Can we love our cops and also demand that they treat black men better?

we can't breathe

The painful issues raised the last few months by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of heavily armed white police officers are tangled, complex and emotional. We view these clashes increasingly through tribal, ideological lenses. That’s dangerous and exhausting.

But it seems like a few threads of our national conversation can be teased out and made a little bit more clear — at least for those of us interested in having a real dialogue, and not simply shouting and race-baiting.

First, I think most of us generally agree that police officers need considerable leeway when it comes to enforcing our laws and protecting public safety. They also need a generous level of understanding from the public about their behavior when it comes to protecting their own personal safety and welfare. For cops, things happen fast. Decisions are made in real time, often under awful circumstances, and much of the Monday morning quarterbacking that happens is deeply amateurish and misguided.

Second, it’s equally clear that America’s police culture has deeply ingrained and destructive racial biases when it comes to young, black men. The data is unequivocal that police stop and interfere with African American men at wildly disproportionate rates. It’s not just a handful of unarmed black men winding up dead. It’s black men feeling constantly surveilled and suspected and targeted. This experience of being regularly handled and managed by government agents without probable cause violates everything that we stand for, liberal and conservative alike.

And yes, far too often, these encounters escalate to violence when black men are involved. It’s reasonable for the black community — and the rest of us — to be angry and dismayed by those facts.

Now here’s the part that I think we can clear up. It’s possible for well-meaning, thoughtful Americans to hold both of these ideas in our heads at the same time. Let me say it again, really bluntly: We can love and respect and admire our police and understand their unique concerns. We can also — at the very same time — acknowledge that our system of criminal justice has a deep and long-running problem when it comes to its treatment of African Americans.

This kind of complex gray-zone thinking is hard and it requires getting away from tribal, us-versus-them lines in the sand. But it’s also, almost certainly, the only way forward.

So here’s my stab at nudging the conversation toward healthier place. I want to suggest that if you’re watching a TV network or listening to a radio personality or relying on websites for your information and those sources refuse to acknowledge the possibility of seeing both sides of this coin, you should be suspicious. If you’re being told that cops are angels and the dead black men we keep seeing on our screens are all thugs, you should question their agenda. On the other hand, if you hear a community organizer or a protester or a politician insisting that cops are all race-haters and that America is a police state, you should be equally skeptical.

Here’s why. Once we make our thinkers and our leaders move past these ideological dead-ends, it’s possible to start wrestling with this in more nuanced and productive ways. We can start talking about how to help police officers deal with America’s gut-level racial tensions better, through training, equipment and logistical support. We can talk about police, particularly on beats where they’re patrolling black communities, wearing more body cameras so that better records are kept of these counters. Not just the violent encounters, but all the encounters where black men are feeling intimidated, hassled, and disrespected.

We can talk about establishing better liaison programs that open lines of dialogue between cops and the people they’re charged with protecting. Also, we can talk about the urgent need to aggressively hire and train more African American police to serve in places like Ferguson and New York City. And we can explore new systems of accountability for police that don’t rely entirely on local prosecutors, who often have close working relationships with officers.

We can begin to talk more broadly about why some African American communities still suffer unacceptable levels of crime and violence, despite the heavy (and sometimes heavy-handed) presence of law enforcement. There is strong and growing evidence that this approach to community policing isn’t working for many neighborhoods of color — and not only because it leads to violent confrontations. We can also talk more broadly about the lack of opportunity and economic development in black America, where unemployment regularly runs two-times higher than in nearby white communities.

In other words, we need to ask ourselves some painful questions that go beyond that wretched, sickening moment when a black guy lies dead in the street. Why is it that when white rural communities suffer economic malaise and stagnation, we respond with pipelines of cash and public-sector jobs and Farm Bill subsidies? And yet when black urban communities stumble into similar down-spirals, our best response appears to be a heavy police presence, huge numbers of arrests and incarcerations? Why do we pump billions of taxpayer dollars to turn tiny, inefficient small-town school districts into marvels of modern education, while urban school districts are allowed to decay and unravel?

