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From Protesting Police to Becoming a Cop Himself

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After touring the world with Snoop Dogg and the Black Eyed Peas, Jinho Ferreira served as an Alameda County sheriff's deputy for eight years. He said he wanted to fight police violence from the inside. (Courtesy of Jinho Ferreira)

When the call came in over the radio, Jinho Ferreira was on patrol in the outskirts of San Leandro, getting ready to end his shift.

“It was a call for shots fired,” he said. “I showed up, and there was a man dead in a parking lot.”

The man was Black, and he had been shot to death by several Alameda County sheriff’s deputies.

Ferreira felt apprehensive. A successful rapper who’d had run-ins with the police himself, Ferreira had joined law enforcement for one reason: to fight a white supremacist system from the inside.

"I was thinking about occupying a badge and a gun, and using it in accordance with my values," he said. "I needed to know if that was impossible."

As he started taking statements from bystanders, Ferreira said he thought, "I was blocks away from this when it happened. ... What is this going to turn into?"

Lesser of Two Evils

Before he became a cop, Ferreira didn’t trust them very much.

He grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in West Oakland, the home of the Black Panthers. Ferreira’s mom was a former Nation of Islam teacher who worked for Pacific Gas & Electric, and she raised her son on a steady diet of Black revolutionary theory.

It was also the height of the crack epidemic, a public health crisis that fueled crime. Some people turned to the police, but as Ferreira put it, “you're kind of choosing a lesser of two evils.”

In the late 1990s, a group of Oakland Police Department officers known as the Riders allegedly kidnapped, beat and falsely arrested countless West Oakland residents. The city eventually settled the case and agreed to pay nearly $11 million to 119 different plaintiffs.

When he got to high school, Ferreira tried to keep his head down. He focused on football. That’s where he met Jihad Akbar.

“He was pretty much getting straight A's all through high school,” said Ferreira. “He was the most politically aware of any of us, and he was a leader.”

Akbar attended UC Berkeley and grew into a dedicated activist, devoting his time to AIDS prevention and juvenile justice. But as the years went by, Ferreira said his friend began struggling with mental health issues and started to self-medicate. Akbar tried to get help but had trouble getting into a residential treatment program. Sometimes he'd get high and get paranoid about law enforcement, and Ferreira would spend hours just sitting with him.

Then, in October 2002, Ferreira got a call from a friend.

“He told me that Jihad was dead and the police killed him,” Ferreira said.

At Berkeley High School, Jinho Ferreira (wearing a number 25 jersey in the second row) said he focused on football. That's where he met his friend, Jihad Akbar (in a number 40 jersey in the top row).
At Berkeley High School, Jinho Ferreira (wearing a number 25 jersey in the second row) said he focused on football. That's where he met his friend, Jihad Akbar (in a number 40 jersey in the top row). (Courtesy of Jinho Ferreira)

'It's My Job to Tell the World About Him'

Ferreira found out the details later. Akbar allegedly ran into San Francisco’s Baghdad Cafe and stole several knives, then started dancing with them in the street outside.

“He was obviously having some type of mental breakdown," Ferreira said. “Two cops showed up. He supposedly lunged at one of them, and they shot him, and he died.”

Akbar's death made the news. Ferreira remembered one article describing his friend as a violent homeless man. He said it didn't mention that Akbar had gone to UC Berkeley or been a straight-A student.

“I can't leave it up to the guy that wrote that article about Jihad to tell the world about him,” he remembered thinking. “It's literally my job to tell the world about him.”

At this point, Ferreira had been rapping for several years. In 2003, he got together with a singer and a guitarist at an Oakland recording studio and started a group called Flipsyde.

“If you go back through all our songs, 90-95% of them deal with how this system victimizes people," he said. “I'm carrying everything with me — all the people that have passed away with me — and I'm working as hard as I possibly can.”

The group took off. Flipsyde traveled the world with Snoop Dogg, Akon and the Black Eyed Peas. In 2006, NBC made their song "Someday" the theme song for their Winter Olympics coverage. But they were always a bigger deal abroad than they were back home.

“I needed to do more than just write a song,” Ferreira said.

For Ferreira, the turning point came on New Year’s Day in 2009. In the early hours of the morning, Oscar Grant was shot by a white police officer on the platform of Oakland's Fruitvale BART Station. His death was filmed by bystanders. Ferreira watched the video and took to the streets.

“I go to the protest,” he said. “And I remember a journalist was interviewing artists. And he said, ‘What can we do as artists to make sure this never happens again?’ ”

The question left him reeling, then frustrated him.

