LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Police Officer Michael Silva stood stoically on the steps of LAPD headquarters one night last fall as several young protesters, two in horror masks, taunted him with racial slurs and flashed the middle finger in his face.
The demonstrators, who were Black, were protesting a grand jury decision not to charge officers in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Silva, who is also Black, normally patrolled some of L.A.'s most impoverished neighborhoods, but that evening, he had been given protest duty.
As the slurs landed, Silva appeared unfazed, even calm, as a video of the encounter that later went viral shows. But his brain was working overtime, he said, trying to focus on his training while processing thoughts about the rage directed at him.
Silva watched the protesters' eyes and hands for threats but saw none. The young men were just venting frustration and anger — which Silva could understand — in an immature way, he thought.
To maintain his composure, Silva recalled the melody and lyrics of one of his favorite songs: "Changes," in which the late Tupac Shakur raps about crime, poverty, police brutality and the crack epidemic.
We gotta start making changes
Learn to see me as a brother
Instead of two distant strangers
For Silva, 28, the moment was one of many in the past year and a half in which his dual identity as a Black man and a Los Angeles Police Department officer has left him straddling one of the nation's most volatile cultural fault lines — and feeling criticized for not landing solidly on either side.
It was another reminder, he said, that his choice to become a cop — a choice L.A. officials hope more people like him will make as the LAPD's Black ranks dwindle — put him in the middle of an intense national debate around racial justice and police brutality against Black people.
"Wow. This is where we're at in America," Silva recalled thinking. "We're at such a volatile point."
Since the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 and the subsequent demonstrations against police brutality toward Black people in cities around the world, a wave of scrutiny and attention has washed over Black officers like Silva — challenging their resolve and raising tough questions about their motivations to do the work.
How they handle the pressure could be a defining factor in the future of American policing, helping to determine whether L.A. and other major cities can ensure their police forces reflect the communities they serve — which experts and community leaders see as critical to establishing community trust in law enforcement.
The portion of officers who are Black has fallen from 14% in 2010 to 9% today. The percentage matches the 9% of L.A. that is Black, but officials fear it could fall further if hiring doesn't keep pace with a looming wave of retirements among older Black officers.
It's "a really tough time to be a Black cop," said Connie Rice, a longtime civil rights attorney who has sued the LAPD over abuses and worked within it to introduce reforms.
In addition to heckling from activists on the streets, Black officers are subjected to internal racism within the department, which always existed but has exploded further into the open since the 2020 protests, Rice said.
Silva has experienced it all firsthand.
He said protesters on the streets have repeatedly called him a "traitor" and a "house n-----," a loaded slur that refers to enslaved Black people who worked inside the homes of their white enslavers.
At the same time, in conversations with some fellow officers, Silva said he has felt isolated and judged for not rejecting the message of the Black Lives Matter movement wholesale, or for expressing sympathy for some of the protesters. He tries to avoid those topics with certain officers, he said, but tensions still creep up.
In an incident last year, Silva said he was deeply offended when a Black man being questioned on the street by an aggressive white officer asked to speak with Silva instead, and the white officer slapped Silva on the arm and said something like, "Oh, you only want to talk to a black-skinned officer? Here's a black-skinned officer."
Silva felt the officer said "black-skinned" with disgust, and took it as a slur.
While he has also been offered support from other colleagues, Silva said he has been left at times with a feeling of "being in between" his colleagues and other Black people on the street — commiserating with both, and feeling judged on all sides.
"There's a lot of confusion from the civilians, and ... a lot of anger there, too," Silva said. "From our [police] side, I feel sometimes there's some understanding and sometimes there's no understanding, and ... not to be so harsh, but no common sense of different cultures."
Still, he is optimistic about his future as a police officer — and wants to be part of a vanguard of young officers who help mend police relationships in the community.
If L.A. is ever going to build such trust, rank-and-file officers and community members have to get to know each other better and to understand each other as people rather than as badges or crime statistics, Silva said.
It's why he agreed to share his story with The Times, and why, if he ever got a chance to talk to the young men who taunted him on the stairs, he'd want to start from the beginning — his beginning.
"I've been through it," he'd tell them.
Becoming a cop
When Silva was a baby, he was found by LAPD officers in a car seat on top of a dumpster near 6th and San Pedro streets in Skid Row, less than a mile from where he would later stand opposite the protesters at police headquarters.