I think conservatives are generally correct that the answer to our present crisis isn’t to obsess about the indictment (or more to the point, non-indictment) of a handful of officers. Yes, some truly lawless, racist cops deserve to go to prison after these ugly incidents. But the real answer — the answer that might take us beyond the rage and despair — is to begin a much harder, more complex policy debate over the way our society thinks about the value of black American lives. We need to acknowledge that when we’ve reached this kind of flashpoint, our criminal justice system — our entire society — has already failed miserably, and not just because one cop may have made a terrible choice in the field.

The bottom line is that we can love police and respect them and also demand that they treat young black men better. Those two ideas can co-exist at the same time — and they should co-exist in the mind of any American who believes that justice is possible.

21 Comments on “Can we love our cops and also demand that they treat black men better?”

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  1. To me, the bigger issue is the culture of impunity. Individual racist acts can only flourish because of this culture.

    But it also affects people who aren’t black males. Remember the thug with a badge in Saratoga County? Yeah, he was finally charged but only after years of complaints.

    This is why we should all be concerned. The culture of impunity diminishes the credibility of all cops, not just the ones doing bad stuff. Cops, most of whom try to do things the right way, have a difficult job to do. But it’s made even more difficult when large segments of the population don’t trust them. This mistrust puts the cops at risk. It makes it harder for them to do their job. And therefore, it puts all of us at risk, even us white folk.

    You know how we demand Muslims to condemn other Muslims who do awful things in the name of Islam. This is why some of us would also like good cops to clearly and unambiguously distance themselves from actions like the guy who killed Garner.

    There will always be a minority of bad apples in any institution. But how they are dealt with – or not – will shape that institution’s credibility. Just ask the Catholic Church. It does a lot of good things but it’s credibility in the west has gone down the toilet. That’s unfortunate. But it’s also their fault. US law enforcement the same fate if they choose CYOA over doing the right thing.

  2. Typo in last line. Should be: US law enforcement risks the same fate…

  3. Will Doolittle says:

    Brian has put his finger on it. The key to police reform is police participation. Not until police officers and police officials acknowledge there is a problem will progress be made.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    I appreciate you, Brian, recognizing there are two sides to every story.
    While we the public, feel a bit on edge when stopped by law enforcement, it is important to recognize they might feel the same way, especially when an encounter takes place at night.
    I don’t know if I am ready for cameras on all police. Fact of the matter is that people act differently when on camera, sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way. Also, photos and films do sometimes distort the truth.
    One area I would like to see some changes in policing is allowing police some (maybe more) discretion when it comes to enforcing laws. I believe they are under way too much pressure to make arrests.
    This idea that the law is blind and must always be enforced creates unneeded tension between police and the public. In the past, warnings were often given. Now, not so much. And I think this is due to the whole Zero Tolerance idea. It puts the police in the position of being the enemy every time they come in contact with the public.
    While we need the police to work with us, we also need to work with the police. This us versus them stuff needs to stop.

  5. I think the key is trying to frame the discussion in such a way so as to include the police. As long as police writ large feel a siege mentality, no progress will be made.

    At the same time, I can’t condone not saying a word about these abuses either, for the sake of artificial harmony; even Charles Krauthammer, one of the most conservative commentators out there, called the Garner decision “incomprehensible.”

    A sense of impunity by any sub-section of the population is not acceptable in a free and democratic society.

    I really do respect most cops. I think they have a tough and important job. Even around here, they go into some pretty ugly situations that I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near (heroin, domestic violence, sexual abuse of children, etc). At the same time, I don’t want to live in a country where what happened to Garner is considered acceptable to the point where his killer doesn’t even have to explain his actions to the justice system.

    It’s a tricky balance but we have to try to find it. No one benefits from these tensions.

