‘Black Panther’ director Ryan Coogler got ready for his high-intensity life on the gridiron In high school, one of the director’s toughest battles was against Marshawn Lynch

As wide receiver, a lot of times you run routes where you can’t even see the ball. You just got to hope that it’s there when you turn your head. You got to trust your teammates to do their job. You’ve got to trust that the lineman is going to block. You’ve got to trust that the quarterback is going to have the right read. And then when … the ball is in the air, you got to catch it. All those things, when it comes to filmmaking? It’s direct preparation.
Ryan Coogler, director, Black Panther

Monday night is game time for Ryan Coogler. There’s a great deal at stake — and he knows it. The director/co-writer of Black Panther is finally showing his masterpiece to friends, cast members, taste makers and a few critics at the much-anticipated Hollywood premiere of his long-awaited film.

Coogler likely hasn’t felt this much pressure since he went up against Marshawn Lynch in a football game during his junior year in their Oakland, California, hometown. “I played against a lot of dudes that were really, really good,” the director said. “Marshawn was probably the best.”

But Monday night? It’s time to put points up on the board. Again.

In this new film, we are transported to the fictional land of Wakanda — and go deep into the story of the Black Panther, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. But Coogler’s own origin story is one for the history books, as well. “A lot of kids struggle. Somebody asks you who you are, man, you got to be something, ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you? Growing up, it was always one of those two things,” Coogler said. “My father worked at juvenile hall. It would have broke his heart if I’d become that.”


Ryan Kyle Coogler grew up in Bushrod, which when he was growing up was a well-known predominantly black neighborhood in North Oakland. There was a parks and rec center that served as a gathering place for young people to participate in sports and other activities. “I started school … when I just 4,” said Coogler, 31. “I was doing fine academically, but I was having a tough time because I was smaller than the other kids. I got picked on … because I didn’t fit in. There’s a big difference between a kid at 4 versus a kid who’s 6. So I was dealing with that.”

But Coogler’s life was blessed. His mom Joselyn was a community organizer, and his dad Ira was a juvenile hall probation counselor who had played youth and prep football. Both parents were educated at California State University, East Bay, back when it was known as California State University, Hayward. But his life wasn’t a reality for many of his neighborhood friends. “Where we were living … there were kids that were on Section 8,” Coogler said from his office on the Disney studio lot. “There were housing projects … right behind us. I would play with those kids, but I would get teased … because I went to a nicer school. I had both parents in the house. So, I didn’t really fit in.”

“I was a physical kid. I had a lot of anger issues … I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet … ”

And back then, his part of North Oakland didn’t really have a youth football team. At the age of 7, he ended up trying out for the nearby Berkeley Cougars because he thought the name was cool, and because it was a different team than his dad played for. For the young Coogler the team felt like home. Almost immediately. “I was a physical kid,” he said. “I had a lot of anger issues. I would get picked on, so I would fight a lot. I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet for both of those things.”

Football gave Coogler some balance. “I remember stepping on the field for the first time in Berkeley … it was one of the first moments where I was like, ‘Yeah, my life has changed.’ I found something that I’m good at, that I actually like, that I can look forward to. I felt like I belonged.” Coogler stuck with the sport, becoming captain of Saint Mary’s College High School Panthers, where he also excelled in track and basketball.

He was a standout student who had dreams of studying chemistry and going to medical school — if a professional football career didn’t pan out. By the time he hit his senior year in 2003, he was being heavily recruited by schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Penn — his academics were on point.

“He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust.”

“I wasn’t tall enough, or fast enough … to really get Pac 10 offers,” said Coogler, who played wide receiver. “I came close, but I wasn’t good enough to get those rides. I got injured my senior year … missed a few of those key games. I actually ended up coming back to play against Marshawn our senior year, which was a great game.” He said it’s one of his fondest memories from high school. “We ended up tying.”

Bob Solorio/Sacrament State Athletics

Coogler loved Penn, but got a full scholarship to Saint Mary’s College of California. “I could still be close to home,” he said, “and Saint Mary’s College, they’d just hired an African-American coach, which is a big deal to me.” Also at the time, Derek Mason, currently head coach at Vanderbilt, was the defensive coordinator at Saint Mary’s. “He was an incredible coach, man … I really admired him. I admired working with him, and thought he was so sharp.” Once in Moraga, California, though, the balancing act of being student-athlete kicked in.

