Three years ago, Robert Kirkwood stood before an interview board, explaining why he wanted to be a cop in his hometown. The 6-foot-4 black Army veteran with a master’s degree in criminal justice said he wanted to patrol the streets he had known as a kid and make them safer.
“He was really overqualified for the job,” recalls Ferguson police Sgt. Harry Dilworth, a member of the hiring committee. But Dilworth, Ferguson’s most senior African-American officer, knew minority candidates for the department were rare, especially those with Kirkwood’s credentials.
“It was a no-brainer,” Dilworth told Yahoo News. “He got the job.”
It’s been one year since this once-obscure St. Louis suburb became a flash point in the national debate about police tactics against African-Americans following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. The controversial killing prompted a wave of national soul-searching and activism that is still going on today. And it’s been no less transformational for the black members of Ferguson’s embattled police department.
Kirkwood — the last African-American patrolman hired by Ferguson, and one of just four black officers on the 55-member force a year ago — is now gone. He recently resigned, just shy of his third anniversary, a casualty of the city’s new fame as a national symbol of racial strife.
“What caused me to leave?” Kirkwood asks, before bellowing a hearty chuckle. “Last year.”
But the man who helped hire him, Dilworth, a Ferguson employee since 1992, has become a passionate defender of the department, despite contemplating early retirement last fall. “Now I will probably stick it out,” Dilworth says of the only job he’s ever had.
“From a protest perspective, yes, Ferguson was out of control,” says Kirkwood, recalling the random gunfire and Molotov cocktails thrown in the direction of police. “Every officer out there was putting their life on the line.”
But when it came to verbal abuse, by all accounts, the blacks in blue got it far worse. “My God,” said Dilworth, “threatening your families, getting very specific on what they were going to do to your daughter and your wife. If you have a unique name, they can Google it, go to records, and find out [personal information].”