In 2014, after Michael Brown Jr. was killed by a police officer, Aloni Benson took to the streets with other protesters.
But the Berkeley native found simply protesting wasn’t enough. When former St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar urged more people to become officers, Benson leaped at the chance, joining the department in 2016.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with both Benson and his wife, Khalia, about his choice to become an officer, raising a Black son, and what it’s been like being a Black police officer assigned to protests.
Aloni Benson: I knew from that moment, I always wanted to be a police officer, way before Michael Brown's killing. That was just a motivational step right there knowing that I could possibly get in and become a police officer. So I always wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the neighborhood, and now that I am the change and I can say I am the change, because people see me now as a police officer. And when I come to a scene or I pull up in front of your house and they're African American as well, it tends to settle the mood.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: Have any of the recent tensions between police officers and Black people made you reconsider being an officer?
Aloni Benson: First, I look at it as this is my job. This is what feeds my family. This is what provides everything right now for my family. Secondly, there's always in the back of my head that these African Americans are being killed by police officers. And it makes the job very stressful. I have thought here recently, like, 'Wow, this job is overwhelming,' because I'm out here trying to do a job, and I'm doing it the right way, and I know a lot of officers like myself, for lack of a better word, get punished for some officer that does something thousands of miles away. But we have a job to do. And I suck it up. And I put on a uniform and I go to work every day.
Sometimes, I don't want to go to work. Sometimes, it's a headache. Sometimes, I know that I'm going to be sitting out in 100-degree weather, and somebody's yelling in my face about something that I feel strongly about. And I know they feel strongly about, but I can't have that communication while I'm on the riot line. So, sometimes I leave work with a lot on my mind, because there's nowhere to release it.
Lewis-Thompson: How are you processing Black people being killed by the police or profiled, for that matter, once you get home and take off your badge [and] you're with your wife and you're with your son?
Aloni Benson: Well, my wife would say I don't. My wife would say I don't switch hats, because sometimes I paint a picture for my family, because they're not living this, going to work every day being a police officer. Sometimes, I can say things like, 'OK, baby, let's look at all the facts first.' Sometimes I say, 'Let's look at all the facts.' And then she'd be like: 'Don't you just see this? Don't you see this? Did you see what he did?' I say, 'Yeah, I see it. It's wrong, but let's look at the facts.' And sometimes I get caught in between that. I know I'm Black. I look in the mirror every day. I'm Blacker than Black. So I try to distance the two. And I try my best because at the end of the day I'm always going to be Black. I'm not always going to be a police officer. But I'm going to do my job and make sure I do my job correctly.
Lewis-Thompson: Khalia, I want to ask you. Can you talk about what went on in your mind when your husband came to you and said this is the path I want to take?
Khalia Benson: He first really expressed his passion during the time of the Mike Brown situation. And I'm always going to motivate him. And always push if I know it's a dream that he desires. So I pushed him and I motivated him when he was working out for the academy. All of that. I put my feelings aside about the police, because I knew that this was something that my husband desired. I've had bad experiences with police officers growing up. My relationship with police officers is bittersweet. The sweet part is that my husband is doing it, and I know his heart and I know his mind. And I believe that when he's out there he's truly making a change. So my trust is with my husband; I cannot say that my trust is with St. Louis County. My trust is with my husband.
Lewis-Thompson: Are you comfortable talking about one of those experiences in which you did have a bad encounter with officers?
Khalia Benson: When I was in college, we had moved me into my apartment. And it was my father, my little brother, my mother and my sister and I. And my father and my brother were driving the moving truck, and we were riding in the car in front of them. So we were driving in Jefferson County. And we saw police trailing us and then more police came and more police came. And so, at this point my dad called my mom and said, 'Do you see all of these police cars behind us?' And she said: 'Yes, just pull over. Something's not right.' So they pull over.
My little brother was asleep in the front seat. He was about 13 years old or 14 at this time and they walked up and they put a gun to my dad's head and they put a gun to my little brother's head and he was asleep. So he woke up out of his sleep to the gun. So just imagine if he would have just woke up and grabbed something just scared, because he was asleep at the time.