Through his biological mother, who he said was a homeless sex worker, Silva was addicted to crack cocaine, the side effects of which would linger for years as he fought to overcome developmental delays, first in foster care and later with his adoptive family.
Once adopted, Silva entered a blended family. His mother is white; his father is Latino. His parents also had other adopted children, including Silva's biological half-sister, and he grew up the youngest of four, first in Baldwin Park and then in West Covina.
In both neighborhoods, Silva said he was surrounded by Latino friends and neighbors but very few Black ones. He was called racist names in Spanish by other students and even an elementary school teacher. He didn't fit in until he began excelling at sports.
Silva remembers dressing up as a sheriff for Halloween several years in a row as a little boy, his parents telling him that he never wanted to take the costume off. He also remembers cops silently staring at him as he walked down the sidewalk as a teenager — which he always found intimidating.
"I remember thinking back when I was younger, like, damn, if I was a police officer I'd be like, 'Hey, how are you?' Shake a hand. Get to know your community."
After graduating from Baldwin Park High School, he contemplated playing football in college but stuck around home instead, trying to find his footing. He was always good with computers, and got a job with Best Buy. But he wanted more.
Following the advice of a friend, Silva took a 10-week course for mental health care professionals, inspired in part by mental illness in his family. He won a coveted internship after the course concluded and started doing casework with youth aged 16 to 25, "helping them with social skills, communicating with each other, getting jobs, playing sports," he said.
Some of the kids were difficult and angry, but "everyone is human, we all go through our trials," Silva said. "That's the way that I saw it."
Later, Silva got a job with People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, and began working with L.A.'s homeless population — including in the same area where he was found as a baby, helping people get off the street and fill out applications to eventually transition from shelters into permanent housing.
Sam Lopez, a friend of Silva's who worked with him at PATH, said Silva was great at the job. He could communicate well, and he was patient.
"When he was working with a client, you knew that they were in good hands," Lopez said. "He was one of those case managers who crossed his Ts and dotted his I's on every little thing, to make sure that the client was being served."
After one interaction with a hospitalized client, Silva noticed an LAPD officer hanging around. He seemed to care. They got to talking, and the officer told Silva that he thought he would make a good cop — maybe on the same homeless outreach team that the officer worked on.
"You should check it out," the officer told him.
Silva wasn't sold on the idea at first. He knew some members of his family would be skeptical. He knew his parents would worry about his safety. Still, the idea excited him, and he decided to take the leap.
Silva graduated from the police academy in 2019, and after a probationary period in the Rampart Division, he requested a permanent placement in the Central Division — which made him stand out.
"Everyone was shocked. They were like, 'Everyone gets sent here. They don't put in for here,'" Silva said with a laugh. "But I've been down here. I've walked the streets. And I want to do as much as I can to contribute. That's why I'm here."
A tough year
Alondra Garcia, Silva's older sister, said that, like their parents, she had worried about her brother's safety when he told her he was joining the LAPD.
"For me, it's just guns," Garcia said. "They freak me out."
She's gotten more used to it, in part because she has seen how happy being a cop has made her little brother — amazing, she said, considering the recent challenges he's faced.
As the COVID-19 pandemic set in across L.A., Silva continued going to work, both in the Central Division and along skirmish lines during the protests last spring and summer. At the same time, Silva's fiancee, Ashley Navarro, was working as a licensed vocational nurse at a local hospital, including on rotating shifts on a COVID-19 unit.
When Navarro contracted COVID-19, the couple and Navarro's son were trapped at home. Silva kept testing negative, as did Navarro's son, but they were quarantined for weeks.
Silva cooked meals he learned to make from his dad's big Mexican family on trips to their land in New Mexico growing up, and tried to keep everyone's spirits up.
Then, in November, Silva was back at work when he tore ligaments in his left foot, an injury that has sidelined him since. He's now on injured leave awaiting surgery that he hopes will allow him to get back to patrolling soon, he said.
Garcia said she is amazed at how resilient her brother has been.
At the same time, "just rolling with the punches" has always been his way, she said.
"I really think that has to do with his background and his upbringing," Garcia said.
Silva's father, Frank, said he has watched his son push through this past year with pride.
The two are close. Silva still calls his dad, a longtime employee of the Baldwin Park Unified School District, some mornings when he gets off his night shift and his dad is headed in early to work. They chat about Silva's shift, and he reassures his dad he's being safe.
When Frank Silva saw the viral video from last year's protest, he said the degree of vitriol directed at his son surprised him, but his son's response did not.
