really designed for you to fail, in my opinion.
The problem is that once you're on probation, you can go to jail for anything—if someone calls the police on you and it's a complete lie, or if you show up for an appointment late or don't show up at all. They can lock you up for up to 21 days without cause.
Toward the end of your probation, you have fees. You can't get off probation without those fees being paid. I was very young, and money was tight, so I just let those fees build up. Rather than saying anything about it, my probation officer would extend my probation another year. I think I stayed on probation for, like, three years.
Then I moved to Madison, and that's when everything began to turn around.
The probation officer I had in Madison was a lot more structured. Her thing was like, ‘You are going to pay this off.’ So every month some of the money from my paycheck would go to those fees. As soon as they were paid off, I was off probation. That was a major turning point in my life.
I started going to Fountain of Life Church, and Pastor Gee and his wife, Jacqueline Gee, they took me under their wing. One time me and a couple of my friends sat down and started playing music with Reverend Gee. We were worshiping and praying, and from there Pastor Gee was like, ‘Hey, I want you to be my music director.’
Then it got to a place where I got a little older, I had a family, and I just needed more money. I was doing the church thing, but it just really didn't make ends meet. Madison was doing a big push at the time for more police officers, so I started to think, ‘Would they consider me?’
I emailed them and they were like, ‘If you don't have a college degree, we expect you to have at least two years of work experience in somewhat of a related field.’ So I applied to be a security assistant at Madison West High School, and I got the job. While I was in that position, I networked with a lot of police officers. I talked with Michael Koval, who later became the Madison police chief. Back then he was part of the hiring team, so I asked him, ‘What can I do?’ He was like, ‘You know, that theft that you have on your record, don't just write that down without sending some sort of explanation.’
So I wrote an addendum, and I added it to the application. I took ownership for what I did. I talked about my juvenile mindset, and how it was a mistake, and that I've learned from it. Just went in completely transparent. And I got hired.”
Photo courtesy of Corey Saffold
“When you’re on the force, first you’ve got six months in the Police Academy, then three months for field training, and then you're on the street. You're on patrol. I was patrolling the south side of Madison.
It’s one thing to learn everything in class, but when you're actually out there solo, when you're actually doing it, it’s just different. In field training, they'll have another officer with you the whole time, but then you're on solo patrol. My first day on the job, on solo patrol, I was so nervous…I was in the patrol car, coming around a bend on Badger Road. It just snowed, and I was heading to what I thought was a vehicle that went into the ditch.
As soon as I came around the bend, my car spun out. Just a complete 360, because I was coming around that bend and there was light snowfall. I did not hit anything, nothing happened. But yeah, it was crazy.
So I thought, ‘Okay, Corey, relax. Just chill out.’ I started driving a little slower, and then I saw the vehicle in the ditch. So I'm talking to the driver, trying to give him some assistance, just kind of standing by in the safety role. Then the tow truck driver recognizes that I must be new, and he's like, ‘Yeah, I think he's drunk.’ I was like, ‘Crap, you might be right.’ So I went into my drunk driver mode, started asking him questions, and then it all came to me. His speech was slurred, I smelled intoxicants coming from his breath, saw open beer cans in his car. Obviously, he crashed.
I arrested him on drunk driving. I had to do the field sobriety tests, but that didn't work out because he was too drunk. Then we went to the station, he refused to blow, so I had to take him to the hospital to draw blood. Then I had to do a 10-page report at the end of it. I got overtime on my first day, on my first call.
I was on patrol for two years, a neighborhood officer for a year, and then I became the Educational Resource Officer for West High School. That role was very different.
It's counterintuitive to how police are trained, because you can't go into a high school arresting everybody. I had to learn that the main way that you effectively do your job in the high schools is by building relationships with the kids.
One of the ways I interacted with the kids is I launched this program called Cops vs. High School All Stars. They’re basketball games. We picked the star players from the Madison high schools, and they played against the best players from the police department. The purpose was to raise money to fund this trip that we did with the students from the Black Student Union called the HBCU tour—the Historically Black College and University tour. I was one of the advisors for the Black Student Union.
We used youth court as a restorative system, but I used to add to that. I came up with creative restorative processes to make sure that kids didn’t get jammed up in the system. So for example, if a kid stole stuff from the corner store by the school, rather than giving them a ticket they would have to work at the store for a week, or something like that. One kid stole something, and I worked it out with his mom where she took part of his paycheck and gave it to the store, and he paid it back over a period of time.
When you are a police officer and you come in contact with that 15, 16, or 17-year old who might've stolen something, you have to understand that it's not the defining moment of their life. Your approach with them should be similar to the detective's approach with me when I was 17. If we could have more officers like that, who aren’t trying to throw felonies on them, who understand that this person still has a life to live, I think that would be really helpful. That’s what I tried to be.”
“There were times when I'd be driving in my patrol car in uniform and the police would get behind me and I would be like, ‘Uh oh, police. Oh shoot, I'm at work, I don't have to worry about that.’
