O-Pinion

How do we defuse tensions between African-Americans and the police?

Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields was fired for violently removing this student from her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor.
Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields was fired for violently removing this student from her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor. AP

The recent viral video of a white sheriff’s deputy executing a rough take-down of an uncooperative African-American high school girl in Columbia, S.C. has once again fanned the national debate over whether racial bias taints encounters between white police officers and black people.

The Observer editorial board touched on the subject earlier this week in revisiting the New York Times’ recent statistical study of years of traffic stop data in Greensboro and other N.C. cities. That study, like many before it, revealed racial disparities indicating African-American motorists in Charlotte and elsewhere are more likely to be stopped and searched.

With crime on the rise in Charlotte and other cities across the country, some are beginning to question whether videos such as the one that got the deputy fired are making police officers shy away from the tough, often unpleasant confrontations that mark their work in high-crime neighborhoods. FBI Director James Comey said as much in a recent speech.

In the age of ubiquitous cellphone cameras and viral videos, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars,” Comey quoted one officer as saying.

What I hear in such comments is this: “To really fight crime, we need the freedom to bust heads. Occasionally, we’ll bust a head that we shouldn’t have, or bust it harder than we should have. And people need to be OK with that. Otherwise, we can’t do our jobs.”

I can’t buy that logic. I’ve seen it disproved by too many police officers in Charlotte and elsewhere who battle thugs in high-crime neighborhoods, right up to and including applying deadly force. Their day-in, day-out professionalism earns them respect from the law-abiding citizens of those same areas.

Noted UNC Chapel Hill political scientist and author Frank Baumgartner has done a ton of research into racial disparities in traffic stops, which so often spark these violent confrontations.

I asked him his thoughts on what police departments and citizens can do to take the national dialogue over these racially charged confrontations in a more positive direction. He offered some ideas specifically centered on defusing tensions around traffic stops, but perhaps those thoughts can help inform the larger debate as well.

Here’s what he had to say:

The first and most important thing that the police and other leaders can do is to own the numbers. Admit that the disparities are there. Perhaps they can be explained by driver behavior. Perhaps not. But the first thing has to be to engage in an honest and frank, if difficult, conversation about the facts on the ground.

Second, engage with the community to think about ways to lessen these disparities, if indeed the conclusion is that the disparities are too large, by which I mean not justified by legally relevant factors.

Third, I would say use this period where we are now to really think deeply about how police-community relations can be improved. Don't sink into defensiveness. Think positively about how can we change those things that are creating frictions.

He’s speaking the truth. The question is, can anybody hear him? Eric Frazier

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