The shootings that ricocheted from Baton Rouge, to Minneapolis, to Dallas and back again to Baton Rouge made for a horrifying week of videotape. These senseless killings prove only that stereotype and prejudice—whether based on the color of one’s skin, or the color of one’s uniform— disserve everyone. The lingering tension leaves many Americans to wonder if the racial divide between black communities and police can ever be healed.
But we have a choice. We can descend further into recrimination, but that seems surely to lead further down a path of destruction. Or we can choose to turn the current crisis into an opportunity to bridge racial fear and mistrust, and to transform a justice system that has long perpetuated so much injustice. In choosing the latter, we’ll need to recognize that:
Real change will require hard work by every one of us who values fairness and safety. Ordinary citizens and police leaders in scores of communities will need to sit down together and decide what public safety priorities are most important—and what standards of mutual respect must prevail in encounters between police and citizens. The conversation ought not be limited to deadly force against black men: We must also talk about the mistreatment of immigrants and lesbian, gay and transgender people of color, two communities that are also deeply alienated from law enforcement. We must address “taxation by citation”—the excessive imposition of tickets and court fines on poor people of color for minor or imagined offenses. We must talk honestly about how to address high rates of crime and violence in certain black neighborhoods.
Activists must be willing to sit down with police and politicians to propose specific solutions that aim neither too high (defund all police) or too low (body cameras). Police officials must listen and find the will to implement them. In Cincinnati in 2001, the fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year old black man, during an arrest for traffic violations led to a week of riots, followed by an economic boycott and a federal lawsuit. Eventually, the outrage over Thomas’s death led to a collaborative agreement negotiated between black community members and law enforcement, informed by hundreds of interviews with community residents and businesses. Still in place, the agreement improved education, oversight and monitoring of police, and established police and residents as equal partners in community problem-solving.
While litigation against police departments was once necessary leverage for these kinds of settlements, the widespread protests by the Movement for Black Lives – as well as the prospect of more shootings of police – now seem to have changed the equation. Residents and police leaders of goodwill should come to the table now, while the glare of public scrutiny holds. One area badly in need of reform is a “command and control” policing culture that measures productivity by the number of stops, tickets, and arrests per cop, rather than in terms of public safety and trust.
This crisis is a legacy of racism and economic inequality—and of policies of mass incarceration. Three decades of job loss and mass incarceration in poor, urban neighborhoods have robbed young people of any reasonable expectation of a living wage job. Rather than devise strategies to bring the urban poor into the new economy, policymakers have relied on police and prisons to contain fears of idle black men on street corners. After prison, black folks are returned to the neighborhoods they came from, with no more resources than they had before. Except they are now saddled with criminal records that disqualify them from the few jobs that remain. In a vicious cycle, police then target these same men and women when they try to eke out a living in the informal economy, selling CDs, loose cigarettes or drugs on the street. As President Obama highlighted last week, this situation is the result of explicit policy choices:
As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs . . .And then we tell the police . . . to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.
Overpolicing and underinvestment in black neighborhoods breed a dangerous cynicism. When children look around for role models and see only parents, uncles, and cousins going to jail, it induces a level of hopelessness that cheapens life and eases the resort to violence. This in turns hardens law enforcement’s assumptions that black residents need to be feared more than protected.
It’s high time we broke this cycle. Let’s not wait for another tragedy to get to work.
Tanya E. Coke is a former defense attorney and Senior Program Officer for criminal justice at the Ford Foundation in New York City.