  6. Elaine says:

    To Pete’s comment, I heard an interesting discussion among a group of retired police chiefs. They noted that, after years of killing innocent civilians during high speed chases, most departments now have instituted “strategic retreat” policies. If the suspect is speeding away after a minor offense, the department is likely to call off the chase.

    Comparable policy is needed to temper encounters between street cops and pedestrian suspects. In every case we’re now discussing, death resulted not as a direct consequence of serious crime but from the determination of the police to make an immediate arrest and from the suspect’s real or perceived attempt to avoid that arrest. The fact is that infractions on the level of untaxed cigarettes, walking in the street, convenience store pilfering, or “disrespect” are simply too inconsequential to risk lives — those of policemen, suspects, or bystanders. As the chiefs noted, in most circumstances, the police can gather sufficient identification to follow up with an arrest or citation in a more orderly, professional, and non-lethal manner.

    I do disagree, Pete, with your thinking about cameras. While, yes, people are likely to behave differently on camera, that is the goal. I would feel better about the Missouri case if a tape proved that the policeman initiated contact with a polite request that, for their own safety, two pedestrians use the sidewalk. We’ll never know but forever suspect that may not be how this story began.

    The fact is, while street cops may feel that any challenge to their power and authority warrants a Defcon 5 response, they need to get smarter about how that authority is exercised.

  7. Mr. Kent says:

    The first step that can, and should, be taken is to stop the practice of the local DA being in charge of the Grand Jury process any time it has been convened regarding a law enforcement person. Period! An independent prosecutor who has absolutely no ties to law enforcement should always be assigned to oversee the proceedings. What we have now is a serious conflict of interest any and every time situations like that in Ferguson and Staten Island take place.
    Prosecutors, the local DA, are tied at the hip with the local law enforcement entities. They depend on them totally for providing evidence and testimony when ever they go to trial. They have personal ties with local law enforcement and that is not good in these cases. The DA in Ferguson acted as a defense attorney, even the conservative Justice Scalia wrote and commented on the most unusual way the prosecutor handled the Grand Jury proceeding. When, or should I say if, the details of the recent NYC case are ever released, it may well show that the prosecutor carefully presented a case before that Grand Jury that left them no choice but to not go forward with a trial.
    District Attorneys need convictions to get re elected to office. Police are their vehicle to that end. That is the primary reason why so few law enforcement cases result in a trial. There really is too often no desire on the prosecutor to get an indictment.
    A simple and easily attained beginning to this whole issue. There is a good reason minorities have no faith in the Grand Jury decisions regarding these cases. They know full well any prosecutor can get any case to trial if they want to.

  8. newt says:

    Mr. Kent makes an excellent point.
    From now on in cases involving alleged police misconduct, even if the local D.A. conducts the Grand Jury in a totally fair and impartial manner, he or she will now likely be accused of malfeasance by some if it fails to indict the officer. An independent prosecutor from outside the jurisdiction should handle all cases where a police officer is accused of the crime. Given the grief and costs resulting from the Brown and Garner tragedies, this would likely benefit all concerned, except, hopefully, guilty police officers.

  9. The Original Larry says:

    It’s interesting to me that society has emasculated school teachers while allowing law enforcement to run wild with power. Perhaps if it were the other way around…

  10. Tedsunday says:

    Why don’t we be honest this had nothing to do with race. The victims own daughter stated that it was about excessive force not race. Which is the truth in all of these recent incidents. You do have to wonder why police officers that walk by people smoking joints a hundred times a day more than likely. Decide to draw the line with someone selling untaxed cigarettes. The nanny state wants it’s revenue and that is why this man was killed. Nothing to do with his race.

  11. tedsunday says:

    NCPR moderator apparently doesn’t allow anything but race baiting comments on this thread.

  12. ncpradmin says:

    Hi Tedsunday–

    Actually it means the NCPR moderator goes to church on Sunday morning. But now that one comment by you has been approved, all further comments will publish in real time, without going through moderation.