“It was crazy hard. We were practicing all the time. I ended up playing as a true freshman, so I was having a tough time my freshman year dealing with the labs, and all of the crap that was coming with chemistry. My grades were suffering, so I was coming to the stark realization, ‘Man, I probably can’t do this major and be a football player.’ It just wasn’t going to work out,” he said.

A buddy of his was majoring in accounting. “He was like, ‘Man, switch up to this business school major, you don’t have to take these crazy labs. And you can still have a good career for yourself.’ So, I already was thinking of changing majors … and then we had to take a creative writing class at Saint Mary’s. That’s where I met Rosemary Graham. She read one of my assignments, and said, ‘I think you should write screenplays.’ That was how I realized that I had a talent for writing, and I realized, maybe I want to find out how to make movies.”

It was 2004, though, and something major happened that shocked everyone on his team — the school decided to drop the football program.“Devastating,” Coogler said. “I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Coogler didn’t have to sit out. Because the season was good, and because, as he says, he “had some really decent takes against a real good opponent,” he ended up being recruited again. New Mexico State, Brigham Young University, and Sacramento State were the schools that came calling. He ruled out New Mexico State because they wanted him to play defensive back — when he was at Saint Mary’s, he played receiver, defensive back, and he returned kicks.

“I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Brigham Young wanted him to return kicks. But Sacramento State worked best because it was close to home, Coogler is tight with his family and he would still get to be near his two younger brothers, Noah and Keenan. It was a good move for him — in his four years there as receiver, he grabbed 112 receptions for 1,213 yards and six touchdowns.

Yet, it wasn’t all about football. “Sac State had some interesting film production programs, too. I majored in finance … and took some of those film classes,” he said. But it was football that disciplined Coogler. The sport taught him how to deal with negativity. It gave him confidence, and a fulfillment like nothing he’d ever experienced.

Until Hollywood.


It didn’t take long for Coogler to find something else that fed him the way football did. Exactly 10 years after he left high school — where he’d been elected to the homecoming court and won Best Smile and Best Physique — a new game plan kicked off.

It was in 2013 when his debut indie film Fruitvale Station, won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was the story about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young Oakland man who was killed on New Year’s Eve in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. His story was brought to life by actor Michael B. Jordan, who, before this moment, was likely best known as Vince Howard in NBC’s Friday Night Lights, and of course as tragic corner boy Wallace from The Wire.

“Ryan’s the truth. He’ll never say it. He doesn’t like compliments that much, and he’s real low-key and humble, but Ryan, athletically, he was a stud,” said Jordan, who has become a frequent collaborator with Coogler, most recently on their successful reboot of Rocky with 2015’s Creed. “He played with Marshawn Lynch in college — not on the same team, but against each other. [And] he holds some record at Sac State. Ryan’s that guy!”

“ ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you?’ Growing up, it was always one of those two things.”

Coogler also is quite competitive on set, Jordan said, laughing because they’ve waged bets on foot races and wrestling competitions while working on films together. “He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust,” said Jordan, who portrays a villain in Black Panther. “If he tells me to run through that wall, it ain’t gon’ hurt, I’m going to believe him. I’m going to go right through it. There’s something about him that makes you want to follow him as a leader. That’s superimportant as a director.”

And now, perhaps, here’s Coogler’s biggest moment. He’s co-written and directed one of the most anticipated films of the year — a predominantly black film with a Marvel-sized budget and Marvel-sized expectations. The pressure is real.

And Coogler is a perfectionist who knows what’s on the line. If this film does what nearly everyone is expecting it to do — a box office stunner that’s well-received critically and paves the way for other such films to get the greenlight — then a major shift in Hollywood is on the horizon. A lot of eyes are on him, but he’s keeping his cool — for now. Because football taught him how to do that.

