How News Media Fan The Flames Of Police And Community Violence

In the past weeks, the media have shown us vivid images of innocent Black men murdered by police officers and of innocent police officers gunned down in mindless retaliation. These horrific events have made many Americans acutely aware of a crisis that national, state and local leaders have long ignored: the huge racial divide between our police and communities of color and the systemic violence against Blacks and Latinos that exists in many police departments.

Yet amidst the violence and despair, there is also strong evidence that things can be different. In a number of cities, police and local leaders are coming together to change the culture of policing and getting results. The best way to protect our police officers as they do their important job of protecting us is to build police/community cooperation while forcefully speaking out against those who would harm the police. Violence is contagious, but so is the hope created when the police and communities of color work collectively for change. Unfortunately, that hope is rarely seen on television and in social media. Instead, the media contribute to the stereotyping that incubates killings.

Recently, I participated in a meeting at the White House to address building trust between the police and communities of color. It took place on the same day that funeral services were held for five slain Dallas officers and less than a week before three more police officers were killed in Baton Rouge. President Obama brought together long-time civil rights organizations, new national activists, police chiefs, clergy and elected leaders for a robust and honest conversation that addressed centuries of state violence against Blacks and Latinos. One value of the meeting was that we shared important information about what some cities are doing to end the culture of violence. Unfortunately, this critical dialogue received little media coverage.

Since childhood, I have organized and participated in demonstrations against police brutality. As Mayor of Newark, I appointed a new police director whose mission is to bring police and community together. We've taken major steps to begin repairing a long relationship of mutual distrust between Newark residents and the police: the nation's strongest police civilian review board, putting police internal affairs under civilian supervision, training police in conflict resolution on the street and in domestic violence situations, initiating direct dialogue and mentoring between police and at-risk teens, recruiting Newark residents to become new police officers and much much more.

From watching television, you would have no idea that Newark has become a laboratory for implementing ways to eliminate brutality from policing just as you would not have known before the murder of police in Dallas that Dallas is a leader in community policing. You would not know that Newark's unique strategy involves total mobilization. We have brought together community organizations, clergy, our colleges and universities, businesses, neighborhood leaders, the public schools, ex-prisoners and former gang members to work with the police to deal with every aspect of public safety. Yet when PBS Frontline recently came to our city to produce their documentary "Policing the Police," they highlighted the violence of a few officers while leaving on the cutting room floor extensive footage and interviews about the substantial changes underway in policing Newark.

The decision by Frontline to focus on the brutality of a few rather than airing the many examples of how people are coming together to reduce police/community conflict is symptomatic of the larger media mindset in America, a very dangerous mindset. When you show only the systemic violence and don't broadcast how police and communities in a growing number of cities are working together to forge cooperative relationships, it contributes to stereotyping all police officers as racist and brutal. This is the mirror image of the police who stereotype Black teens walking down the street at night as criminals. Stereotyping is deadly. It encourages deranged people to believe they are serving justice by murdering random police officers or by killing anyone who looks middle eastern because they have stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists.

I am painfully aware that our news media today are driven by competition to sell advertising, hence aggregating the largest audiences, hence focusing on the sensational and negative while ignoring what is positive and constructive. And even publicly financed PBS is not immune from the compulsion to focus on the sensational. It seems to me that in a time of crisis, those who control the media have a responsibility to report how people are working constructively to encourage cooperation between the police and communities of color. After all, violence is contagious but so is hope.