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The life of a black cop in Ferguson

Seeing that a fellow African-American police officer had endured his fill of racial slurs shouted by other blacks in Ferguson, Mo., Sgt. Harry Dilworth tapped the man's shoulder and took his place facing protesters.

Riots after the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer make it a tough time to be on the Ferguson police force — and for Dilworth that goes double if the person in blue happens to be black.

Most of the insults he heard on the line that day are too graphic to print. Among the more polite are "sellout," and "Uncle Tom," Dilworth said. He had stood with two other black officers, one from the Missouri Highway Patrol and one from the St. Louis County police.

"We didn't blink," he said in an interview. "We didn't say anything to them. We stood there and took it. We all talked about it afterwards. I said, 'Don't address ignorance with ignorance.'

"But it's hard to hear that from the minority group that you are representing. ... You tune it out, but psychologically you're dealing with scars. Some officers are going to see counselors. We're not robots."

Dilworth believes their hard facade is fueling some of the fire. "I think it pisses them off even more because they think we're unemotional," he said. "We feel, but we can't show that because as soon as we say something we will be all over the news ... I can't so much as spit on the sidewalk right now without someone throwing it on social media."

Black and white officers agree that the blacks have been targeted more on the front lines of policing the troubles after Michael Brown's death. They feel caught between empathizing with a brother officer who used deadly force and understanding a community that is venting pent-up rage against police.

Dilworth, 45, wishes he could retire, but feels a draw to stay in the community he has served for 21 years.

Even on ordinary calls for service, some taunt him with the "hands up don't shoot'" gesture widely adopted by protesters. "You can only take so much of this," Dilworth said.

Dilworth had been at Fort Leonard Wood fulfilling his duties as an Army reservist the day of the shooting. He said his wife wishes he were in Iraq or Afghanistan. "She thinks I would be safer there," he said.

Dilworth is the only black supervisor and one of four African-American officers on a force of 53 in a community where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black.

His teeth clenched as he drove past a protester holding a sign that read "Stop Killing Us." He questioned why protesters don't hold such signs at the scenes of murders, such as the recent killing in St. Louis of Donnie White. Dilworth said he knew White, who was on the way home from work when he got caught in crossfire between suspected black gangs.

"We are not killing you, you are killing yourselves," he said, his voice rising inside his police SUV. "This is a systematic problem that's been going on for years. I want to tell them to wake up! And look at exactly what the problem really is! Look at the statistics. The number of officer-involved shootings is relatively low. I stand a better chance of being killed by you."

Dilworth said computer hackers published personal information about him, on the Internet. "Someone tried to buy a $37,000 truck in my name," he said.

Take-home patrol cars are now parked at police headquarters. "Imagine having a Ferguson police car parked in front of your house right now?" Dilworth said. "It's like walking around with a scarlet letter.

"The community has become divided because people are looking at this as a black and white thing, like a poor black kid got shot by a white guy. It wouldn't be that way if it was a black officer. I guarantee you that."

Dilworth didn't know Michael Brown. He said he barely knows Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown. Wilson was in a different squad.

He is reluctant to judge the shooting. "It's hard for me to question because I was not put in that situation ... For every one witness that said they saw it one way, there are those who said they saw it another way."

Dilworth draws some strength from the loyalty of residents to their community. He could hardly turn down a street without seeing an "I Love Ferguson" sign in someone's yard.

He waved to a black man mowing his lawn. The man waved back.

"He waved and had all his fingers up," Dilworth said. "I consider that as a positive thing."