Friday, April 4, 2014

AAG West: 'Just So You Understand Where I'm Coming From'

There's an event in New York City going on right now called the "Strengthening the Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Communities of Color Forum." I don't know much about it, other than the NYPD could stand to learn a lot about how to deal with minorities fairly, so it sounds like a good idea, at least.

Today, Associate Attorney General Tony West gave a speech there in support of a new federal program to study ways to improve how law enforcement deals with persons of color. And while I know better than to endorse any government program solely based on its conceptual framework--let alone a loose framework laid out in a speech--I did want to highlight parts of the speech I think is important.
I come to this discussion as one who has been privileged to work with law enforcement for most of my career -- for several years as a federal prosecutor in a U.S. Attorney's Office; as a lawyer in the California Attorney General's Office; and now as part of the United States Justice Department's leadership. That experience has left me both profoundly grateful for and humbled by the dedication and commitment of so many in law enforcement who serve to keep our communities safer places to live, to work and to play; and who do so with integrity and in compliance with the law.

Theirs is not an easy task, and their duties are often performed under difficult and dangerous circumstances. And the reality for most officers, I believe, is that policing is not a job; it's an honor and profession. It's about service. It's about promoting safety and security and fostering strong neighborhoods for the residents who live there.

I also come to this discussion as my father's son. He was a man born and raised deep in the Jim Crow south. And when the time came for his eldest child and only son to take up driving lessons, dad was my teacher, imparting all the familiar lessons of keeping my eyes on the road and signaling before I turned.

And then there were the lessons not found in any driver's manual; lessons informed by family history and community experience: When -- not if -- you are pulled over by the police for no ostensible reason, keep your hands visibly planted at 10 and 2 until instructed otherwise. Always ask permission before reaching for your license and registration, and even then verbally explain what you're doing. No quick movements. End every sentence with "sir." Speak only when spoken to and never, ever talk back. 

Dad called these "survival skills," and I put them into practice on more than a few occasions, well into adulthood. I suspect that I'm not alone in bringing such divergent, perhaps even conflicting, perspectives to today's discussion.


And yet it is also the case that ours is a time when, as the Attorney General said in his remarks, there are still too many pockets of America where folks are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration; when negative contacts with the criminal justice system are disproportionately felt by communities of color -- especially young men of color, half of whom, one recent study showed, will have at least one arrest by age 23.

For Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department he leads, few things are as troubling or in need of our urgent attention as a criminal justice system that lacks integrity in the eyes of those it is supposed to serve. Because notwithstanding our success in reducing violent crime over the last three decades, the disturbing fact is that same time period has witnessed the prison population explode by 800%, with communities of color bearing a disproportionate share of that increase.

That, in turn, has only led to more suspicion, more fear and more resentment, giving currency to self-fulfilling narratives that say, on one side, law enforcement is a threat, not an ally; or on the other, that community residents tolerate and even encourage disrespect for the law. 

And as demographics shift and neighborhoods change, it is becoming more clear that the communities law enforcement must serve, on which they must rely and to which they are accountable, are increasingly communities of color. (all emphases mine)
I don't know if there has been a higher ranking government official, let alone one from DoJ, to admit to the palpable, mortal fear communities of color feel when dealing with police--but this is the first time I'm ever hearing it from anyone in the federal government. As I've written here before, and cataloged elsewhere, this is just the way it is to a lot of minorities in this country.

This "given" to us is often ignored or downplayed by whites and others. When a black person is beaten or shot by police, "well, he must have done something!" is a common reaction. Even whites who understand that officers can be overaggressive and abusive, including those who've experienced it first hand, sometimes downplay the common racism alleged (and felt) by people of color. It's both encouraging and sad that these fears plaguing black people for decades are finally being validated by a leader in federal law enforcement.

I was happy to see that West made clear that the practical effects of community/police antipathy are also important. As I write in my forthcoming paper on police corruption, citing Gallup's Confidence in Institutions survey:
If 43 percent of Americans lack trust in the police—and only 28 percent have high confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole—a disturbingly large percentage of Americans may hesitate to make crucial phone calls that could stop a crime in progress or build a case against a criminal. Moreover, if the people who responded “very little” or “none” happen to be geographically, racially, or socio-economically related, the police effectiveness within those communities will likely suffer as a result. Antipathy and hostility toward the police complicates police work, as witnesses will be less likely to cooperate with authorities whom they do not trust. As fewer people cooperate with police, less information can be gleaned in criminal cases, and thus fewer cases will be closed. This may become cyclical, as police become less capable of solving property and violent crimes through investigation while maintaining a heightened focus on drug offenders, a given community’s faith in police competence is unlikely to increase, crystallizing that community's mistrust. (citation omitted)
I don't know if the program to study the relationship between communities and law enforcement that West spoke about today will be a good one--good ideas so often fail when put into practice--but I'm encouraged that this project is being launched with the explicit understanding by the federal government that police fundamentally mistreat minorities. It is long overdue.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

No comments: