Invitation to Conversation Pt. 2
by Emma Jackson
As Roberto said in the beginning of the Good Life’s conversation on the racially-tense happenings as of late, “it is time to be proactive, not reactive.” When I started to be bombarded by various media sources on Ferguson, I realized that I had to use the Living the Good Life platform to invite the larger community into conversation on how we can live better lives as a take away from tragedy. It has been incredibly interesting to be in a semester long class entitled “Police & Policing” at this time as well. It has given me a glimpse into the historical repetition of what is happening to mostly minority citizens, and I have come to realize how important it is to spread knowledge about the police and how they are an impactful part of our communities.
I admire what Roberto has suggested about “de-investing” or “divestment” in media and businesses with prejudiced components and undertones. This conscious awareness of what we (sometimes subconsciously) consume, listen to, take in, buy, support is the first step in making a change. If we start with ourselves, we can then give our whole heart-full intentions towards impacting our communities.
Recently, I have come to be more involved in a community surrounding the band Papadosio. Their music and concerts have had a positive impact on my life and the lives of many others because they are imaginative, creative, and they use their talents to output positive energy and positive messages that inspire growth. Many people can relate to how I feel about this band with other types of music and art forms, but for me I have learned so much about community from going to their shows, meeting people who are involved and want to make the world a better place, and connecting with each other in our attempts to ascend and evolve. At one of the concerts I recently attended, their vocalist/guitar player Anthony Thogmartin paused before a song to speak to the audience,
“…So this next song we’re about to play is called ‘We Choose,’ and the subject matter is basically that you can ultimately choose what’s going on, and not everything is definitely up to fate. It’s all up to you, and recently some stuff’s been going down…you guys know of the Ferguson story, I’m sure. Really, the only thing that can be said about that situation is, you know, you can blame the cops, you can blame the culture, you can blame whatever you want, but ultimately it comes down to personal choices in my opinion. And like MLK said, ‘We can choose to live together as brothers and sisters or we can choose to live apart and perish…”
This message stuck with me. I think it is smart, and I think it is important to realize how much time we can waste blaming this and that for the situation we are enduring. Standing united is what America is founded upon, and the more we divide ourselves based on perceived differences, the less power we hold to create positive changes. This doesn’t just apply to African Americans or victims or white people or poor people, but also to the police officers themselves. Not only is it crucial at this time to make use of positive media and mind expanding discussion, but there is a lot of significance in reflecting on our own actions, judgments, and perceptions in all of that.
Civil rights issues have plagued America for longer than any of us can remember. Some of it, we can remember. Look at the race riots of the 1960s. Remember LA in 1992? Take a glance at some of these past events on YouTube or research some of the facts. It is so tragic that history has repeated its misfortunes again and again, to the point where now we are living through our own civil rights struggles. Empowerment of the people is fragile, however, in that how we choose to participate and invest our time and money can make a large impact. Many people are unaware of their individual influence and power and how that manifests in small ways. Awareness and knowledge is the first step. This is not an ‘us against them’ situation. The media shows us the most negative components of every event, but we cannot let that influence us in blaming one party or another. We are living in a crazy time, and we can truly leave this world a better place if we can confront these issues from a place of togetherness. The end to discrimination, corruption, and abuse of power starts with us, with our local communities.
Let’s ask ourselves,
what can I do to take action individually?
what can I do to take action collectively?
what intentions do I want to bring to my own actions?
what intentions do I want to bring to my community?
As the second half of my discussion, I want to share some themes I have learned about in my policing class this semester. I encourage anyone and everyone to pick up a book on the history of policing. It will seriously change your perspectives on the issues we are facing today and the complexities of the policing profession. In these segments, I am not specifically referring to anything regarding the Ferguson or Eric Garner incidents. Rather, I intend to share some of my education for a more well-rounded understanding of policing in the US.
1. The nature of the police role is very complex.
Police certainly face unpredictable circumstances almost every day when they go to work. They have to make split second decisions, and often the code that they are following is not clear on how to deal with circumstances that are presented to them. Discretion is an inevitable part of policing. The police have the power to take your freedom and under certain circumstances, your life. Police at times are presented with conflicting demands; the protection of society vs. the protection of civil liberties. Mixed messages and goals throughout departments and within departments don’t make decisions any easier. The police training that they all go through is largely based on respecting authority and obeying orders. Policing is historically very corrupt- sometimes at the individual level, but more often at organizational and even systematic levels. Sometimes cops are expected by administration to make numbers, meet arrest quotas, crack down on certain crimes, or adhere to political interests. The courts are inconsistent and limited in their resources, so a lot of times they give police officers every benefit of the doubt because of the nature of the job. All of this amounts to inconsistencies and disparities in criminal justice outcomes.
