By Steve Musal
After a year during which public awareness of violence involving police has sparked a nationwide conversation, the nation’s top cops decided to have one.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police moved from a traditional one-speaker format for their annual assembly to a four-person panel discussion on police and community relations, use of force, racial profiling and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report, released today.
The panel was held prior to President Barack Obama’s scheduled speech at McCormick Place to the national gathering, where he was expected to call for tougher gun control laws. Obama’s visit has particular resonance in Chicago, where research has found that guns often flow freely across the state line from Indiana and the number of shooting victims between Jan. 1-Oct. 27 reached 2,524, well on pace to exceed the 2014 total of 2,587 victims.
“Having tough conversations about racial profiling and excessive use of force … is an affirmation of the vocation of policing.”
— Cornell Brooks, NAACP president
On the panel were Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP; Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; Arlington, Texas Police Chief Will Johnson; and Seattle, Washington Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole.
“It is a difficult conversation, and it happens at a difficult moment in our public history,” Brooks said.
A shift in mindset
At the center of the conversation was the need for a shift in police mindset from being warriors to being guardians of public safety.
“We believe that’s critically important, because all across the country we see communities that regard themselves as objects of suspicion rather than protection,” Brooks said. “We have communities that expect a standard of excellence and look to their police departments and law enforcement agencies with expectations of that same standard of excellence.”
Much of that standard, Gupta said, is having a conversation about what communities want from their police. Building relationships and having conversations between communities and police outside of the context of law enforcement is important.
“It’s a lot harder to demonize and engage in the ‘us versus them’ when you’re engaged in conversations,” Gupta said. Communities and law enforcement must understand each other, she said. This is key to changing perceptions both of police and by police, so “there is a reservoir of trust that exists.”
“It’s a lot harder to demonize and engage in the ‘us versus them’ when you’re engaged in conversations.”
— Vanita Gupta, U.S. Attorney General’s office
Johnson stressed the need for that trust and conversation as well, saying that it goes hand in hand with building support for police and support for communities.
“No community wants to be void of police,” Johnson said. “Every community wants to be safe and secure, and the police need to be part of that conversation.”
Data on police-involved violence should also be collected, as part of building understanding and relationships, he said.
Johnson added that a barrier to building public trust is transference, in which the actions by some police officers or departments often get attributed to all police.
Lack of diversity hurts policing
Brooks, however, pointed out that while perception and understanding between police and communities are important, real problems exist.
“When we talk about the ratio of perception versus reality, the reality is pretty brutal, pretty hard,” Brooks said, adding that young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police. “I don’t know of any black man of a certain age who doesn’t have a story.”
These problems, he said, also make prosecution more difficult–for instance, if witnesses mistrust police and refuse to tell what they know about a crime– and policing harder.
Addressing the lack of diversity in police departments is one way to address that reality, O’Toole said.
“We must have police services that reflect the communities we serve,” she said. To that end, departments should work hard to recruit a diverse police force, and people who understand that policing is not just a job. “If done right, it’s a vocation,” O’Toole said.
All panelists agreed that this conversation needed to continue.
“Having tough conversations about racial profiling and excessive use of force, in the context of relationships, is an affirmation of the vocation of policing,” Brooks said. Now, he said, is the time for that conversation. “This is a crisis that, literally, our children are holding us accountable for. We must embrace this with a fierce urgency. We can’t wait until the perception goes away.”