One time, I was on year three of being a police officer, and I was leaving Sheboygan. I was actually headed into work. I was a little rushed, and I tossed my gun onto the front seat of the car. So I was driving, and I was going about 10 miles over the speed limit, and I was stopped by the Sheboygan police.
Rather than try to move my gun under the seat, I figured I'd use my words to calm the officer down. So when he approached the car, I rolled the window down and before he could talk, I said, ‘Officer, don't be alarmed. I'm a police officer and that's my duty weapon.’ He looks down at me and he says, ‘Well, where's your concealed carry permit?’
So I say, ‘Sir, I'm a police officer. I don't need a concealed carry.’ He says, ‘Well, all right, hang tight.’ He goes back to his car and it turned out he was a new officer; he's being trained. So I see the training officer get out of the car. He walks up to my car and says, ‘I want to see your department issue ID right now.’ I'm like, ‘Okay, can I get it for you? I'll have to reach for it,’ and he was like, ‘Yes, grab your department issue ID right now.’
At that time, my hair on my department issue ID was short. I had just started growing my locks—they were, like, two inches long. He looks at my ID, he looks at me, and he says, ‘How do I know you didn't just kill a cop down the road, take his gun, take his badge, and take his ID?’
I was just stunned. I said, ‘Sir, I'm a police officer. I didn't harm another police officer to show you this ID.’ He's like, ‘Well, they let you wear your hair like that?’ I'm like, ‘Yeah.’ He's like, ‘Are you undercover? Are you in some sort of task force, like the gang type?’
I was like, ‘No, I'm a police officer, I'm patrol.’ He says, ‘I want to call your supervisor right now.’ First of all, I was like: just give me a ticket! When you pull over a carpenter or a teacher or a journalist or somebody, do you say, ‘I'm going to call your supervisor?’ No, you don't. You just carry on with your traffic stop. I said, ‘Sir, today is Sunday. My supervisor is not in.’
I start thinking, ‘Corey, you’ve got to get your wits about you because this guy really doesn't believe you are a cop.’ So I said, ‘Well, I got dispatch on my phone. We can call dispatch right now. They could verify I'm an officer.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, all right. Well, slow down,’ and he gave me my ID back, and then he went back to his car and just drove away.
It took a while to process. What I realized later is that I did not fit his idea of what a police officer looked like.
I had short locks, I was black, I wasn't in uniform. Nothing about me screamed police officer. When I didn't fit that profile, he struggled with that.
But even when I am in uniform, there are still a host of issues and problems that I deal with as a black man. No matter how much authority I’m supposed to have as a police officer, some people still believe I can’t assert my authority over them. When a white person tells me as a police officer, ‘You can't do that, I'll have your job,’ they’re really saying, ‘You think you have power, but really, because of who you are, and because of who I am, I’ve got the most power.’
That’s why it’s so important for people to be aware of their biases. When I started giving talks on policing, that was something I wanted to get across."
“In 2016 I was approached by the Wisconsin Humanities Council to be part of their speaking series about working lives in Wisconsin. It was an opportunity to share what I’d learned over the years as a police officer.
So I started thinking, ‘What can I talk about? Officers in schools is a hot topic, maybe.’ Then I started thinking about the national trend that police are just not liked, and why—for the killing of unarmed African American men, women, and children at the hands of white officers. I was like, ‘I'm going to talk about that because it's this paradox that I live in.’ As a black police officer, it’s like, ‘Man, they're killing people who look like me.’ But the paradox is not only what's happening to black men at the hands of white officers. It's also how the black community views me for being a black police officer.
I started thinking, ‘Why is it that I do what I do?’ Then I remembered what the detective did for me when I was 17. I started to think we want more people of color as officers—people of color and with life experience. It's really your life experiences that make you a good police officer or a not-so-good police officer. But it’s important to have a diverse police department, too. Wherever you are, there should be people from different communities, different cultures that can represent and relate to each of the communities and cultures in that city. That’s crucial.
I started to realize that I was needed in this field—to bring in my life experiences. So I talk about the paradox of being a black police officer in today's society, and I offer solutions. I encourage people to understand why the police do what they do, so they can be better informed, and to get involved in their communities and neighborhood to bridge the gap between community and police, and to be mindful of their own biases.
Early on in the talk, I come right out and say, ‘Look, we all have biases. It’s important to understand that those biases are there, and that they influence us.'
They influence the decisions we make, how we make them, who we choose to interact with. But awareness goes a long way. If everybody is aware of their own biases, then they’ll respond differently in different situations. That’s a big part of being able to change things for the better.
I've been all over Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to La Crosse to Waukesha to Stevens Point, a few times in Madison, Fitchburg, Eau Claire…just all over Wisconsin, giving that talk. Many times people would say to me, ‘Wow, that was very helpful,’ or ‘That was insightful,’ because it gave them an understanding of what a lot of black officers go through, and it gave them a greater appreciation for the police and how the police and the community can work together.”
-Corey Saffold | Madison, WI