For People Of Color, Relationships With Police Are Complicated

Aug 15, 2014
Originally published on August 15, 2014 7:36 am
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And let's bring another voice into this conversation now. Gene Demby is with NPR's Code Switch team. And he's here to talk about what's happened in Ferguson and how this has really become a flashpoint in an ongoing national conversation about race and police tactics. Hey, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: You know, one thing we heard about near the end of that conversation was how people have different perspectives, different assumptions that they bring to an incident like this.

DEMBY: Yeah, and part of the reason it's so hard to talk about stuff like this is that we're metabolizing these experiences with the police so much differently. Last year, the Pew Research Center did some polling about attitudes on police and they found that 70 percent of black people said that they believed that black people were treated less fairly by the police. But white people - only about 37 percent felt that black people were treated less fairly than white people were. And so there's this big disconnect.

And, you know, for lots of white people the police are, you know, they're public servants - they help out when something goes wrong; they put things right. But for lots of communities of color, police are agents of chaos, right? I mean, they are omnipresent in many places. And there's almost constant contact with the police, and a lot of it is very tense contact. And because of this frequent contact with police, there's all this chance for kind of disruption of your life - being stopped, being searched, being arrested. And obviously there's the specter of deadly force being introduced.

GREENE: You know, just listening to you describe this, Gene, I think about when I was in Russia, where there were a lot of communities and a lot of people who felt that whenever they had any contact with the police, it was negative. And they just absolutely sort of gave up. Like, even if there were crimes committed, they just wouldn't want to have anything to do to with the police. Is that what you see in a lot of African-American communities?

DEMBY: Well, right. You'll see those perceptions drive this idea that police involvement just makes situations worse, that they escalate kind of the danger of a situation. We spoke to David Kennedy, who's a criminologist at John Jay College, who talked a little bit about the disconnect between communities and police.

DAVID KENNEDY: What I've been seeing for decades now are communities who feel so completely alienated from their country and their government that they do not organize. They don't march. They don't pull out their cell phones; they just withdraw. And that is the mark of a community that does not feel any longer like they are part of America. They don't feel like citizens.

GREENE: It sounds like he would say that what we saw in Ferguson this week was a positive thing, that people did come out on the streets protesting, calling for change. They didn't totally withdraw after this incident.

DEMBY: Right. What Kennedy was saying was that this is a sign of a desire to be engaged in a larger way in part of the civic fabric of the community. But there's also this tension about being left out or been pushed out of it.

GREENE: Now, there are some, I could imagine, watching the events in Ferguson, and they would say, you know, that those were protests - some of them turned violent, and the police in Ferguson, you know, had to do something. They had to act aggressively to keep order.

DEMBY: Right, and I guess the question is also sort of how much these perceptions of police and the way that police interact with communities sort of escalate the situation, right? We saw that change a little bit last night in the different kind of posture the police took towards the protesters. And beyond that, there are communities around the country where police are generally seen as the people who are escalating these situations.

Just take the case Eric Garner, the New York City man who died after an encounter with the police. This video of him being put in a choke hold went viral. He died shortly thereafter, and there was some outrage. And so Monica Potts, who is a journalist here in D.C. who used to be an investigator of police misconduct in New York City, wrote an essay for us on Code Switch on our blog about sort of the questions we should ask about this. The questions tend to be the about the individual behavior of police officers when something like this happens. But instead she wanted to kind of reframe that. She wanted us to ask, you know, is this the price we're willing to pay for kind of zero-tolerance policing?

GREENE: OK, I see the one argument there, Gene - that zero- tolerance can actually make police more aggressive and that can lead to problems. But some would say there are communities with very high crime rates where you would want a zero-tolerance policy, right?

DEMBY: Right, absolutely. I mean, even in communities with really high crime rates, very few people in the community are actually committing crimes, right? There are people in those communities who actually do want to call the police, who do want help with, you know, issues in their neighborhood. But they don't feel like involving the police solves anything.

GREENE: So it sounds like essentially, the real question is how to build trust. Are there ways that you've heard about for communities that they can try and do that?

DEMBY: Yeah, Kennedy said there are some police departments who are really looking at it, trying to fix that and who are trying to find a way to change these things and engender trust.

KENNEDY: Law enforcement is recognizing this reality and increasingly is willing to say to these communities, we've done wrong; we have not protected you; we have made mistakes. We are not racists, but we have played into a racist history. And we are going to acknowledge that, and we are going to do everything we can to step away from it.

GREENE: I hear that, and I think about what we saw last night - Captain Ronald Johnson from Missouri State Highway Patrol being out there in the community, hugging people and greeting them. Is that the kind of thing that Kennedy's talking about?

DEMBY: Yeah, I think that's the kind of outreach he's sort of talking about - about kind of mutual respect. I mean, they took off their gas masks. They put the armored vehicles away, right? And so his idea is that this new approach comes before there's a crisis. It's reaching out to members of the community like teachers and pastors to just - you know, to help identify who the problem actors are. So it unites the police and the people in the community against the bad guys, as opposed to the police kind of going after every one.

GREENE: We've been chatting with Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch team. Gene, thank you.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, David.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.