  13. Ken Hall says:

    It would appear that Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch intentionally presented the case to the grand jury in such a way that it was bound to fail to indite Darren Wilson. The following is part of McCulloch’s instructions to the grand jury before they began deliberating:

    “And you must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not act in lawful self-defense and you must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not use lawful force in making an arrest. If you find those things, which is kind of like finding a negative, you cannot return an indictment on anything or true bill unless you find both of those things. Because both are complete defenses to any offense and they both have been raised in his, in the evidence.”

    In a 1992 Supreme Court case United States v. Williams, the US Supreme Court explicitly laid out the role of grand juries:

    “It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. Respublica v. Shaffer, 1 Dall. 236 (O. T. Phila. 1788); see also F. Wharton, Criminal Pleading and Practice § 360, pp. 248-249 (8th ed. 1880). As a consequence, neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.”

    McCulloch allowed Darren Wilson to testify for hours and made sure the grand jury was aware of every possible piece of evidence that could exculpate the cop. In essence the person purportedly responsible for the prosecuting of Darren Wilson did everything but declare himself Wilson’s defense Council while simultaneously presenting evidence as if his job was to Prosecute Michael Brown.

    Anyone care to make a WAG as to the name of the most likely “Liberal” SC Justice to have codified the 1992 decision which Prosecutor McCulloch deigned not to follow?

    Ah; it was that bastion of liberal righteousness, defender of the meek and down trodden, none other than Justice Antonin Scalia.

  14. Mr. Kent says:

    Ken Hall is correct. As I stated earlier, step one is to remove the local DA from these proceedings. Unless that ever happens, then nothing significant will change.

  15. Mervel says:

    I think with the level of discretion we legally give to police; for all practical purposes give them the ability stop anyone anytime and ask them questions. So if I am walking down the street, do the police have the power to simply say hey stop now, no not without cause, but they determine cause.

    I do think there is a broader issue of the disconnect between government and the people government is serving. Our police should be part of our community, they work for us they are not imposed on us, they work for our elected officials who we put in office. Take the case of Ferguson, why hasn’t the police chief and some of his top people been fired? Regardless of the legality of this particular event, that police force is not a good police force, where is the accountability?

  16. Mervel says:

    Or the Mayor and city council should have the guts to stand up and say, hey we agree with our police, we think they did everything just right and we are not changing anything and you protesters should just get used to it.

  17. Hoosier3 says:

    Well, TedSunday is right. The speech police at NCPR is exactly why the number participating in these discussions have dropped to a handful of liberal socialist. So long NCPR. The stories from Brian Mann and all the other liberal “reporters” (I use the term reporters loosely) have nothing but the furtherance of the “Fundamental Transformation of America” designed to destroy our Republic. Eventually you will be defunded by “We the People”. There were 25 plus comments here yesterday now there’s 16. It’s a shame but it will happen. The bloviating liberal site you have become will be your demise. So long. Flush the System!

  18. Mervel says:

    Well as one who wishes to flush the system I would think you would be happy with the reduced comments all around?

  19. Mervel says:

    As far as the calls to remove the DA from the process and call in a special prosecutor, yes I think this would make sense as DA’s and the Police are essentially part of the same system and work very closely together to convict criminals.

    However, at the end of the day elected officials or city managers; the bosses of the police; need to grow a pair and start firing cops. If the police chief and his or her top people all knew that they are going to get fired for these sorts of infractions you would see much less of this type of activity. Its pretty straightforward. If the police department loses the support of the entire community they are supposed to be serving, then the fault is with the police department, its a performance issue.

  20. Will Doolittle says:

    I’ve been waiting, wondering why a bunch of comments disappeared from this thread. I figured an explanation was coming, but none has surfaced.

  21. dave says:

    It wasn’t just this thread. It was others too. The site appears to have lost all comments after a certain date. My guess is the site or the server had some issues and was restored or reset to a previous version/date.

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