It is easier in a society where people share a common religion, a common culture, and a respect for those in authority. There are places in rural and small town America where people think that their community is like that. Here, the police are respected, admired and welcome. However, even in these places, there is usually a neighborhood, perhaps on the other side of the tracks, where the police are viewed with suspicion, more feared than welcome. In this neighborhood, people realize that they are a part of a multi-cultural society, and they are fully aware of which group is in power.
In America, the problem often comes down to race. Despite the real progress in civil rights over the last century, despite the prominence of African Americans in government, sports, and the media, most black people still feel the legacy, the stigma, of slavery, particularly in their interactions with the police. Take, for example, the war on drugs. Although the plague of drugs is a national problem affecting all areas of the society, the war falls most heavily on blacks. So many young black men are being incarcerated that it is bound to have an impact on the community. Meanwhile, the popular culture lionizes gangsters, the only ones with money who continue to live in the poor communities. Young, rebellious adolescent boys adopt the dress, the swagger, and sometimes the criminal behavior of the alluring, powerful men around them. This leads to a vicious cycle, in which police, and indeed the general public, see blacks as likely perpetrators of crime, and blacks see police as a source of harassment, intimidation and repression.
Recently, several deaths of black men at the hand of white police have become the focus of controversy. Looking at the same facts, different groups of Americans come to starkly different conclusions. One group, mostly white and “conservative”, sees these as isolated incidents where good, brave policemen faced difficult situations. Though these people usually acknowledge the tragedy of the unnecessary death, they emphasize that things could have been much worse, with policemen killed. These people are satisfied with the investigations that followed and trust the ultimate conclusions that the police’s actions were justifiable in each case. Others, particularly blacks, see these incidents as the tip of an iceberg of police harassment and intimidation. These deaths are cases where the police bullying got out of control. They want the perpetrators to be punished and the bullying to stop.
Today, things are escalating. People are protesting, and the protests occasionally descend into riots. Each time another young black man dies at the hands of police somewhere in America, the information gets splashed across the internet, providing fresh fuel for both the protest and the police reaction.
How can we break this cycle? Can we maintain oder and enforce the law in a way that is fair to black Americans?
I have good news: the answer is embedded what that radical, Jesus, preached so long ago: “love thy neighbor as thyself”. For those of us who are more moderate, for whom this seems an impossibly high ideal, simply start from the premise that we are in this together and that we should treat each other with respect. Rather than intimidating people, partner with them. Involve the community in providing order, and more order will follow. Enable the community to hold the police accountable for their actions, just as the police require the community members to live within the law. Police in a way that honors our democratic ideals.
This might sound like impractical religious idealism from a peacenik with no experience in policing, but it comes from Jeffrey Blackwell, the Chief of Police in Cincinnati, in a talk given to MARCC (Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati) on December 10. What he sometimes refers to as “Constitutional Policing” comes out of the collaborative agreement that Cincinnati Police, the ACLU and the Cincinnati Black United Front reached after the protests that followed the police killing of an unarmed teenager in 2001. At first, the police did not like the change in their procedures, the additional paper work, or the intrusion of outsiders looking over their shoulder. However, with time, they adapted to the changes. As this new approach proved successful, the police embraced these changes. Now, even after the agreement is no longer binding, they are continuing most of the practices. They use evidence, including input from the community, to determine how to deploy their resources. Under the leadership of Blackwell, they are expanding their involvement in the community, with tutoring programs, summer basketball programs, and other activities to embed the police into the community. Thus, there has been a major cultural shift in the police department since 2001. And it is working.
Of course, there are still tragic incidents. This August, white cops killed a black man in an incident that began with something petty. The victim’s name was Donyale Rowe; he was a passenger in a car pulled over for a minor traffic violation. Although this is superficially similar to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, in fact, it wasn’t. To begin with, the Cincinnati Police Department hid nothing. They quickly named the officers involved. They released the video from the squad car to the public. Because of the history with the collaborative agreement, the police department had a working relationship with independent people who were trusted by the black community; these people reviewed the evidence and concluded that the police had acted appropriately. Donyale Rowe had a gun and intended to use it. Although this death is tragic and Donyale Rowe’s life mattered, nobody protested. There was nothing to protest.
Thus, in almost every detail, this incident was entirely different from the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Rather than list all of the things that ham-handed Ferguson police did wrong, which was pretty much everything, I want to point to the larger picture. There was no possibility that the Ferguson police could have handled the Michael Brown killing as smoothly as the Cincinnati police could handle a similar incident, because the Ferguson police have done nothing to establish trust with the community. The difference is not just in how the one incident was handled, but in the entire approach that the police take toward their job. In Ferguson, they adopt the antiquated approach that Blackwell calls “Big Me, Little You”, where the police intimidate people rather than listen to them. In Cincinnati, the police engage with the community to solve their problems together.
In his talk to MARCC, Blackwell described the problem faced by towns like Ferguson. Poor people live where the rent is low. As the inner city gets revitalized and gentrified, the poor move out to suburban towns where they can afford to live. In Ferguson, the once dominant group is being displaced. Soon, the police force finds itself in charge of a different community, one it has neither the training or cultural background to serve. Disasters like the Michael Brown shooting naturally result.
Unfortunately, things in Ferguson are going to remain bad for a while. Even now, the government is planning to make up for a budget shortfall by increased police ticketing. In other words, rather than focusing on maintaining order, the police are raising money. When combined with their archaic policing practices, this is a prescription for more resentment and conflict between the police and the black community. Worse, Ferguson officials are ignoring the sometimes devastating effect these petty fines have on the lives of people struggling to get by. Evidently, these officials have learned nothing from the protests. Though they may give lip service to government for all, their actions show little concern for the lives of people outside their power base.
Because the new residents have not been showing up at the polls, the old group is still in power in Ferguson. However, it’s very hard to suppress the majority for long in a democracy. Soon, the majority black population will start to vote, and Ferguson will have a new government. Let us hope they do not simply express their resentment by saying “Now it is our turn,” providing government that is no better, just with a different group in charge.
Rather, let us hope that they implement the successful model of policing that we have in Cincinnati, “Constitutional Policing”, that can make things better for all. Damon Lynch III, former president of the Cincinnati Black United Front, has visited Ferguson “to share Cincinnati’s story of struggle and success.” In addition, similar approaches to policing have been put in place in Los Angeles and other major cities, and the president has appointed a new task force to promote community oriented policing. Thus, there is reason to hope that in the long run, Cincinnati’s success will be replicated in Ferguson, and across the nation.