“A lot of the things I’ve learned, I learned from playing football. You gotta lead a group of people against sometimes insurmountable odds. Every week, you’ve got to prepare for an opponent. You watch game tape. You prep. You get all your players up. But you get out there, you never know what to expect,” Coogler said. “I’m 31 years old … this is a high-intensity job. You’re responsible for a lot of money. You’re responsible for a lot of people’s livelihoods, and more importantly, you’re responsible for the audience’s dreams and expectations. There’s no way I’d be able to do this job if I hadn’t had the experience I have from playing organized sports. I’d be a different person.”

A young black officer tries to bridge the divide between the police and his people

Officer Aundre Wright The Bridge Builder 3 years in uniform

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

One Saturday this fall, as little black boys collided between chalked white lines, officer Aundre Wright mingled comfortably with the crowd at Willie Stargell Field. A swarm of uniformed police patrolled this youth football venue, where the talent and style on the field is challenged by the potential for danger off it.

A woman had been shot in the face outside a game earlier in the season, and Wright wore a bulletproof vest over his blue police uniform. But as he hugged and dapped parents and coaches, everyone recalled a younger Wright wearing the colors of the Garfield Gators or Homewood Bulldogs, ripping across the turf in a blur of speed and aggression.

The 29-year-old went on to play for the University of Pittsburgh before a torn knee ligament derailed his NFL dreams. He wasn’t on duty today, but he came on a mission to “spread love.” Since becoming a police officer three years ago amid the national outrage over police killings of unarmed African-Americans, Wright has waged a personal crusade to bridge the gap between black and blue.

That strained relationship is evident here in the Homewood neighborhood. This is one of the most deadly parts of Pittsburgh, a largely segregated city of 300,000 where blacks make up 20 percent of the population. The police department, which has about 900 officers, did not provide diversity statistics but has been trying to recruit more black officers. Asked about the police, spectators talk about being profiled and cops having bad attitudes for no reason. They mention Leon Ford, an unarmed black man who was paralyzed after being shot by an officer in a 2012 traffic stop. Metal detectors at the field entrance stand vigil to the violent Catch-22 of poor black life across America.

But the people here say Wright isn’t a regular cop — he’s “Dre” from the East Side. They know Dre’s mama. Their son or brother played against Dre the baller. They appreciate how Dre the cop treated their troublemaking cousin. They respect what Dre the man did when a 25-year-old mother of three was shot dead in her car outside the East Hills projects last year.

The murder of Myanne Hayes hurt Wright in a new way. Maybe because his reckoning of the gangster code says women aren’t supposed to be targeted, or because he had seen other men who threatened women walk free. Wright, who was off-duty when he got the news, drove to a Home Depot and bought some signboard and Sharpies. He parked his 2003 Camry on the corner of Wilner and East Hill Drive, not far from where Hayes’ body was found. Wearing civilian clothes, Wright inked out his feelings and placed three signs on his car:

I CARE STOP THE VIOLENCE STOP SHOOTING

He held a fourth sign aloft:

HONK 4 PEACE

Kids getting off school buses stopped to watch the one-man protest. Moms came off their porches with hot chocolate. Every honk from a passing car felt like a chip out of a prison wall. A passer-by put the scene live on Facebook, where 611 people tuned in. Hours passed. Night fell. The December temperature dipped toward freezing.

Wright felt liberated.

“At least somebody knew I cared,” he recalled. “I do think it made a difference. When somebody sees a young black man trying to be positive, everyone gravitates toward that. Even if I reached one person that day and they would think, ‘Maybe I should chill. Maybe I shouldn’t shoot women.’

“Even if it touched that one somebody — that’s all I wanted.”

“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

A wild child

Wright thinks often about his first encounter with police. He doesn’t remember it, but his mother, Charise, told him the story. She was on drugs and nodded off downtown. Three-year-old Dre’s stroller rolled into the street. He was grabbed by a passing cop and placed in foster care.

That inspired his mother to clean up her life for good — Charise became a prison counselor, social worker and devoted mother. Money was tighter than young Dre’s cornrowed hair, and she moved him and his older brother through more than a dozen apartments across Homewood, East Liberty, Garfield and the rest of the city’s black neighborhoods. Nowadays, Pittsburgh feels like a small town to Wright because he can hardly drive a mile in his patrol car without running into a familiar face. Except his father’s. Wright doesn’t know who he is.

