Cases involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two black men dead seemingly at the hands of white police officers cause no end of talk, rage, social media memes and public outrage. Grand juries, unable to find proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that these deaths were criminally caused, seem hogtied by justice systems. Pundits share tidbits about the cases legal and social implications. The public shares grief, rage and fear – the title of this post comes from a man who stopped at the spot where Eric Garner died and who spoke to Garner’s stepfather during protests last night.
What is the future? Police retraining? More oversight on grand juries? More laws? I think its time to re-examine the way our society polices communities, who does that policing and how.
Too many communities composed of African-Americans or Latinos are policed by only white officers who do not live in or have any ties to these communities. Fear of the police among community members leads to avoidance of officers who cruise by in their patrol cars. Fewer police departments than ever have beat cops who walk around the neighborhoods. Police officers themselves are fearful of the people they come into contact with – any one of whom could wield a weapon against those officers. There is no real contact between officers and the communities they serve.
White police officers today seem to be either legacies among generations of police families, or retired military who chose to continue their service in a different way. It’s a mindset. Few Black or Hispanic choose to become police officers. Why? There isn’t the mindset to do so. It is not seen as a good choice for a career. True, places like New York City have mandates that force diversity among serving officers. Still, that does not bring officers into a community where they can get to know the people they serve, or create strong ties between community members and officers. This is one big place where our society fails, and we pay for it in the deaths of people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
There have been small studies done, small attempts to change the prevailing attitudes. Some law enforcement departments now have community liaisons who are known and can be called upon by community residents. Other departments mandate language lessons so that officers speak the same language as the residents they serve. And still others offer classes to immigrant community members so that they may become familiar with police procedures in local areas. None of this really gets to the heart of the need to change cultures here.
The best change would be to have police officers come from the communities they wind up serving. As people known in the community it would be easier for them to talk to residents, to get a sense of what is going on and report if necessary on problems. Police departments could offer ‘hazard bonus pay’ to those officers who volunteer to serve in high-risk communities, who become part of the community. Less fear on the parts of both sides might lead to less confrontation. Knowing who you can turn to if things go wrong and who will help you through legal processes could make differences in how crimes are investigated and solved.
What about crime ridden areas where gangs hold sway? Gangs can be seen by communities as the true police. Here are people who have ties to the community and look out for their neighbors. Mess with this mom or grandmom, or these kids, and you might find bodies stuffed in sewers later. How can police, seen by these communities as interlopers and outsiders, ever be accepted by communities like this? Not in this culture or time. Change here should come from within. Creating opportunities for people who might become gang members to serve on the side of the law, to understand how to help their communities legally might make some difference. Opportunities for economic advancement, opportunities to do more than run with a pack of troublemakers and wind up in jail – create better and you get better.
The future of American communities in relation to local police departments needs scrutiny. What do we want? Mostly we want peaceful neighborhoods and residents. How we get there is going to depend on what we do in the coming years. Continue to feed a sense of fear and mistrust and we will have more Eric Garners, more Michael Browns. Change how policing is done, and we might just make the future brighter for a lot more people.