There is a major fracture developing in American policing. Reaction to an array of very public incidents, many on video, have polarized many in law enforcement. On one side: officers who feel underappreciated, falsely accused and demoralized over accusations of racism, brutality and even murder. On the other side: those who recognize the systemic adverse impact of criminal justice policies on the poor and powerless.
Both factions are struggling with what to do about the current state of public discourse, how to move forward and how to have a meaningful conversation without being shouted down by the opposition.
It’s difficult to see a solution when the issue is so charged. President Barack Obama has condemned racial disparities in criminal justice. Movie director Quentin Tarantinourged people “to rise up” against murderous officers (leading some police unions to call for a boycott of his upcoming film and the National Association of Police Organizations to encourage officers to not work on any of Mr. Tarantino’s projects). And the Black Lives Matter Network considers law enforcement the oppressors who have contributed to a deprivation of African Americans’ “basic human rights and dignity.”
Until cell phone cameras and police dash cameras, many people had never seen real police work, especially violent confrontations. Sometimes police work is a nasty, sweaty, smelly, roll-around-in-the-gutter business — and legitimately so. The law allows police to employ the force necessary to make an arrest. That is not always pretty. Now that a number of very troubling and questionable actions by police officers have gone viral, the public square is abuzz with discourse that is becoming more polarized, louder and angrier. Angry people often can’t hear views unlike their own. Those blaming the police should realize that most officers uphold the law and Constitution and perform their duties in a fair and impartial manner. Where the police act outside of the law, they should be held accountable.
Two of them are particularly relevant now:
•Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy. Toward that end, police and sheriffs’ departments should adopt procedural justice as the guiding principle for internal and external policies and practices to guide their interactions with the citizens they serve.
•Law enforcement agencies should acknowledge the role of policing in past and present injustice and discrimination and how it is a hurdle to the promotion of community trust.
Perhaps all of us should take a deep breath, start concentrating on areas where we agree, and start to do something positive to change things. The polarization, although great for making headlines, does little to get things done and serves to promote anger and defensiveness, both obstacles to productive dialogue. Most police officers start their careers to help people. Most police and community residents agree they want to live peacefully, hold a decent job, raise their children and be hopeful for the future.
Police chiefs and sheriffs serve one predominant purpose: leadership. They need to take a stand for justice, fairness, trust and legitimacy, confront injustices of the past and clear a path to a better future. Everyone should take a hard look at race in our society and how it influences our systems and examine poverty, powerlessness and hopelessness. All should listen without judging, make needed reforms and move forward together.
Here in Baltimore we are fortunate. We have, in Commissioner Kevin Davis, someone who is leading the charge on bringing factions together in a peaceful and respectful way. Not an easy slog. With the upcoming trials of the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest, and the possibility of unrest in the streets, there has never been a greater need for solid, forward-thinking leadership. All of us — right now — need to come together in support of Baltimore. Let’s find common ground, foster the debate in a reasonable tone, provide a hopeful picture of the future and work toward justice reform, eliminating institutional racism, supporting our police and providing safe communities in which all can thrive.