2. Some police perceive citizens based on the police subculture.
The police have historically been isolated from the general population and have formed their own subculture. It was first pointed out in William A. Westley’s research in the 1950s that explained how police were willing to lie to cover up misconduct by another officer. The police subculture is based on group solidarity, secrecy, and the ‘blue curtain of silence,’ which is basically the same thing as no snitching. Ironically, it reminds me of some of the components of street gangs and how they operate. The police subculture does still exist, but not everywhere! We are seeing today that some departments still foster this culture of tolerance and apathy towards misconduct and illegal police actions, but some police departments are changing. One big component of the change is a more diverse police force. Back when Westley did his research, all the police were blue collar white guys with minimal education. Now, departments are being encouraged to hire more minorities and women and to raise education standards. More programs have been put in place to allow reporting on the force, and some departments have upped their policy standards, leadership involvement, and training. Overall, departments are starting to focus more on trust building with the community, and the police subculture runs counter to community ideals. Since many departments are different, it is important to look into how your local departments are functioning and if they have any opportunities for citizen review and/or involvement.
3. Just because a special unit or tactic works in one place does not mean it will work in a different area.
Neighborhoods are very different. That is why it is important to listen to the needs of our own community. Local action is what matters the most for the bigger picture. How can we be supportive in solving seemingly large, complex issues? Sometimes people will read scholarly articles or research studies about one place and think it could be applied on a national scale, but that is not always the case. We can take steps to question and understand our community’s police, their relationships with citizens, and their relationship with the government and the federal level. What are the mechanisms of police accountability that exist where you live? Are they working?
4. Police officers are authorized to use force in order to achieve legal objectives, but a lot of officers will still use their discretion is many of these situations.
It is important to recognize that not every officer shares the same ethics, morals, values, and instincts that determines how he or she exercises discretion. Ever since the Tennessee vs. Garner case in 1985, police have had to adhere to the defense of life standard (which replaced the fleeing felon rule) and other restrictive shooting policies. The disparities that existed in shootings of African Americans, especially in the unarmed/non-aggressive category has declined substantially. So, we have made some progress in combating discrimination since restrictive policies don’t allow the officer’s personal opinions to factor in. It has been interesting to learn about real life scenarios in which officers have the authority to shoot someone but chose not to pull the trigger because their discretion influenced them otherwise. This actually happens all the time, but we only hear about when the officer decided to shoot.
5. Racial profiling evidence is limited and questionable.
We know that constitutional violations are happening all over the country, but the research that has been conducted on these issues is extremely inconsistent and has many limitations. It is important that we read even academically backed research with an open mind. In short, there is a lot of conflict between policing research and criminal justice outcomes. The different measures that have been used in racial profiling research can greatly influence the results of the study, and until researchers acknowledge this and find better techniques, the data that we have now will continue to produce unreliable and inconsistent measures of the rate of stopping specific racial groups. We need to look deeper at the intentions of the officer before, after, and during the stop and find sound ways to measure if discrepancies exist. One of the most important components of these limitations is that the courts don’t acknowledge them, so the criminal justice system and those who are processed through it have very different experiences. As of now, some of the developing ways to prevent and detect bias in policing is through new technology that adds to data collection databases and policies.
6. The police-community relationship is (in my opinion) the most important aspect of policing.
The ideas of control and intimidation are very tricky when applied socially. When the police-community relationship is hurting, it has a ripple effect on the department, their strategies, and the decline in associated neighborhoods. But police, when it comes down to it, are public servants. Recently, policing has seen a larger shift towards community policing and away from the unrealistic image of a ‘crime fighter’ cop. Citizens make a huge impact and will have more opportunities to do so in the future if departments continue to try to work with communities to create positive perceptions of law enforcement. Fear of crime is actually a large predictor of actual crime because it is a function of social and physical incivilities. We also need trust in order to have any success with community programs. More people will invest in their communities and participate in programs if they aren’t afraid to walk around their neighborhood, if they don’t see boarded up houses and vandalism surrounding them, if they feel like their investment counts. For programs to even exist in the first place, the public and the police have to come together in support of their community. Lastly, a positive perception of police in criminal justice will encourage more people, especially diverse groups and educated citizens, to pursue a career in law enforcement…and the trust building cycle continues…
Ultimately society tries to tell us who and what we should fear. Respect for life appears to be low in some regards, but people are starting to demand a change. We can choose as citizens in how we are conscious of our involvements, in how we form our perceptions, and in how we influence our communities. I believe that the media in this country uses controversial events and skewed information to increase the perceived separation between us as humans. If we raise the bar for ourselves as citizens of the United States, we can in turn do the same for our community- for our police. Systematic and organizational change isn’t just a dream for idealists. In targeting the root causes and starting with ourselves, we can and will make a difference. At this point, when observing the passion that people have displayed in response to tragedies, it is hard to believe that we won’t see change in the near future.
In conclusion, I want to invite anyone and everyone to engage in this conversation. Don’t hesitate to express your own thoughts, ideas, knowledge, etc. in the comment section below or on the Living the Good Life facebook page.
*Information and ideas from “Police & Policing” taught by Debbie Wilson, The Ohio State University Autumn 2014, supplemented by the 7th edition of “Police in America” by Samuel Walker