David A. Love: After acquittals in the shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Sylville K. Smith, relations between police and communities are under scrutiny
As the US approaches July 13 -- second anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell -- the public wants justice and seeks solutions, Love writes
Editor’s Note: David A. Love writes for thegrio.com. He is a writer and commentator based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove. Turner and Time Warner are sponsors of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, mentioned below. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The acquittals of police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the death of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota; and the not guilty verdict in the trial of former police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown in the death of Sylville K. Smith, 23, in Milwaukee, come on the heels of new fatal police shootings, like that of Charleena Lyles, 30, a pregnant mother of four, who was shot to death by Seattle police in her apartment after she called to report a burglary.
As the US approaches July 13, the second anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell, the public wants justice and seeks solutions. Even the military has rules of engagement regarding civilian populations, and yet some communities feel the police are an occupying force that regard them as enemy combatants.
Finding the answers to how police and the neighborhoods they serve can come together and end the conflict requires that we understand and address the root of the problem. A recent community conversation I moderated on race in the community, which was sponsored by Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, raised multiple questions and possibilities for how America might make positive change in the relationship between communities and police.
Atlanta, like so many other cities, is grappling with these issues, too, and its example may offer insight to other communities as they struggle. The city is ahead of the curve, but arrived there the hard way – as a result of issues with police training, misconduct and disastrous numbers-driven policing. Things came to a head with a botched 2006 drug raid resulting in the police killing of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year old grandmother, and a warrantless raid on the Atlanta Eagle Bar, a gay bar, in 2009. The raids led to state and federal investigations, federal lawsuits against the city of Atlanta and the police, and resulted in fired and imprisoned police officers. Some major reforms included a civilian review board, court-mandated retraining on lawful search and seizure procedures, restrictions on “no-knock” search warrants, mandatory drug testing of officers, and police name tags.
Back then, the problem was that “our team would be gauged on how many arrests we could make in a week,” said Atlanta Chief of Police Erika Shields at the community conversation of her days on the force. “If you know you’ve got to make a certain mark, you hustle and you get it done. You’re not taking the time to talk to someone, you’re not taking the time to walk the beat.” The second woman – and first openly LGBTQ cop – to lead the Atlanta police, Shields came up through the ranks of the force. She said the key to effective policing depends on the expectations placed on officers and the criteria by which they are measured.
Serving as chief since January, Shields says she has focused on violent crime and guns on the street, not the bag of weed, and not simply racking up arrest numbers. “What I want to know is, are we tacking crime effectively?” said Shields, who has emphasized, for instance, that during the crack epidemic, people who needed help were instead locked up. “I want us to get into this space where we don’t arrest juveniles. I do not want us locking up young black males.”
Shields’ comments reflect an awareness of the history of race and policing and how the two have been inextricably intertwined in the United States since the days of slavery. Some of the nation’s first police forces were slave patrols, which enforced the laws of the plantation police state, caught runaway slaves, thwarted revolts, and punished and executed slaves. During Jim Crow segregation, many police officers were Ku Klux Klan members, participating in a reign of terror and the lynching of black people and civil rights workers.
When black officers were allowed on the police force, they faced racial discrimination. This was the case in Atlanta, as former Atlanta Daily World publisher and Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Alexis Scott noted in conversation with Chief Shields. For example, the first black officers in the Atlanta police department in 1948 were not allowed to arrest white people or patrol white neighborhoods, and worked in segregated facilities outside of police headquarters.
In 1962, Malcolm X articulated the longstanding problems of policing in the black community, and spoke of the press inflaming whites against black people. “Once the police have convinced the white public that the so-called Negro community is a criminal element, they can go in and question, brutalize, murder unarmed, innocent Negroes and the white public is gullible enough to back them up. This makes the Negro community a police state,” he said.
Following the urban unrest 50 years ago in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and other American cities – typically precipitated by controversial police actions – the Kerner Commission (established by President Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots) reported that the “abrasive relationship between the police and the minority communities has been a major – and explosive – source of grievance, tension and disorder.”
Further, the commission reported, the police had “come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes,” leading to the feeling among black people “in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection – one for Negroes and one for whites.” Pointing to aggressive policing tactics in the black community as a source of hostility and the absence of mechanisms to address complaints, the commission recommended recruitment and promotion of officers of color, and other measures to eliminate bad practices, ease tensions and ensure proper police conduct and community support for the police.
Influenced by the civil rights and Black Power movements, black officers across the country formed their own police associations, separate from white-dominated organizations, which exist to this day. The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Donald Trump, but black police associations did not, demonstrating that the debate over race and policing is not a simple Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter issue.
Today, implicit bias and institutional racism infect a society that refuses to come to terms on how America’s original racial sins still influence how the public – and police officers – perceive black people. Popular racial stereotypes that portray black people as dangerous, threatening criminals seep into the public conscience and the media, reinforcing some police officers’ perceptions of black children as older and more culpable than they are, and making it more likely they will shoot black people to death. This is a problem for everyone.
Atlanta admits the role of implicit bias in the conversation. Police academy recruits in Atlanta receive training in recognizing and challenging implicit bias at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which Chief Shields says has allowed for candid conversations, made officers aware of their beliefs, and has been eye-opening for white officers in the majority black police force.
Another participant in the conversation in Atlanta, Rev. Markel Hutchins of Movement Forward, Inc. , believes that beyond training, at issue is what is in someone’s heart.
After witnessing the tensions between the community and the police, Hutchins decided to figure out a way to bring people together and get to know each other, resulting in the OneCOP (One Congregation One Precinct) program, which connects police agencies with diverse congregations of all faiths, and creates partnerships on violence prevention, sensitivity training, community safety and other matters. “We will never bridge the divide…as long as we have this notion that police are somehow separate and distinct and apart from the rest of the community. Police officers’ children go to school with everybody else’s children. They go to the church and the temple with everyone else,” Hutchins said.
This one conversation in Atlanta is part of a much bigger one about how to change things for the better. We will also see change when, as the Movement for Black Lives advocates, communities control the laws, policies and institutions impacting them – and when this nation invests in education, health and safety rather than criminalizing, incarcerating and killing black people. Change will not be easy, but it is certainly possible.
This article has been updated to reflect the full name of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company.