August 25, 2014

Police forces nationwide need a reality check

One of the unsung blessings of Twitter is the way it continually reminds us that willful ignorance is alive and thriving in the American body politic.

One of the unsung blessings of Twitter is the way it continually reminds us that willful ignorance is alive and thriving in the American body politic.

In the past week, we were treated to widely retweeted photos purporting to show Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol throwing a gang sign. The first controversial image showed up on an unvetted CNN social media webpage called iReport, and Internet trolls took it from there.

The only problem is that the hand sign in question was the greeting of Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically black fraternity of which Johnson is a member. He was posing with a frat brother.

Anybody could be forgiven for not knowing what the gesture meant. But the automatic imputation of criminal intent is a problem – actually, it’s the problem at the heart of the unrest that has gripped Ferguson, Missouri for nearly two weeks.

The very reason that a black Missouri highway cop’s image is on every TV in the land is that he’s been sent to Ferguson to restore order. After demonstrations and looting erupted there in response to the shooting death of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown by a white police officer, the city’s police department made matters considerably worse with its over-the-top militarized response.

After relieving Ferguson police, the governor put Johnson in charge. It’s no coincidence a black man was put in command. Johnson’s cadence and tone when speaking, his use of biblical references, convey to the black residents of Ferguson that he is one of them.

Meanwhile, law enforcement bodies nationwide ought to be thinking about how to clone him.

Three police officers out of Ferguson’s force of 53 are black, in a town where two-thirds of the residents are African-American. The much-repeated statistic is all too common. America’s police forces do not look like the communities that they serve. They never have, not in the riots of the 1960s and not now.

The Washington Post analyzed Census records and found that more than three-quarters of cities on which data is available have a police force that’s disproportionately white.

Many, perhaps most, racially skewed police departments acknowledge the problem. Indeed, the failure to attract diverse recruits goes far beyond discrimination against minority applicants. To be an African-American or Latino member of law enforcement opens one up to accusations of being “more blue than black” or “brown” – a traitor to the community, as it were. That attitude has to change.

Making sure people of color are represented in their police forces isn’t a mere question of tokenism. It’s about the police and the community understanding each other. It’s about closing gaps in experience and perception that lead unnecessarily to tragedy and further conflict.

Police and communities of color urgently need to have an honest dialogue. Community members need to acknowledge that policing comes with inherent dangers that the average person doesn’t always recognize. By the same token, police forces need to acknowledge their own behavior and attitudes that have cultivated community perceptions of hostility, whether they believe those views are accurate or not.

It has to be a two-way conversation, and a frank, genuine one at that. The alternative has played out on the streets of Ferguson.

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