WASHINGTON — Officer Carlton Wilhoit is one of the many faces of police officers you'll find on the streets during protests happening in the district.
He's from the area. He joined the Metropolitan Police Department in 2015. He now helps patrol spots close to where he grew up.
He also experienced police brutality years before becoming an officer.
It all happened in Prince George's County as he, his sister and a friend were driving to his grandfather's home.
With the driveway a short distance away, Wilhoit was pulled over and experienced a moment that would change his life.
"The interaction was super aggressive. It went from asking for my license and registration all the way up to questioning me why I was there," he said. "There was an exchange of words between me and the officer and next thing you know, I’m getting pulled out, pepper-sprayed, punched. I was handcuffed and taken to Upper Marlboro processing.”
"I later found out the reason I was pulled over was that my tag light was out," he added.
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Years later, despite the horror of the moment that occurred, the experience led to Wilhoit wanting to become a police officer. His uncle urged him to join the DC force.
"He was like, 'This would be the perfect department for you.' It turns out that was rightfully so," he said. "The reason why I thought being an officer would be perfect is that I didn’t want anybody to experience the same thing I experienced.”
Now, Officer Wilhoit finds himself on the front lines guarding DC streets and businesses as protests occur following the death of George Floyd.
He's seen the video of Floyd's death. He's seen the way the officers in Minneapolis conducted themselves. Like many, he was horrified at what he saw.
"As far as my training is concerned, we don’t do chokeholds in my department at all," the officer said. "At that moment, I didn’t feel like what was going on in that video should have happened. I just can’t stand by it. I can see why everyone is upset. Literally people watched George Floyd die in front of the camera.”
Days later, he continues to hear the protesters shout at him and call officers derogatory names.
He knows the pain behind the issue.
"To see a lot of people upset, it’s hard to internalize and process. I can speak for a lot of people in my position. You kind of feel disposable. Every good thing you’ve done in the past feels like it's unwritten because someone did something terrible; like what happened with George Floyd and countless others before him," Wilhoit said. "It’s extremely difficult because, at the end of the day, you’re angry because of what’s going on. A lot of officers are extremely conflicted because it’s like, 'Hey, I signed up for this job to literally protect the people and stand up for people who cannot stand up for themselves.'”
While Wilhoit was stationed near the White House on Sunday as hundreds of protesters chanted and waved signs, one moment, in particular, stands out.
Near the intersection of 15th and H, Wilhoit and his fellow officers faced a group of dozens of protesters.
A block from the main rally, a peaceful discussion between protesters and the officers played out. Wilhoit and other officers spoke of their motivations to join the department and the need for a more diverse police force.
The protesters told them of their own experiences with police and the issues they see.
For Wilhoit, the moment reminded him of why he wanted to become an officer.
"It was a powerful moment. That’s what people want. People want to be heard," he said. "It was peaceful. It was informative. It was enlightening.”
Wilhoit's mission to hear from others continued on Thursday when he held a "digital town hall" inside a Zoom chat.
While the crowd was small, the officer was able to describe the training officers go through and the personal experience he has had while being an officer. He also heard stories from others and was asked about topics like police training and tactics.
"I just felt like I needed to do something and say something because I didn’t agree with what took place. I had to say something," Wilhoit said. "I wanted to have a Zoom virtual town hall meeting so everyone can be comfortable. Everyone can just show up.”
With the protests continuing around the country, Wilhoit will keep guarding the city and serving on the front lines.
However, above all else, he wants protesters to know they are being heard.
"I want people to understand not only that what’s going on is wrong but you’re not alone in this," he said. "Yes, we work for the police department but we sympathize and we feel exactly what you’re feeling.”
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