A Letter to White Police Officers

UnknownDear Officers,

This month, the Urban Institute released a survey on perceptions of police by persons who live in low-income, high-crime areas.

The results, though disturbing, should not be surprising.

However, when we experience low-trust in these neighborhoods it impacts our effectiveness and our ability to help keep these communities safe and the bad guys at out. It also directly affects our own personal safety because we are safer when we are trusted and supported by those whom we police.

We all know that residents in our low-income, high-crime neighborhoods are the primary “receivers” of our services. In many cases, they are our primary “customers” and treating them as so will  make a big difference.

Let’s look at some of the more positive findings of the Urban Institute’s survey concerning citizen’s willingness to work with us:

  • A strong percentage of these residents will willingly call us to report a crime (71%), report suspicious activity (69%), help us find a suspect (64%), attend a community meeting with us to discuss neighborhood crime (53%), volunteer to help us solve a crime or find a suspect (47%), and even work with us to patrol the streets as part of an organized community group (41%). That’s good news.

It also indicates that residents in even the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods would be  supportive of our community policing efforts.

Yet when it actually comes to actually seeing COP practiced in their community the findings are not encouraging:

  • Only 28% of citizens in these neighborhoods believe we are responsive to their concerns or that we prioritize the problems that are most important to them.
  • Only 24% believe our departments hold us accountable for wrong or inappropriate conduct in their community.

And when it comes to race or ethnicity it is most disturbing:

  • More than one-half of residents in these neighborhoods believe we will treat them differently because of their race/ethnicity, judge them based on it, and act on our personal prejudices and biases rather than according to the law.

The following are questions related to the practice of Procedural Justice and, again, we have indications there is a lot of work to be done if we are to build trust and support in these communities:

  • Only about one-third of respondents believe we do what is best for them, help them, explain our decisions, respect their rights, give them a chance to tell their side of the story, make decisions based on the laws and not our personal beliefs, or treat them with dignity and respect.

One thing we all hate to talk about is race. It is the “elephant in the corner” of just about all our inner-city contacts. We will do just about anything to avoid this reality because many of us think it is unsolvable. Yet treating everyone we contact with respect will go a long way toward building trust in all our communities.

However, after 30+ years in policing, I feel I must say a thing or two about the lack of relationships at work or at home between those of us who are White and those whom society sees as not.

The problem is that we might have many contacts with people of color during the work day, but few, if any, contacts outside of work. Our inter-racial contacts are even fewer when it comes to close, personal relationships outside of work. This is not just our problem, it’s America’s as well.

I’ve observed that even in the whitest of our towns and cities, we tend to arrest persons of color far more frequently than we do those who aren’t. [While Blacks consisted of less than 10 percent of the population in the city I policed for over 20 years, they constituted 40 percent of our arrests. And this city is frequently designated as one of the best places to live in America — an All-American city. Today, I am greatly disturbed because this disparate figure continues year after year with no reduction in sight.]

What do those of us who are White really know about African-Americans, their history, culture, and aspirations? Yet year after year, young White police officers are sent out to police those who, for the most part, are people with whom they have little knowledge or contact in their lives. There is also a great chance that these officers have already developed certain biases that may be unknown to them.

What’s the answer? Better and more extensive cultural awareness courses in the academy or in-service training? But it must be more than listening and taking notes about minority communities or approaching them like an anthropologist and not as a helper.

In my own journey through the tumultuous 1960s when I was a cop on the street, I tried to get to know those with whom I was having the most contact. I read and listened to what James Baldwin wrote and what Dr. King and Malcolm X had were saying. Off duty, I hung around the neighborhood community center and engaged in youth activities. I tried to build empathy and respect into my actions as a police officer. I worked hard to be fair.

I don’t think policing has moved forward much  since that time. With few exceptions our police departments seem to be just as informally segregated and separate as the rest of the nation.

And besides, it’s not just getting to know and understand African-Americans, but also Hispanics, Middle Easterners, and Asians. It’s learning how to work in diverse, cosmopolitan communities among those who often live in extreme poverty in dangerous neighborhoods. It’s learning to be comfortable with difference.

Talking about race and practicing good, decent policing (Procedural Justice) among the poor is hard work. But it needs to happen and happen soon.

The Urban Institute has given us some important information on how we are perceived  in poor, high-crime neighborhoods. It would be a good idea for our cities to take periodic surveys such as these in order to have a baseline in which future improvement efforts can be measured. How else will we know if what we are trying to do is effective?

If we don’t work in a poor, inner-city neighborhood (and most of our nation’s police do not) what I have to say still matters — whether we police neighborhoods consisting of the rich or poor, low or high-crime, it is vitally important for us to know if we are trusted or not. We don’t have to have the Urban Institute to tell us. All we have to do is ask. Sincerely asking others how we are doing in itself builds trust.

The days ahead will be challenging. Committing to practice the principles of Procedural Justice in our daily contacts with citizens is something every one of us must do.

Never forget what we do is vitally important to the quality of life in our nation. It is also a most noble calling. People in our cities depend on us and we can make a postive difference in their daily lives.

Sincerely,

An Old Cop