“There's one person that decided to pull the trigger to kill my partner, Jihad,” he said. “He was a cop. [And] if a miracle happens and we get rid of this cop, who's going to replace him?”

Ferreira said he struggled with that question for a while. Then, he said, “I thought, ‘I should start thinking about going into law enforcement.’”

Surviving the Battle

When Ferreira first told his family he was thinking of becoming a cop, they were terrified for him — and a few relatives were angry. Ferreira wondered whether he would be allowed to join law enforcement at all.

“I’ve been all over the world, rapping in front of Snoop’s weed plants,” he said.

But in 2010, with a friend’s encouragement, Ferreira put down $5,000 and enrolled in the Alameda County Sheriff Academy. On his first day, he walked into a classroom with over 50 other recruits. Only five of them were Black men.

“When you're in there, it's eye opening," Ferreira said. "You see all these people being trained, and a lot of them are good dudes. It's like being on a football team.”

The officers who trained the recruits were tough and protective, he said.

“Their whole thing is, ‘My students will survive the battle. They will live,’” said Ferreira. “You watch videos of cops being killed, and they pick those videos apart.”

Ferreira doesn’t remember watching or analyzing any videos where the cops were the ones that killed people. According to Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Sgt. Ray Kelly, the department now includes videos of officer-involved shootings in their trainings, but they didn’t when Ferreira was in the academy. Ferreira also said they didn't really go into the history of the communities they'd be policing.

He expected to get kicked out of the Academy. Instead, he gave a speech at their graduation. By 2011, Ferreira was on the force, policing some of the same neighborhoods he was born and raised in.


Good Cops and Bad Cops

Some calls bothered him more than others. Like the one that came in about “a Black man with a knife at a bar.”

“He was threatening the bartender and wouldn't pay,” Ferreira said. “I was the first dude on scene. The woman was screaming. I just ran in, and I saw him. We definitely made eye contact, and he kind of just paused, and he looked at me.”

Ferreira said he must have drawn his gun at some point, but he can’t remember doing it.

“He backed away from the bar,” he said. “And I just remember talking to him.”

Other cops arrived at the scene and put the man in handcuffs.

“It wasn’t until after that I thought about Jihad,” said Ferreira. “If I was that cop, would I have pulled the trigger?”

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Now that Ferreira was in law enforcement, certain details about his friend Akbar's death stood out to him. The cop who shot Akbar said he lunged forward with a knife.

“I know how we were trained in the Academy,” Ferreira said. “I know what use-of-force laws matter, and I know how the reports are going to be written. [That] pretty much determines whether or not the cop is going to get off.”

“Cops can do a lot, legally,” he added. “Being in law enforcement ... you'll read an article where a cop shot somebody, or you'll see it happen. And you'll think to yourself, ‘That was legal, but he should not have done that.’ ”

These moments disturbed Ferreira. So during his off hours, he wrote a one-man theatrical performance called "Cops & Robbers." He performed it at The Marsh Arts Center in Berkeley in 2014 and assumed he’d get fired for writing it. Instead, he was invited to join the Sheriff's Office's new Youth and Family Bureau Crime Prevention Unit, which runs after-school activities and works with therapists and neighborhood leaders.

Ferreira said his team was open-minded and worked hard. But as the years went by, other parts of the Sheriff’s Office were rocked by scandals. In 2015, two deputies were caught on video brutally beating a suspect. In 2018, a sergeant was charged with illegally recording conversations between juvenile suspects and their attorneys.

“So-called good cops and community policing cops around the country have done a terrible job of protecting the community from bad cops,” said Ferreira.

Ferreira said a lot of the community leaders he talked to didn't trust law enforcement to run after-school activities or work with therapists. They just wanted them to go away.

Turning in His Badge

The night Ferreira responded to the call for shots fired and saw the man dead in the parking lot, he remembered thinking the shooting may have been justified. He also remembered thinking it might not have been.

It was March 2019 and he’d been a deputy for eight years. After the shooting, he turned in his badge.

When he looks back on his years in law enforcement, Ferreira feels conflicted.

“Working in law enforcement is hard,” he said. “I'm also proud of the time that I spent there.”

At the same time, he said, “There isn't an American institution that doesn't participate in anti-Blackness. Law enforcement is just the most visceral, the most impactful. It kills people. Now.”

Ferreira and Flipsyde have gotten back together again, and he's working on a TV series about his experiences in law enforcement. He’s also protesting.

“I'm proud of the people in the streets,” he said. “To see these people out in the streets, demanding a different world? It's humbling."

This story originally aired on the radio program and podcast WorldAffairs.


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