Wright was a wild child, full of energy and what he now recognizes as anger. Football was a perfect outlet. He started at age 4 in the all-black City League, which has a different flavor from predominantly white leagues in other parts of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Players sport two differently colored socks, two-toned face masks, and back pads sagging below their jerseys. Outside the lines, there’s gambling, occasional arrests of coaches and, every few years, gunfire. Many parents choose to avoid the danger and play their boys elsewhere, which only increases the City League’s fierce pride.

Despite his small stature — Wright stands 5-foot-8 today — he terrorized other tykes as a runner, receiver and defensive destroyer. People still remember how he stiff-armed a defender into a backflip. “He was a monster,” said Melvin Lewis, a City League coach who grew up with Wright. “Fast, elusive, vicious, smart. Not too many like Dre. He’s something like a ’hood legend.”

That ’hood was no joke. At age 13, Wright saw a friend’s head shattered by a bullet. He was robbed at gunpoint and threatened with firearms numerous times. While a freshman at the Perry Traditional Academy, a public school across town on the North Side, Dre was so poor he wore the same outfit 30 days straight – black thermal crew neck, black Dickies, black Timberlands. His hair stayed in four thick, fuzzy braids. But Dre was also a cutup who made everybody laugh, according to Desmond Brentley, his best friend and quarterback of the football team.

The inseparable Des and Dre followed the ’hood rules for dealing with cops: “You don’t talk to them, you don’t deal with them,” Wright recalled. “When you see them, you leave. If you see them coming in that wagon, you run.”

The pair got pulled over while driving all the time. Wright didn’t consider it harassment — just the normal course of life, like hearing gunfire or getting robbed. Why dwell on the negative when there were touchdowns to score and girls to chase? Plus, he didn’t engage in criminal activity. So if the cops wanted to search him? Go right ahead.

“You’re usually not as upset if you’re not guilty,” Wright said.

He graduated in 2006, spent a year in prep school to raise his abysmal grades and signed to play football for Pitt. He had a promising first season, averaging 21 yards per kickoff return, and his time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash tabbed him as an NFL-level talent. But his role was reduced as a sophomore under a new offensive coordinator who liked big receivers. He moved to cornerback in spring practice and tore his ACL trying to toss a 300-pound lineman.

While rehabbing his injury, Wright interned with the Police Department. During a ride-along, his trainer responded to a call about a girl whose bracelet had been snatched. Despite instructions to watch from the car, Wright couldn’t help himself when the suspect was spotted — he jumped out and gave chase.

“As soon as we brought her stuff back,” Wright said, “it was like, I want to do this.”

Wright wasn’t healed enough to play his junior year. Afterward, the coaches said he was no longer in Pitt’s plans. He graduated in May 2011 with a degree in criminal justice, two years of eligibility remaining and an infant son with his college girlfriend. He accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania but left after a month, doubting that IUP could get him to the NFL and in need of money to support his son.

He spent the next year working as a security guard for $8.80 per hour and driving a school bus for $33 per trip. One day, he was assigned to pick up the football team at Perry, his alma mater. Coach Bill Gallagher boarded the bus, looked at his former star player and said, “Dre, what happened?”

“That was pain, right through the heart,” Wright said. He went home and Googled “how to become a police officer.”

Three years later, Wright was patrolling his old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

Showing we’re human

At first, he didn’t know how the ’hood would receive him. Every patrol and call brought a familiar face. Most of the response was positive. But sometimes, making an arrest, he would hear “Uncle Tom this and Uncle Tom that. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I don’t run from it, I try to explain it to them. ‘What else you want me to do? You know I played football, blew my knee out. What am I supposed to do now?’ ”

He realized his mere presence could help defuse tensions: “Let me get in the middle of it so I can bridge the gap in case it turns bad. I want to be able to calm the officer and assure him, and calm the subject.”

Then there were the foot chases.

“When I first got here, for some reason there was a spike in stolen cars. They would jump out and start running,” he said. “It was like a dog and a ball. When they try to run from me, you’re just like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You’re not chasing them to hurt them, you’re just chasing them like a sport.

“You’re running? OK, come on, let’s run!”

