Op-ed: A Pragmatic Approach To Improving Police-Community Relations
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In recent years we have seen an uptick in anger and protests over the police killings of black men.
It has sparked riots in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Charlotte, marches in cities around the country, peaceful protests on the part of a number of professional athletes, the birth of the BLM movement, and violent retaliation in places like Louisiana and Dallas.
As always the debate has been polarizing. On one side are those who say the simple solution is to stop committing crimes, and when approached by police to follow their orders to a T. On the other side are those who have demanded police reform and have been outraged by what they see as a lack of accountability following the Garner and Ferguson decisions.
It’s a sticky situation to be sure. Police are public servants who regularly put themselves in danger of being killed to protect the community. On the flip side there have been a number of high profile cases in which use of force on the part of the authorities has appeared excessive, completely uncalled for, or avoidable.
Because the debate surrounds human lives, the issue hits home in a very real way for those on either side.
What is not needed at this time is bickering over stats, or whose life matters. Does it really matter what the ratio of whites to blacks being killed by cops is? Not particularly. Anytime a public servant kills a member of the public it’s a big deal, and when possible it should be avoided at all costs. On the flip side, it is no less of a tragedy when a police officer is killed in service to his community. Saying goodbye to your family before heading into work takes on a new meaning when your job involves putting yourself between violent criminals and innocent bystanders.
What is needed is a pragmatic solution which keeps our communities safe for police and the public that they serve. There is no catch all however, such a solution would be multifaceted and require a concentrated effort on the part of lawmakers, public officials, law enforcement, and the community. It would involve measures to reduce crime overall, as well as steps to bridge the divide between police officers and the neighborhoods they are charged with protecting.
Let’s get started.
Drug Law Reform
There are estimates that place annual spending to fight marijuana at $6-billion annually in the U.S. That’s an absurd amount of money to spend in an attempt to prevent adults from smoking a plant that they’re going to smoke anyway despite the government’s best efforts (Read as: the government is spending a ridiculous sum of money to erode individual freedoms). Legalize, regulate, and tax pot. The money saved – and raised through taxes – will be useful in implementing other programs that can help reduce gang activity, and bridge the divide between the police and the black community. It means that gangs will be able to raise less revenue through drug sales (the same reason we repealed alcohol prohibition), and — if we follow the logic that a significant amount of violent crime is tied to the drug trade – reduce the total number of violent encounters between police and the community.
Likewise, using seized heroin at safe injection sites where addicts can be offered treatment, and a chance to recover could take a bite out of the street level crime that might otherwise cause an officer to draw his weapon. I know the knee-jerk response to such a suggestion might be “decriminalize heroin? Ha! Not a chance,” but think about it; the government already sanctions the distribution of narcotic painkillers which are essentially heroin in pill form, safe injection sites mean drugs can be tested for dangerous substances like fentanyl, users will no longer need to rob convenience stores for drug money (again reducing the likelihood of a violent encounter between cops and the community), and addicts can be steered towards recovery programs by on site addiction specialists.
Drug law reform also includes sentencing reform. A hardline stance on nonviolent drug crimes is simply uncalled for. Mandatory minimums, and three-strikes policies ruin families and do irreparable damage to young lives – they tear apart the very communities that they are designed to protect. The other problem; they disproportionately affect young black men. In addition to doing very real damage to inner city families, these policies only serve to widen the gap between police and community. From the comfort of an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood it’s easy to say “don’t commit crimes and you won’t go to jail” the reality – when there are few other prospects beyond the minimum wage gig at Taco Bell – is that selling a product that is in high demand, is a great way make a lot of money in a short period of time (a concept that should not be lost on readers of this site, after all we are not communists).
