Face Up to Racist Legacy, Police-Community Relations Experts Say

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Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

It’s no secret that America’s most disadvantaged communities have long had troubled relationships, at best, with their local police. But when the Urban Institute shared just how negatively six U.S. communities with the lowest income and highest crime levels felt about their respective police forces, some jaws dropped among police brass attending a Tuesday conference at John Jay College.

Half of over 6,300 households responding to the survey said they believe that police act according to their personal prejudices, according to Jesse Jannetta, Senior Policy Fellow at the Urban Institute.

The poll also revealed that just 24 percent of respondents believed that the police are honest; the same low percentage believed that departments hold officers accountable for inappropriate conduct.

Finally, a mere 30 percent believed their local police treat people with dignity and respect.

The Urban Institute worked with the National Network for Safe Communities, the Center for Policing Equity, and Yale Law School to conduct the research, under the direction of the National Initiative for Community Trust and Justice.

While jarring to some, the report’s initial findings were painfully obvious to the communities involved in the survey. This is because the fear of police runs generations deep, Andrea Blackman, a key facilitator of community relations trainings for police recruits in Nashville, Tn., told the conference.

“It’s easy for us to talk about trauma and oppression as they relate to slavery, or a chattel system, or a caste system,” she said. “But when we think about policing in 2019, those words still have to be just as impactful.”

Both Jannetta and Blackman spoke during the first session of a live-streamed three-hour symposium entitled, “Police-Community Reconciliation: Healing the Harm of Racialized Policing.”

The National Network for Safe Communities used the symposium to introduce what it called a “Police-Community Reconciliation Initiative” aimed at addressing what many policing scholars have called a crisis of legitimacy that has fractured relations between police and minorities in many communities across America.

A Georgia Lynching

But perhaps the story that best framed the ideas of the symposium was the family history of Evan Lewis.

A Chicago native who is currently an education and community development consultant in western Massachusetts, Lewis is the great-grandson of Lent Shaw, a relatively prosperous black sharecropper who was  lynched in 1936 in Colbert, GA.

Shaw had purchased a plot of land from a white neighbor who died shortly thereafter, but the neighbor’s sons were determined to get it back and began harassing him. Shaw was eventually arrested on a charge of attempting to rape Ola Franklin, a local 18-year old white woman.

Lent Shaw

Lent Shaw, a prosperous Georgia sharecropper was lynched by a white mob in 1936. Photo courtesy Shaw family.

After a blurry series of events including an attempted jail break-in by a 150-person mob and three mysterious bullet wounds Shaw received while in police custody, he was dragged from jail, hung, and castrated, and his body was riddled with bullets.

Among the lynch mob was a police officer who later became the chief of police in Colbert.

The mob warned Shaw’s widow and eleven children that if they did not leave Georgia, the same violence would befall them. They fled to Chicago, where Lewis grew up. But the memories still seared his family.

When Lewis was admitted to Georgia’s Morehouse College, his great-aunt told him that Morehouse was not an option for him.

“[She explained that] Georgia is not an option for our family—that is the sort of legacy that historical terror has on families and on individuals,” he recalled, noting that his family history made him skeptical of reconciliation with law enforcement.

.“I don’t quite know what reconciliation means for me, how it would impact me, how it would impact my family,” he said. “But I do know that in order for it to have an impact and real true meaning, and for there to be reconciliation, there has to be truth-telling. There has to be honesty.

“As is often the case, when you start telling the truth, you might solve one problem, but you are often times creating ten more. So we have to summon the resolve and muster the strength and courage not just to speak to the historical and present harms, but also to deal with what is surely coming after that.”

Reconciliation, How?

David Kennedy, director of the NNSC and a John Jay College professor, said it was important to concretely define what reconciliation might look like in practice.

“[T]here is a probably quite surprising number of leaders, executives, and agencies who are quite committed to doing [reconciliation] work, and they begin with a commitment to reform,” he said.

“They broadly agree that we’ve been over-policing and under-protecting. We’ve locked too many people up. They’re organized against mass incarceration and doing all sorts of things that we can bloodlessly lump together under policy and practice reform.”

But Kennedy said that was still not enough to repair the historic harm done to minority communities.

“Changing things because one is in a position of power and privilege, and has changed one’s mind, and is making a unilateral decision to do something differently, does not respect what we’re talking about,” he said.

David Kennedy

David Kennedy

“It does not respect the historic experience of damaged peoples, honor the unspeakable harm that that [it] represents, or recognize what [those experiences] mean for the way they look at [police] on the job today.”

The panelists collectively argued that policy and practice reforms, like the elimination of New York Police Department’s controversial stop-question-and frisk strategies, must be supplemented by a willingness to build personal relationships through active listening and direct acknowledgement of past harm.

“There has to be an opportunity for those who have been harmed to speak to their experience and be heard,” Kennedy said. “Folks with power, privilege, and standing tend to go into those kinds of engagements knowing what they think and what they’ve heard.

“They go very quickly to, ‘here’s my reaction, and here’s my plan.’”

The Voice of a Chief

Eric Jones, Chief of Police in Stockton, CA, one of four panelists in the third session of the symposium, agreed with the first panel that box-checking rituals of town halls and policy tinkering are not sufficient to forge long-term, strong police-community relationships.

Stockton is one of the six pilot communities identified by the National Initiative for Community Trust and Justice to focus on developing a stronger community culture of procedural justice and understanding of the effects of implicit bias and historical traumas on police-community relations.

In 2015, it was one of the lowest-income communities in America, and suffered from one of the nation’s highest crime rates, according to the Urban Institute’s report.

Explaining that the Stockton Police Department has been working on the importance of community relations for years and searching to build relationships in new and better ways, Jones emphasized how much the National Initiative’s reconciliation approach has benefited their efforts.

“We had had town halls. We will continue to have town halls—very important, large neighborhood meetings. But I think we all know that real solutions don’t typically come out of those meetings; nor are everybody’s voices truly heard in a meaningful way.”

Jones said that police also needed to acknowledge the systematic racial harm experienced by African Americans.

“Even though much of this happened a long time ago, in the scope of things it wasn’t that long ago,” he said.

“But we in law enforcement have to at least acknowledge those facts, because then, I’ve found, it breaks open actual real, true dialogue. We’re able to now develop this new space where we can have these conversations and talk about race relations head-on.

Even though Stockton police officers had no role in past injustices, he wanted his rank-and-file to understand that the “police badge, whatever shape it is, still holds that history that needs to at least be acknowledged. “

Jones said he was now training himself to “do active listening, really hear.”

As a result, he said, “We’ve really learned the connection between gun violence intervention, reducing violent crime, and trust.”

Jones’ version of how his department had changed was corroborated by Tashante McCoy-Ham, founder of the OWL Movement and a member of the Stockton Community Policy Review Committee.

“Chief [Jones] literally sat there and listened,” she said. “It was totally different from what the perception of policing and police experiences are supposed to look like.”

She added: “Those who were brave enough to put their best foot forward, to be a part of the change, were literally able to see the results of that type of conversing between community members and law enforcement.

“It allowed many to develop a relationship that was ongoing and see one another as part of one community.”

Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

One thought on “Face Up to Racist Legacy, Police-Community Relations Experts Say

  1. Racialized policing, really?

    How come this survey seems to be different from others that suggest that policing continues to be seen as positive?

    Did the respondents identify any current racial incidents. Not perceived ones, but real ones?

    Why do we care about the great, great grandson of someone. We’ve got to let go of the past in order to move forward. That’s why the front window of a car is so much bigger than the rear window.

    Acknowledging a racist legacy (whatever that means) seems to me to do more harm than good.

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