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Real-Life Stories of Race and Policing

The president's recent Task Force on 21st Century Policing had one big omission: historical context. If we are going to reform police behavior, that means recognizing the underpinnings of African-American discrimination in the United States and using it as a launching point for a broader dialogue.
(Photo: AstroStar/Shutterstock)

(Photo: AstroStar/Shutterstock)

“Black lives matter” has become the rallying cry of the modern racial justice movement in America. But when it comes to translating that rallying cry into real change, “in this country, black death matters more,” said Professor Greg Carr, chair of Afro-American Studies at Howard University at a recent New America event. Carr, who convened with other panelists to discuss new recommendations that emerged from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, explained that even as America has struggled to address racism as a structural problem historically, “the only thing that moves this country to act at the federal level is the sacrifice of black folks.” To make his point, he cited the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all passed in the wake of violence—the deaths of little girls at a church in Birmingham, Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King—during a “season of blood.”

Could these task force recommendations pave the way for a better future? Some of the panelists expressed tentative optimism, while others said they didn’t do enough. Among the most wide-ranging concerns in the discussion: since most policing happens at the local level, is it possible to identify and bridge the gaps between this federal report’s recommendations and the lived reality playing out in relationships between police officers and communities coast to coast?

“I think it’s a step—it is the beginning,” said Tanya Clay House, director of public policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. “We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be done.” House believes the report highlights the need for a “major disruptive force” to deal with implicit bias in policing and the criminal justice system “on all levels”—municipal, state, and federal.

Trying to deal with social problems that “require interventions other than law enforcement” can make police officers cynical.

It may deal with bias on all levels—but what about all sides? Sergeant Delroy A. Burton of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department pointed out that “bias is a two-way street” between the police and citizens wary of trusting them. Bias may go both ways, objected Carr, but “it’s one thing to have implicit bias when you don’t have a gun.”

The biggest gap Burton sees between the report’s pages and real life on the streets is a “resource problem.” Of the more than 18,000 police departments in America, “most” have fewer than 50 members (Carr cited a figure that half are 10 people or less) and therefore do not have the resources to implement the changes recommended by the task force. “The fact of the matter is that in terms of training, professionalism, and all the things they talk about that they want the police to do, when it comes down to the actual pocketbook issue of paying for that kind of service, we balk,” said Burton, who is chairman of the D.C. Police Union and a board member of the District of Columbia Police Officers Standards and Training Board.

Carr echoed Burton’s assessment and added that the task force’s report missed critical opportunities to acknowledge recent and deep historical contexts for and patterns of racism in policing. For Carr, the gap between local and national concerns isn’t the report’s central disconnect; rather, it’s the “very clear evasion of the problem” of the contrast between American ideals and real life. “A generation ago it was Bernhard Goetz, now it’s George Zimmerman,” Carr said.

Another key problem Burton identified is that the police have become the face of political decisions made by others. Stop and frisk, for instance, was “not a policy instituted by the police department” in New York City—it and other “broken windows” enforcement policies were “what the political establishment wanted.... The people who had the power to change what was happening at Ferguson City Council and Ferguson City Hall didn’t use it,” Burton observed. To take action and effect change, communities need to “exercise their political power to shape who makes the decisions about who shapes the police department and what they want the police department to do.”

In one exchange, Burton and Carr acknowledged and described the damage done when police officers and community members experience the worst of each other. “The reality is,” Burton said, “[that] I’m just dealing with the bad kids—most kids are good.” Trying to deal with social problems that “require interventions other than law enforcement” can make police officers cynical. At the same time, Carr affirmed that the “verbal judo” approach Burton said D.C. police officers are trained to use, which includes things like introducing themselves during traffic stops, did not match up with his own experience. “The white officer who pulled me over” did not introduce himself, Carr interjected. He said, “You got somebody to pick you up? Because you’re going to jail tonight”—even before asking for Carr’s license and registration.

This problem of how to deal with a violent or racist few while serving a majority of “good kids” and officers who do protect and serve resonated with House. She agreed that while events like the deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice may illustrate larger historical contexts and social problems whose impacts go beyond police departments, “we still need have to deal with” the consequences of these incidents on an individual level. “We’re people ... so each of us has to deal with our individual bias.” For her part, House said she will soon have “The Talk” with her elementary-aged son, who is tall for his age, about how to interact with the police. She also participates in trainings for youth held by the National Bar Association whose “main message is that you need to survive that encounter [with the police].... That is, unfortunately, the message that many feel has to be given right now.”

Each discussant agreed on the need for robust community oversight over and better training and resource allocation for police departments. “There can be national oversight but it has to be informed by local reality,” House said. She and Burton both suggested that federal and state governments should offer incentives to localities to apply for grants that could help fund better implementation of uniform standards of conduct and training. Carr compared police officers to teachers as undervalued members of the “civic polity.” “We know what we value in this country by how we help people achieve a standard of excellence,” he said. “Police officers should be well trained, they should be well-educated, [and] well compensated—teachers the same way.”

Toward the end of the conversation, Burton captured the mood of the discussion—a mix of consensus and principled disagreement. “Conversations like this need to take place,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of demagoguery on both sides, and if we talk past one another and never listen to the other person’s perspective, we’ll be back here in about a year or two when the next incident happens.”

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.