Treating addiction as a health issue, and legalizing marijuana would free up a lot of money that can be reinvested in the community. It can be used to cleanup neighborhoods, improve schools, fund treatment programs, and be distributed in grants for small business owners in at risk communities (I’m not joking, it takes serious business savvy to run a successful drug corner. Don’t believe me? Read ‘The Corner’ in addition to being an outstanding book, it’ll get you all sorts of woke as to the realities of life in the hood)
Re-Think The Way We Train Police
We now live in a world where mental illness is treated as a serious public health issue. It stands to reason then, that since the mentally ill are members of the public — and because police serve the public – they should be trained in dealing with the mentally ill. On Long Island, the Suffolk County Police Department is already implementing such training. It’s an example that should be followed by departments around the country.
Furthermore, there needs to be better training for law enforcement across the board. It is indeed absurd that there are places where hair stylists spend more time in their training pipeline than police officers do. It’s not outrageous to suggest that anyone given the responsibility of making life and death decisions about the general public be put through the most rigorous screening and training process possible. I’m not a very big proponent of the federal government telling local governments what they should do, but the establishment of suggested police training guidelines that can be implemented at and adjusted for different localities certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. That training process should include a heavy emphasis on escalation of force, shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, how to de-escalate a situation, non-lethal solutions to dangerous situations, and how to proceed in the event that an officer shoots an unarmed civilian.
Oversight And Accountability
If we’re still looking for a place to spend some of the cash saved by ending — or at least scaling back the drug war — then use it on body and dash cams, as well as voice recorders for all police officers. It’s simple, dash cams run whenever the cruiser is running, and audio recorders and body cams run whenever an officer steps out of the car. This can help ensure accountability over our public servants and it can serve to exonerate them when the public believes they have mishandled a situation.
Accountability can be further ensured with civilian oversight over police departments. Some have suggested full civilian control over hiring, firing, and discipline – which I feel is unrealistic, and could lead to unfulfilled expectations on the part of the public, but civilian oversight is absolutely necessary. A combined review board made up of community leaders, former judges, former cops, and current department heads can improve accountability on the part of public servants, and boost community confidence in the police department.
Bridge The Gap
Finally, a renewed commitment to establishing a positive relationship between police and the community can go a long way towards easing tensions and creating good will. There is a very cool program in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles that paired elementary school kids with police officers to create a peewee football team. The idea is that creating positive interactions between police and the youngest members of an inner-city neighborhood will benefit the community for years to come.
I’d go a step further and say that cops should be placed in classrooms as well. Not on a permanent basis, but giving officers overtime pay to drop in during gym class to shoot hoops, take some batting practice, or toss a football around with students can build a bond between police and the community where one might not have existed. It also creates an opportunity for law enforcement to disrupt gang recruiting which takes place on a daily basis in public schools.
We also have a responsibility to teach young black males how to interact with police. It sounds like common sense, but a lot of people simply don’t know how to get arrested. They see flashing lights and all of a sudden their heart rate goes through the roof, adrenaline starts flowing, and their ability to make good decisions is eroded. This can take an otherwise routine interaction between police and a civilian to a dangerous level. It would take very little extra effort for police to come into the classroom, and in a non-confrontational setting teach kids how to handle being stopped. Take it a step further, and it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to bring lawyers in from local firms to discuss things like Miranda warnings, rights to counsel, etc.
Social media and smartphones have brought us to a point where problems in policing can no longer be ignored. Civilian deaths at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve are tragic and quite avoidable. Likewise, the targeting of police officers for revenge killings is as disgusting and reprehensible an act as one can imagine – particularly in situations like the Dallas ambush where cops were protecting protestors. It’s easy to pay lip service to black lives, blue lives, or all lives in a tweet or a Facebook post, but quite another thing to put aside our own prejudices and preconceptions about right vs wrong, drugs, crime and the legal system in an effort to create change that will make life safer for cops and the community. As always, let’s take a step in the right direction letting compassion and pragmatism serve as our Sherpas.
This contributor is a Marine veteran that has served in the Middle East. Due to the sensitive nature of his current job, he has requested to remain anonymous.