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.