Still, each time he put on his uniform, he wondered whether he would make it home. He drew his weapon many times while responding to calls about armed suspects, although he has never pulled the trigger. He began to dream about being forced to shoot someone. Slowly, the dreams turned to nightmares.

After a year and a half on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he wanted more of a sense of normalcy. Wright got an assignment as a community resource officer in a racially and economically mixed group of neighborhoods. He attends community events, mediates neighborhood problems and backs up officers who respond to 911 calls.

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

His main goal is to show that he cares and that he wants to help. That starts with listening, really listening, to what a person has to say. Patience is one of his most useful tools. Another is assistance. That could mean explaining why someone is being arrested and how to bail him out. Other times, just being black and sympathetic helps. If things are already hostile, he might give both cop and citizen an avenue to back down.

“It’s love. Just spread love. Not many police rep it,” he said.

Why him? Wright goes back to the cop who grabbed his stroller out of the street, and how it changed his mother’s life: “You never know who that person is and how you can change their life just off of anything.”

It doesn’t have to get that dramatic for Wright to believe that’s he’s making a difference.

One December morning, Wright parked his cruiser near the blighted corner of North Homewood and Frankstown avenues. Walking past the barbershops and liquor stores, he received the same pounds and daps as at the football game. A toothless drug addict stopped Wright to ask about another cop who’d promised to get her to rehab. Wright pulled the officer’s number up on his phone and texted him. He listened to the addict ramble on for five minutes.

“People ask for me by name over here,” Wright said. “That’s all I need.”

Harassment or normal life?

Asked about Colin Kaepernick and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a protest that has torn apart America’s most popular sport, Wright stepped into his familiar place in the gap. But this tightrope isn’t so easily navigated with charm and goodwill.

“I commend Kaepernick. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. If you feel like you should stand up for something, stand up for it,” Wright said — and then tried to balance the scales. “I don’t know him personally. I don’t know if it’s a legit angle from him. If he feels like he has a purpose, I respect him. It cost him his spot in the league, so I have to respect it.”

Kaepernick started the protests by citing police violence that left “bodies in the street.” That statement doesn’t sit well with Wright, although he won’t come out and say so. Killer cops don’t jibe with Wright’s three years of experience on the Pittsburgh force — there have only been two fatal police killings during that time, both of them of armed black men — or with his life lessons as a law-abiding youngster.

When Wright turns on his flashers, the camera in his police car is recording everything. If he detains or arrests someone, his report needs to include a solid reason for the stop. There may be a few bad apples, Wright says, but they should and will be held accountable.

His friends at the football game may complain about harassment. But Wright thinks back to his experience as a young man joyriding in his hooptie with his best friend Desmond, screaming out the windows at girls and blasting music through their crummy speakers. The way Wright remembers it, there was always some legal reason, however thin, for them to get pulled over. They missed a stop sign, or circled the block five times, or had beads hanging from their rearview mirror that technically could obstruct their vision. The cops were looking for guns, drugs and drunken drivers. None of that applied to them. Getting stopped wasn’t harassment. Just a normal part of life.

Today, Officer Wright asks how police are supposed to keep drugs and guns out of the black community if people object to legal stops. “If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

What about the Freddie Grays, the Tamir Rices — all the times when police have not been held accountable?

“Go to your legislator, representatives, speak out, [tell them] this is outrageous. And if he ain’t do nothing, go over his head.”

Speaking out is what Kaepernick and the NFL players are doing. But the chasm they have opened is so wide even Wright has trouble reaching across it.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”

‘I’m laying you down’

Wright was at his best friend Desmond Brentley’s house one Saturday, watching college football on the television in the kitchen. After high school, Brentley played quarterback at Grambling State and Robert Morris, and he now handles corpses as a city medical examiner. If you see Des and Dre at the same time, “it’s a real bad day for you,” Brentley said.

The childhood friends started talking about the arrest of Michael Bennett. The Seattle Seahawks defensive end had accused Las Vegas police of racial profiling and excessive force. After a report of shots fired, Bennett was tackled and handcuffed. He said the officer put a gun to his head while he was facedown and threatened to “blow my f—ing head off.”

Wright sided with the police. “There’s shots fired, it was a black male, black hoodie. If a black male in a black hoodie comes by, you’re going to put him on the ground — ”

“It wasn’t a black male in a black hoodie, though,” Brentley said. “It was just a casino, shots fired.”