What happened, the reason why the cops had pulled him over was due to the truck that we had rented was reported stolen and the trucking company forgot to take it off. And so, my dad was yelling like: 'Please take the gun off of my son. Please just talk to me.' They said, no. They were rough on my brother. They put handcuffs on him. He had marks on his hands afterwards. To me and my mom, very aggressive. My mom was screaming. She was scared. She was just asking, 'Can you please just talk to my husband and let my son go and we can figure this all out? We have paperwork to prove [it].' They were very rude. They weren't listening to us. They weren't understanding. They did not release my brother out of handcuffs until the very end.
I mean, at the end of the day, I don't know how police officers are trained. I mean, they could have been doing their job. But as me knowing what police officers are capable of that was traumatic for me. I was scared for my little brother. I was scared for my father. At this point, I just wanted them to let go of my brother and talk to my dad. I didn't even know how traumatized I was about that until another time I was driving and the police sirens went off. And I almost had like an anxiety attack, and that's when I realized that situation actually had traumatized me, that I was scared when I would hear police sirens drive behind me.
Lewis-Thompson: This is for both of you. How do you hope to teach your son about the realities about being Black in America, when his dad's an officer, but you see footage coming out all time about Black people in general and other people of color being killed by the police and there is no accountability on the receiving end?
Aloni Benson: For me, I'm going to teach him more so, respect. Understand and push yourself to be that change. I get that this stuff has been going on way before me. Way before you. I get we need to see more African American officers. You cannot expect people that don't understand your culture, that don't understand you, that never lived with you, that never had a 15-minute conversation with you about life to understand you. I get we're all human, but we need more African American officers. So we need to push that narrative. Because like I said, when I go to scenes, when I go to a house and it's an African American family and they see me pull up, they talk to me. So, I would teach him just to keep pushing that narrative that we need more African Americans in any authoritative positions. Being a senator, a governor, mayor. We need to start focusing on that notion.
Khalia Benson: What I would teach my son is that I want him to understand the law. Know your rights. Know what can happen to you and what cannot. I'm going to teach him about the systematic oppression that African Americans deal with. I'm going to have him read about Jim Crow. I'm going to have him read Malcolm X. I want my son to be educated, so he understands both sides. Yes, understand the law, but understand what's happening to our people. Why we're in this situation right now? What is the why? I want my son to be well-rounded. I know that when he goes to school — a lot of people have a bad taste about police officers. So he's going to feel; his feelings will be hurt sometimes. People might say some mean things about his father. But I want him to understand why are these people are saying these things about your father. Understand where they are coming from and their environment, because you have a little bit more empathy and understanding.
Lewis-Thompson: Do you think that police departments, if there is any hope left in building that aspect of trust when that trust has been broken time and time again? Right now, you have people calling for defending the police department or abolishing it completely.
Aloni Benson: A lot of this trust can be built, promoting that narrative in the Black community to become police officers. We're always saying FTP, the police department, but those same people call the police. You call us for help. I have been on plenty of calls where they be like, 'F the police. You're an Uncle Tom. You this, you that. I say: 'You called me here man. You called me. I'm here because you called me. Somebody at this address called me. So they needed help.'
Defund the police is taking away from my son, my family, taking away from my livelihood. You think I would do this job if I'm not getting paid to do the job accordingly? I have a master's. I'm going to be working on my doctorate here soon. And our department is paying me for me having a master's. That money would be gone. You think I'm going to stay being a police officer with a master's degree and a doctorate? I don't have to be here. I'm here because God is pushing me to do this.
So, it's a lot of officers just like me. You think you have bad officers now, wait until they start paying us $15 an hour, or they stop giving us overtime to work when we're out there on the riot lines. The application process is going to be very slim to none, because who would want to do this job? I have to put on a smiling face when I don't want to put on a smiling face. I have to be professional sometimes when I don't want to be professional with the people that are not professional with me or they're heinous with me. So, defund the police is not the way the right way to go. We have to build another narrative that's trying to coach our youth into, OK, this officer did it. He ain't no Uncle Tom. He's not an Uncle Tom. He's doing it for a purpose.