What Cops Need to Do If They Want the Public's Trust
I'm a public safety guy; I help craft strategies to curb the most serious violence in our most troubled communities. American gun violence is concentrated in poor black neighborhoods: At a time when the national homicide rate is down to about 5 per 100,000 every year, young black men in some areas are murdered at rates of 500 per 100,000 or higher. Research shows that people in these areas respect the law, hate violence, and want to be safe. But they don't trust the police. They don't think the police will help them or hold themselves accountable. So when trouble arises, that lack of trust leads a few to take things into their own hands.
And—we're getting to it now—why should they trust the police, who are the most visible face of our government? The cold fact of American history is that black people's experience of that government has been one of oppression. Our country was founded on slavery; in many places the origins of policing were in slave patrols. After slavery ended, it was the police who enforced segregation and much worse. When the civil rights reforms of the 1960s did away with Jim Crow laws, the police were on the front end of the "war on crime" and "war on drugs" that created mass incarceration. A black man is more likely to go to prison now than before we ended Jim Crow.
There is good work being done to reform policing—from recruiting officers who better reflect the communities they police to training them in implicit bias, de-escalation, and transparency. But nothing can undo history. If black communities are to trust the police, and if we are to increase public safety, we must purposefully break from the past. Many in law enforcement agree. Last fall Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told a crowd of his peers that police had often been "the face of oppression" and needed to "acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society's historical mistreatment of communities of color." He got a standing ovation. That Cunningham had the courage to say this, and that so many officers embraced it, is big.
Reconciliation is possible. It starts with the sort of frank admissions Cunningham made, continues with both sides telling their stories, and requires that we address the damage done and remedy our failures going forward.
At a recent meeting of black pastors—friends of the police—I asked the men to raise their hand if they'd never been profiled. No hands went up. I routinely ask black friends if they know somebody who was murdered or somebody in prison; nobody says no. I ask white friends these questions, and they look at me like I'm crazy. Until school shootings gave them a tiny taste of what many black parents live with, I didn't know any white parents who worried their kids would leave in the morning and not come home. I still don't know any who worry very much that the police will shoot their sons.
Public safety means not being afraid of our neighbors; it also means not being afraid of the government, its agents, and its power. That, bluntly, has never been true for black Americans, and if we are to become the country we want to be, this has to change.
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