In past posts, I have opined that race remains a major problem in American society. True, on the plus side, after 250 years of slavery and 90 years of Jim Crow, we have made some progress, most notably the desegregation of schools, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the election of African Americans to local, state, and national governmental offices, culminating in Barack Obama rising to the Presidency. On the minus side, however, racial prejudice, both explicit and implicit, nevertheless remains, and most visibly in the relationship between minorities and the police.
The incidents in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland, North Charleston, Baltimore, Tulsa, and Los Angeles have been well covered by the print, television, and social media platforms, so I will not reiterate the tragic details in this post. Instead, I want to suggest what is necessary to alter the sad state of affairs that exists today and thus prevent further abuses.
To begin, let me make it perfectly clear that our police perform an extremely valuable service to our society, and place themselves in harm’s way to do so, as evidenced by officers being killed in New York City and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to name just two tragic incidents. Further, when I was a Public Defender, I had the experience of riding with officers of the Compton Police Department during night patrol, and I most definitely learned that their job is both difficult and dangerous. That said, however, the events from Ferguson to Los Angeles still scream out for police reform.
By reform, I mean a serious renewal of allegiance by police departments to community policing, i.e., maintaining public safety by engaging with communities. This requires increased foot patrols that bring officers into direct contact with residents, as well as working groups that foster dialogue between police and the community. If thoughtfully applied, this approach builds the essential element of trust and naturally encourages citizen cooperation that aids the police in performing their duties.
Further, to boost the building of trust, the police must demonstrate the same accountability that we require of ordinary citizens under the Rule of Law. Numerous officials, including police chiefs, have recognized this critical element and have implemented change to achieve transparency and accountability. However, many heads of police unions, like Thomas Lynch in New York, are married to the status quo and seek to protect their members even in cases where police officers acted wrongly. This problem must be addressed.
I would like to suggest that our police departments be further improved as follows:
First, in the hiring process, candidates must be thoroughly screened, with added emphasis placed on psychological and sociological attributes. Right from the start, let’s explore a candidate’s psychology re power and how it’s applied, and his or her viewpoints on community policing and minorities; and
Secondly, training periods must be lengthened so as to train future officers in how to separate the necessary use of force from the aggressive form, how to handle the mentally disturbed, and how best to build trust with and gain the cooperation of the community they are policing.
All of us have a huge interest in seeing that our police officers are selected from the highest quality applicants possible, then are exceedingly well trained, and like us are held to be accountable for their actions if they act improperly. And I urge everyone to communicate this message, and to keep communicating it to his or her elected officials at the local, state, and national level until change occurs and this goal is achieved.