"I said, 'Yep. There's Michael,'" he said. "He's always had a level-headed coolness about him."
A critical juncture
Michael Silva said he doesn't know what's next, but he hopes there will come a time soon when cops and community activists can get together, share their fears and frustrations and "come up with a plan together."
He's eager to hear protesters' thoughts, and happy to explain his own.
Silva grew up as a young Black man feeling misunderstood an, at times disrespected by police officers, he said. He believes some of the anger toward cops in L.A. is justified, particularly in the Black community, and he finds it frustrating that some of his fellow officers don't seem to understand why.
He also sees the value in funding social service providers like those doing the sort of work he used to do with the homeless.
At the same time, Silva doesn't think the LAPD should be dismantled or defunded, because he believes what he and other officers do has tremendous value. The city needs good cops, he said, and he considers himself one.
He also disagrees with some of the tactics deployed by BLM and other activist groups, and points to damage done to downtown storefronts — including those of hard-working Black and brown shopkeepers he knows — to argue the downside of last year's mass demonstrations.
Silva said he remains committed to serving as an LAPD officer, regardless of the scrutiny and the judgment and the internal challenges in the department.
In many ways, Silva is just what the LAPD is looking for.
Police officials and longtime department observers say Black officers like Silva bring tremendous value to the LAPD, given its historic challenges and misdeeds in the Black community, and will play a critical role in helping to move the department and the city forward after a year of explosive frustration over police treatment of Black people.
But there are headwinds in the way of that work, including the attrition among Black officers.
To halt the decline, the LAPD set a goal of hiring at least 100 Black recruits during the 2020-2021 fiscal year but dramatically scaled back its ambitions after the COVID-19 pandemic sapped city coffers and the city implemented a hiring freeze. It ended the year having hired just 28 Black officers.
The department also recently expressed support for several recommendations from a Human Relations Commission project that hosted dinners between Black community members, local organization leaders and police officers, one of which called for "continued dialogue and interactive cultural exchange programming for rank and file officers in South Los Angeles" that would create "proximity and mutual understanding between officers and the people they serve" — just like Silva has envisioned.
Rice, the civil rights attorney, said it's clear more must be done to ensure that Black officers like Silva are being heard — and that racism in the ranks is being aggressively snuffed out.
The department faced a reckoning over such issues after Rodney King's beating in the 1990s, when the famous Christopher Commission found rampant racism within LAPD's ranks, Rice said, and should acknowledge now that it is overdue for another one after many white officers "exploded" with racist rants — both online and among their peers — after last year's protests.
"It was like if you saw any of the Christopher Commission transcripts: openly anti-Black, ranting about how, you know, 'We took down the Panthers, we'll take down Black Lives Matter,'" Rice said. "Really openly, blatantly, racially hostile."
Rice said Black officers told her they were "taken aback" by the virulence of the backlash and were ignored or shut down by commanders when they tried in internal discussions to "raise the racial equity issues" that were animating the tens of thousands of protesters in the streets.
Bernard Parks, who started as a young Black LAPD officer in the 1960s and served as its chief from 1997 to 2002, said Black officers have always faced racism within the department — which is a microcosm of American society.
"It's no different than my experiences in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s — there's nothing new," Parks said. "In the '65 riot, we had people [asking], 'Why are we trying to go and save Watts? There is nothing there worth saving.'"
At the same time, community members hold Black officers to a higher standard in terms of calling out wrongdoing among their colleagues. They always have, Parks said.
"Community people think that you are all powerful to make bad things stop happening, and then people inside question what your motivations are when you express sensitivity" to community concerns, Parks said. "Welcome to law enforcement. Welcome to LAPD."
Parks said his advice for young Black officers like Silva is to hold themselves to the highest standards — and to hold everyone around them to the same standards. It might not always work out in their favor, he said, but it will benefit L.A. and the LAPD in the long run.
Silva said he wasn't part of any discussion groups after the protests, but he has had fellow officers tell him to stop showing signs of understanding toward protesters. He said he also has had veteran cops tell him they were disgusted by Floyd's killing but would never voice that publicly lest it be construed as their agreeing with BLM.
For many of the people he comes into contact with on the streets, and for many of his fellow officers, a clear battle line has been drawn, Silva said. He just doesn't see it that way, he said, and plans to keep advocating for an alternative path — including by sharing his own story.
"To me, it's not 'everybody's an enemy,'" Silva said. "If both sides were to open up again and talk and communicate, the atmosphere would be totally different."©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.