After ruptures between police and communities, can words heal?

Story highlights

  • Rachel Wahl: Former SF police officer's bigoted texts show why police and communities of color need to engage more openly
  • Dialogue forums are not a panacea but they can be a start, she says

Rachel L. Wahl is an assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Foundations, and Policy in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and the author of the forthcoming book "Just Violence: Torture and Human Rights in the Eyes of the Police." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Even if you're lucky enough never to have experienced them personally, police violence and racist remarks are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Stories such as the recent resignation of a San Francisco police officer after racist and homophobic text messages he sent came to light -- not to mention multiple incidents of police disregard for or violence toward communities of color -- fill the airways.

Judging from what we read and see on television, some critics might say the police themselves are nothing but "wild animals" -- the term San Francisco police officer Jason Lai recently used to describe African Americans in a text sent during the civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray. Making that assumption about the police would be a mistake, however, despite the deep pessimism about state authority incidents like these provoke.
    Rachel L. Wahl
    Bridging divides, rather than deepening them, is part of the important work to be done in the days ahead. We shouldn't assume the worst of the police for exactly the same reason that we can't dismiss the content of Lai's text messages: when it comes to improving interactions between police and their communities, words -- along with legal accountability for police -- can be powerful tools, and we should take them seriously.
    Dialogue is a critical way to bridge the often entrenched divides between police and communities of color. A small number of cities in the United States, such as Charlottesville, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, have begun holding community forums between the police and communities of color. In order to protect the identities of the people I have spoken to, I have agreed not to disclose the locations of the forums I have attended, but as part of my work I have been observing some of these forums first-hand and interviewing participants afterward to understand whether and how they might succeed.
    These forums are meant to improve the relationship between the police and diverse communities in two ways. First, the forums offer people a voice in developing new policies and practices in regard to police behavior. Police and community members deliberate together about the problems they face and devise potential solutions. For example, in one forum in a small Southern city, community members and police agreed that officers should spend more time on foot rather than in their cars and take the time to get to know people in the neighborhoods they police.
    Second, the forums themselves are meant to be part of the solution. By bringing police and community members together, it is hoped, they will begin to really see each other's humanity and as a result, police treatment of diverse populations may improve. For instance, one woman at a recent forum was surprised by the concern expressed by a police officer in her discussion circle and expressed relief that some people on the force are willing to talk through difficult issues. A police officer at a forum specifically for Latino immigrants gained a new understanding of why the former are sometimes forced to drive illegally. He listened to painful stories of undocumented workers who are barred from obtaining legal licenses but who must risk driving without them in order to support their families. This officer cannot change the law, but it is possible that he will look for ways to help rather than merely punish those who break this law in the future.
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    The promise in these forums is the very real possibility that police officers will come to better understand the problems faced by diverse communities. As a result, some of these officers may begin to sympathize or connect with community members as individuals -- prompting police to treat people from these communities with more respect.
    Dialogue forums are not a panacea. They will not build better systems; indeed, they may run the risk of obscuring structural problems like racism or inequality by focusing on individuals' relationships and sympathies. They also risk marginalizing or alienating community members who make demands or whose recommendations the police do not take.
    But these dangers can be addressed. Forums can be used as a platform to identify and address systemic and structural problems. Forum facilitators should be trained to respond encouragingly not only to those who seek common ground, but also to people who are critical of the police. And the police department can stay in close communication with people who attend the forums, following up on progress toward solving problems and explaining their reasoning if they don't adopt a community member's suggestions.
    For example, while police and communities may both want officers to spend more time out of their cars and in neighborhoods, financial and organizational constraints may prevent such changes from being made in the short-term. The police should explain such obstacles -- and follow up with people on what they are doing to overcome them.
    None of this work is easy. There is a huge difference between dialogue that makes progress on already-established trust between police and communities of color and forums that seek -- as perhaps would be the case in San Francisco this week -- to build trust if not from scratch, then from a place of skepticism and pain. There are also tensions between people who believe that community participation in building better relationships with the police can create change, and those who insist that trust is earned -- and that change can only happen after the police change their behavior toward diverse communities first.
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    In spite of these difficulties, though, forums offer a means to bring together police and diverse communities in an exchange of words that have emotional power. People look into each other's eyes. They speak not to ideas about the other but to individuals. This cannot be the solution, but it is a start.