Black Mayors and Protesters hold the key to transforming policing so the senseless deaths of many will not be in vain
What has the U.S. become? Yes, our ancestors lived through the most inhumane form of slavery the world has known and many of us baby boomers endured Jim Crow. Others have lived through or heard family stories of lynchings and experienced decades of the mass incarceration of our sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands–and sometimes daughters too. Given this history why does another shooting of an unarmed Black man send chills down my spine? Why does my heart break into pieces? Why do the tragedies seem personal to me, as if the victims were my children?
Jacob Blake, the 29 year-old father of six lies in a hospital bed fighting for his life while, according to his parents, authorities have him shackled to his bed frame with handcuffs. Blake was shot down like a vicious animal in the presence of three of his young children? What authority prior to trial (notwithstanding the fact that I oppose the death penalty), has the right to decide who lives or dies? What is reasonable about shooting a man seven times in the back?
And what about Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17 year-old vigilante arrested two days later, allowed to walk freely among the demonstrators with a semi automatic long gun after he snuffed out the lives of two white Black Lives Matter supporters and wounded a third? The heavily armed paramilitary government forces who guarded property that night oddly found no reasonable cause to arrest or critically injure him as they did Blake a short while before. Instead, they tossed him water to quench his thirst.
Each time I hear about a police shooting it reminds me of my own complicated relationship with the men in blue. It does not seem a bit odd to hear myself saying, “at least I am alive.” How bizarre it must be when after an encounter with sworn peace officers the best we can say is, “we survived.”
I have been stopped for suspicious reasons and had officers clutch their pistols while waiting nervously for me to show them my license and registration. A hot-headed cop took out a warrant against me for allegedly making an improper left turn. He became angry and out of control when I challenged his allegation, so much so that the encounter could have easily escalated into violence. On another occasion, one night while my family and I slept, we were awakened in the middle of the night by officers banging on our door trying to serve a warrant to the wrong party and house. No apology was offered afterwards, but this mistake could have turned deadly like in the case of Breonna Taylor.
I stand over 6 feet tall and have coffee brown skin. Most of my life, by virtue of my physical appearance, I have been perceived by many as being a threat. Today as a father in his sixties, I have trouble explaining to my 29 year-old daughter the meaning of these police shootings and why after all this time Black life seems so meaningless to cops.
As much as I have grown up under the belief that cops often act like pigs, I have also later in life had positive interactions with the police. As a city councilman, I befriended the leaders and members of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO), a pro-cop organization that many in the African American community hold responsible for so many cops being set free after being charged with murder. I once attended an IBPO national conference in Boston in the early 1990s as a guest of the Atlanta chapter. Then Sen. Joseph Biden delivered the keynote address and autographed a photo for my wife after discovering she was, at the time, an admirer.
As I have grown older and grayed around the temples I’ve come to see cops in a more nuanced way. They are not all pigs. I have got to see how, as a fraternal order, they cling together like family. And certainly living in a tough inner city neighborhood all my life, I know that when crime occurs the community expects quick and appropriate responses on the part of the police. When they ask for protection from the law, they are not asking for abusive and overly aggressive policing. They expect the human and civil rights of both victims and suspects to be respected.
But this is not what we see today or have seen in the past. Too many white officers are fearful of people in the neighborhoods they patol. They don’t approach Black communities as if Black Lives matter. Is this a factor of improper training, a macho warrior law enforcement culture, or an awareness that most cops get off when they do wrong? Whatever it is, increasing numbers of Americans are taking to the street and placing their bodies in between themselves and the police. They want policing in America transformed.
I have no pearls of wisdom but I believe things would improve if just a few reforms would be fully embraced by police departments. First, cops need to live in neighborhoods where they patrol. This may require that local governments subsidize housing for them but in the end the benefits would exceed the costs. Next, white police officers need cultural competence training and they need it throughout their tenure. In fact, this should be a Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) requirement for gaining and keeping certification. Police officers also need ongoing psychological evaluation and counseling. Some of the stressful situations they encounter on a routine basis would affect anyone’s mental health.
And finally, it goes without saying that officers who break the law should be brought to justice swiftly. In a free society, no one is above the law. And most difficult to change, are the so-called blue codes of silence that must be cracked. Cops must internalize the belief that they are servants of the people and not of the profession of policing.
Looking forward, there are more impressive young black men and women mayors heading up our major cities and subsequently local police departments today than ever before. They should form alliances with the multiracial and well intentioned demonstrators and lead the way in transforming policing in their cities. It is only by doing this will we see less senseless loss of Black lives at the hands of the police and the deaths of those in the past will not have been in vain.