Police and Black Americans: How to Tackle Racism’s Legacy

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police protest

Baltimore protest against police shootings, 2014. Photo by Bruce Emmerling via Flickr

On Saturday, February 29, Black History Month for the year 2020 will officially come to an end.

Every year, it’s a welcome opportunity to honor the contributions of notable activists, artists and singers to American history. But when the month of celebration is over, many black Americans will still be coping with a much grimmer legacy of our nation’s history.

While black men are only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they are 50 percent of homicide victims. One in three black men will go to prison in their lifetime. One in nine black children have a parent in prison.

Unlike the men and women highlighted during Black History Month, these statistics represent lives that we barely acknowledge.

While the figures are alarming, most of us rarely consider their historical roots.

The harmful nature of the relationship between black Americans and law enforcement began before there was a United States, during the slave trade, and continued with the designation of black people in the Constitution as property, as less than fully human. With such dehumanization codified into our foundational documents, it was a natural outcome that criminal codes would be used to enforce the interests of the state.

That has been a recurring theme through our history, from Jim Crow laws to police violence directed at civil rights activists; from the war on drugs to draconian criminal legal practices that have led to mass incarceration; from police shootings of unarmed black civilians to “zero tolerance” policing tactics.

It therefore follows that law enforcement is one institution that could change this narrative.

Law enforcement is in a unique position to expand the history acknowledged during Black History Month beyond the lives of the extraordinary black Americans to the lives of “ordinary” men and women. To that end, law enforcement could choose to engage with that history not just in February of every year—but on every single working day.

Ben McBride

Pastor Ben McBride. Courtesy Ben McBride website

Some police departments have made an effort to recognize this history in their training programs. For example, San Francisco Pastor Ben McBride tells cadets entering the Oakland Police Department training academy that “history has stolen” officers’ identity within the black community, and he emphasizes that a dynamic so deeply historical requires an intervention attuned to that history and to the depth of harm it represents.

The National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC) at John Jay College has laid the foundation for this kind of engagement through a framework known as “reconciliation” between Black communities and law enforcement. The approach draws from the experiences of international transitional justice commissions like those in post-apartheid South Africa, and seeks to address both contemporary and historical abuses by police in communities of color.

As the leading organization of the Department of Justice (DOJ) National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, NNSC designed and piloted a city-wide “reconciliation” process in six U.S. cities (Birmingham, Al.; Fort Worth, Tx.; Gary, In.; Minneapolis, Mn.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Stockton, Ca.).

A Public Statement of Harm

The reconciliation process comprises a public statement of harm by the police, listening sessions that include police leadership and community members, positive engagements with the community by rank-and-file officers, and the collection and dissemination of local historical narratives.

Subsequent to narrative collection, the city, the police department and the community in each city then produces a record that memorializes, validates, and elevates the role of police in causing harm. This record states clearly that it is now understood that what happened in the past is real, it matters, and that it will no longer be denied.

The process is intended to lead to sustained change by linking the themes and lessons that emerge from the reconciliation work to formal police policies and practices, and overarching police norms, values, and strategies.

It has made a difference.

According to an evaluation by the Urban Institute, there has been measureable improvement in police-community relations in the cities where the DOJ initiative focused its efforts. The evaluation showed that perception of police legitimacy has increased among many historically disadvantaged communities, and it has been linked with increases in public safety.

Veronica Dunlap

Veronica Dunlap

While all of the six cities involved in the National Initiative began the reconciliation process, Stockton, Ca.  made the most progress, and has continued to implement many of the recommended steps.

In Stockton, there was a 40 percent reduction in homicide, a 34 percent reduction in non-fatal shootings, an 80 percent reduction in officer-involved shootings, and a substantial reduction in arrests between 2017 and 2018—when the pilot project ended.

Key markers of community trust in police also improved. Calls for service went up, and the homicide clearance rate increased by nearly 60 percent—key indicators of increased community willingness to cooperate with law enforcement.

In making the commitment to implement a reconciliation process, police departments in those cities took a major step towards humanizing the black Americans who live in communities that are often referred to as “at risk.”

Engaging with Communities

More police departments need to take that step. It is through consistent engagement with community members – hearing their feedback on policy changes, sharing their narratives, and collaborating with them on public safety goals – that law enforcement agencies can reshape people they serve in vital ways, and in a commitment that doesn’t end.

Rebecca Engel

Rebecca Engel

Carter G. Woodson, the “father” of Black History Month, wrote, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

Those words should be taken to heart by cities and police departments across the country.

By committing to a reconciliation process, they can join in the national effort to heal the harms of the past, and to help ensure that the values we celebrate during Black History Month are a year-round commitment.

Veronica Dunlap is Director of Strategic Initiatives at the National Network of Safe Communities at John Jay College. Rebecca Engel is Communications Specialist.

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