“We don’t know what came on the radio,” Wright responded. “But if that happens, I will put you down. He said he was going to blow his head off. The only reason I think that would be necessary is because you’re running towards the fight and you’ve got to psych yourself up. … It’s going to turn into bolder language.”

“Everything you’re saying, you think that’s right or wrong?” Brentley asked.

Wright stood up.

“If there’s shots fired and somebody runs past, and I’m the fastest dude, I’m laying you down,” he said.

Wright didn’t want to vouch for the specific actions of the officer who arrested Bennett: “I don’t know the angle. I don’t know how far he was away from the shots fired.” What he wanted his childhood friend to understand was the emotion of a cop in that situation, and why he would threaten to kill a suspect.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset,” Wright said. He crouched in a stance, poised to burst off the line of scrimmage. “I had to rev myself up to take you down. You’re not a robot. You’ve got to talk yourself up to it, or it’s not going to happen. At that point, if you’ve got to kill that dude, that’s what you’re saying. That’s going to be the process in your head.”

Brentley, seated at the kitchen counter, asked Wright whether he had seen the video of Bennett’s arrest, when he was facedown and handcuffed. The video looked like excessive force to him.

“It was probably warranted,” Wright replied, still standing.

Later, Brentley said he tries to empathize with Wright’s descriptions of life as a cop.

“I still don’t know,” he said. “I still get scared by the cops, all these years later.”

The nightmare

Every four or five months, the nightmare returns.

Wright’s gun is in his hand. He says, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” The suspect ignores his commands. “And you’re screaming, you’re screaming, you’re screaming. And then, you just have to.”

Wright’s bullet hits the suspect.

“And you know at that point, your life is probably over, regardless if you’re right, wrong or indifferent. So it’s a nightmare.”

The nightmare nearly turned real one day last year. Wright was driving alone in his cruiser when a call came over the radio. Officers were pursuing robbery suspects on Fifth Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood. They were chasing a white Honda Civic with a broken window. The occupants were four black males, armed.

Wright joined the chase. Through East Liberty, up Negley Run Road, around the Hill District. Wright had been driving these streets his whole life. Every turn the suspects made, he knew where it led. Up in Oak Hill, the Honda crashed and the four people in the car jumped out and ran. Once again, the chase was on.

As he sprinted down the street, adrenaline surging, Wright thought about a local officer recently killed while responding to a domestic dispute.

He tripped one suspect, lay him down and kept running. His second target bent over. Wright wondered whether he was about to get shot. “I just dove. Boom. I tackled him.”

The suspect was a teenager, no more than 17. He didn’t have a pistol — just a BB gun.

“Ouch!” the kid said. “You hurt my shoulder!”

Relief flooded through Wright’s body, then heartache and disappointment at another young black life derailed.

At that moment, there was no gap to be bridged, nowhere to spread the love. Just a young cop trying to keep himself and his community alive.

A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”

At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.

As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.

One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”

Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.

He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.

Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”

Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.

“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Change, get fired or quit

Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:

“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.

“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”

For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”

“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”

He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.

Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.

“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”

There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.

“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.

Life after football

Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.

After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.

Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.

He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Then verses 3 and 4:

For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.

“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.

“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.

“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”

I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.

Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.

“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”

The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.

I asked whether that’s a positive development.

“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”

Is there a downside?

“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”

Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.

“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”

It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.

Black and Blue: A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Ferguson and Sunday dinner

The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”

It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.

Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.

Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.

A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.

Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.

Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”

When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.

“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”

Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.

When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.

Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.

“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.

“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”

Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”

“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”

“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.

“Michael Brown.’’

“So he was the aggressor.”

“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.

Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.

De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.

A scandal in the department

Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.

In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.

At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.

It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.

Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.

“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”

There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.

Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.

“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

Engaging the threat

After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.

Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.

A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.

“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”

A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.

Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?

“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”

Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.

Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.

Then Davenport tried one.

Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.

Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?

The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.

The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.

“This might have been my bad day,” he said.

A glimpse inside a high-tech police simulation at the Atlanta PD

The lesson of Jonah

Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.

Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.

Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.

The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”

“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”

The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.

“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”

The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.