James Gagliano: We must acknowledge the causality of the current divide between police and communities of color
Historical tensions have pinned these two groups against each other and implicit biases maintain these divisions, he writes
Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The recent story of an Australian woman shot dead by police in Minneapolis is a tragedy of epic proportions. Summoning law enforcement to report what she believed to be a sexual assault occurring in the vicinity of her home, Justine Ruszczyk, according to one of the officers on scene, startled police and was shot dead by an arriving officer still seated inside his patrol car.
This appears to be a horrific split-second decision and mistake that resulted in Ruszczyk’s tragic death and a police officer’s life irrevocably altered.
In the wake of this tragedy, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau was forced to resign when the city’s mayor expressed a “loss of confidence” in the chief’s ability to lead the department.
The victim was white and the officer involved has been identified as Mohamed Noor, a Somali-American in the Minneapolis Police Department.
Ergo, there has been no rush to judgments condemning the Minneapolis force as “hopelessly racist,” and no demands for it to be placed under a consent decree. So how might this case fit into the larger narrative about race and policing in America?
Well, it raises three points that we must acknowledge in order to begin the national conversation on how to address tensions between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
First, we must acknowledge America has a deep and complicated history when it comes to African-Americans and law enforcement. The early beginnings of our nation saw slave patrols in the guise of “law enforcement” wielded as the disciplinary arm of the slave codes in the colonies and states. First implemented in South Carolina in 1704, the patrols were designed to maintain control and instill fear – a mechanism that ensured the smaller outnumbered white populations on plantations could deter slave uprisings and revolts. These patrols also enforced the fugitive slave laws, serving as the “catchers” of runaway slaves, as well as judge, jury and executioners.
Fast forward to the civil rights movement’s Selma-to-Montgomery march some two months after I was born in 1965; the appalling images still shock the senses and are indelibly ingrained in our national consciousness. Who can look away from the images of the courageous marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge meeting Alabama’s Public Safety Commissioner Theophilus “Bull” Connor’s fire hoses, police batons and attack dogs? Terrorism employed as an instrument of the state.
Those of us in law enforcement must understand and appreciate this truism – that in our country’s 241-year history, injustices have been committed in the name of “justice.” And that though many wear the badge with honor, there are still some in our ranks today who abuse their power and apply the law unevenly and injudiciously.
Secondly, let’s also remember what former FBI Director James Comey spoke about in a critically important speech at Georgetown University, titled “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race”: We all carry in us implicit biases based upon our understanding of others and shaped by our own experiences. Individually, we must resist the uncontrollable urge to succumb to these biases.
African-Americans can be distrustful of police. And, correspondingly, police working within the inner-city can be wary of African-Americans, a group that the 2010 US Census states constitutes 13% of our population, but according to the 2013 FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, some 52% of arrests for all murders and non-negligent manslaughters in the United States. This disproportionate representation of criminality might explain how even the most pure-of-heart cop can be fearful when interacting with a black motorist on a lonely stretch of highway or when investigating a crime on a street corner occupied by young men of color.
To acknowledge this shouldn’t make us “racist.” But in today’s hyperpolarized environment, to mention these truisms typically results in being shouted down and unjustly labeled. Rather than blaming an inherently racist criminal justice system, could we not instead attribute partial causality to the disproportionate amount of African-American interactions with law enforcement?
To admit as much and seek a solution would be brave. And we could counterbalance that effort with another equally important one. This one requires law enforcement to be honest as well, and to acknowledge that it is insane that we currently have no national database to harvest, store and retrieve data related to officer-involved-shootings.
How can this be? If Google can glean my web surfing tendencies and target advertising based on my apparent interests, how are we not able to accurately compile the numbers and circumstances involving police shootings?
Want a solution? I suggest tying federal funding to reporting compliance. Currently, the Washington Post seems like the only reliable repository for data related to police shootings. But it shouldn’t be.
While we’re at it, law enforcement is a wholly human endeavor, fallible and made up of mortals – like me – susceptible to making mistakes. And, yes, there are bad cops. I certainly know this firsthand from having worked as an undercover FBI agent on a case targeting police corruption in the New York metropolitan area in 2002. But these few “bad apples” don’t represent the vast majority of those who wear the badge and swear an oath to protect us.
And, finally, let’s acknowledge that media coverage can also be skewed in its portrayal of officer-involved-shootings, reinforcing a trope by making it appear that unarmed blacks are seemingly always the victims of overzealous police.
Does anyone believe that greater media coverage is directed at police shootings of whites? My evidence may be anecdotal, but I challenge the reader to argue that officer-involved shootings of white Americans get as much coverage when compared to shootings of people of color by police.
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In short, we must address these three truisms. Until we do so, we’re simply dismissing large pieces of the causality in our current racial divide, and irresponsibly pretending that some hard truths don’t exist. That makes us afraid to confront them. So we don’t. And that’s counterproductive to the cause demanding that national conversation.