Friday, August 29, 2014

Some Thoughts on Ferguson

I've been wondering for awhile what I can add to the public discussion that has been generated by the recent events in Ferguson, MO: the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, and the subsequent community protests. What light can I shed, a white man sitting comfortably here in Stillwater, OK?

And then I remembered something my daughter said earlier this summer. We were driving, and we passed a police vehicle. From her car seat in the back, my daughter waved to the police officer. I know this not because I saw her do it (I was watching the road), but because she promptly announced, "I waved to the police officer. I like to wave to the police. They're nice."

They're nice.

That is my daughter's experience of the police, and I'm not surprised. We have a relative, Uncle Rob, who's a police officer. I'm sure she thinks of him as a warm, intelligent, and charming gentleman--because he is all those things. For a few years, a police officer lived across the street from us. He and his family were good neighbors. We had them to our house for dinner. His wife helped my daughter acquire Charlotte, her American Girl doll. My daughter knew that if she ever needed to run to a neighbor for help, she should go to them.

The point is this: Police officers are members of my daughter's community. They're neighbors, like the teachers who live down the street, and the nurse around the corner, and the professor. They're family members. They have a job, and their job is to keep people safe and make sure everyone follows the law. It's an important job. It's good that some members of the community are doing it.

That's who the police are to my little girl. They're nice.

The job of a police officer is best served, I think, to the extent that they are what my daughter takes them to be: Members of the community that they serve, neighbors and friends and family members who identify with the people they meet on the street, who see their job as serving and protecting their own community.

Similarly, the job of a police officer is compromised to the extent that the line between officers and the community in which they work is a dividing line between us and them, between community members and strangers who enter it with power and authority. There is a fundamental difference between an occupying force--even one that sees its mission as keeping the peace--and the police. To the extent that this distinction evaporates, something has gone tragically wrong.

The police have a hard job, and as I learned a few years back from police officers at conference on criminal justice ethics, they operate day-to-day with a complex combination of enormous individual discretion and sometimes byzantine hierarchical oversight. On the beat, they have to make quick decisions with significant consequences largely on their own; but there is also a a world of procedure and regulation that they are responsible to. They are, as one officer put it, the only 24-hour social service agency. That is, they are expected to solve human problems in their community when others (whose official job it is) aren't available to do it--and at the same time, as their official job, they are to enforce the law and keep the peace.

In a world where guns are everywhere, they face significant danger to their very lives--because those who intend to break the laws will see the police as their enemy, as a threat to their aims, and they may be armed.

None of this can be easy. Given that rules need to be applied fairly and without favoritism, a police officer won't always be seen as "nice." But a police officer's job is so much better to the extent that neighborhood children think of the officer in positive terms. When there is a widespread sense of mutual belonging--when the officer thinks, "This is my community," and the citizen thinks, "That officer is my neighbor with an important and difficult job"--the work of the police officer becomes meaningful and appreciated in a way that can reduce some of the challenges and make other challenges worth it.

And the community is more likely to have the kind of relationship with local law enforcement that contributes to their quality of life. There is a world of difference between entrusting your safety to members of your community who have been carefully trained to protect and to serve--and living in the shadow of an occupying force.

Unfortunately, there are a range of forces that can push the relationship between police and the community in the direction of the latter.

Some arise from the inherent psychological pressures of the job. When your job leads you to seek out those who are likely to view you as an enemy--and who therefore pose a threat to you--the antagonistic us/them frame of thinking has the potential to bleed out across your psyche. Furthermore, the need to exercise authority in the enforcement of rules can make you hesitant to get too friendly. Your job calls for a kind of impartiality that may push you towards a degree of psychological distance from the community you serve.

A certain amount of suspicion and distance are probably essential to doing a police officer's job. But too much, and the police are no longer members of the community. Suspicion breeds suspicion. Distance breeds distance. In the worst cases, the police become a kind of occupying force.

In poor and socially marginalized communities, the risk of this is magnified by numerous additional factors. First, poverty and social marginalization breed crime, and this increases the psychological pressure in police to be increasingly suspicious and distant from the members of the community they serve. Second, police officers have jobs that pay well relative to the incomes of those in poor and marginalized communities, a fact which creates a kind of economic distance. It can also create physical distance: police officers are more likely to live in middle class neighborhoods. And because the job carries with it an important and recognized social role--one that you're unlikely to choose or manage to get if you are yourself too marginalized and disaffected--officers may have trouble identifying with the depth of marginalization that many in their community feel; and the most socially marginalized may, in turn, have trouble identifying with the police. The result is an increased risk of us/them thinking, a sense of disconnect that pushes policing in the direction of quasi-military occupation.

And I haven't even mentioned race.

Racial divisions can obviously play into the us/them thinking, especially if the demographic profile of the police force is too unlike that of the community population. But I think there is another issue related to race that may go under-appreciated, on linked to racial profiling. The issue is this: The natural desire of the police to form some sense of belonging within the community they serve is in tension with the suspicion and distance that the job sometimes brings. But if there are some members of the community who can be easily identified as "safe"--as non-threatening and law-abiding--the need for suspicion and distance can be loosened with respect to them. You can let down your guard enough, at least with those you can quickly identify as safe, to form the sense of kinship and connection that makes the job more meaningful.

There is therefore something seductive about the idea that profiling based on visible cues can pick out those who are likely to be dangerous law-breakers, marking them off from those one can form a sense of connection with. Race is one of the most visible cues of all. Combine that with a cultural history of racial stereotyping, and a demographic disconnect between the police force and the community--not to mention the fact that legacies of injustice have resulted in disproportionate numbers of blacks living in poverty and feeling marginalized--and what do you get?

You get Ferguson.

The community response we've been seeing in Ferguson does not arise from a single incident, no matter how tragic or terrible. It is the effect of a cumulative and long-standing problem, a disconnect between a community and the police so severe that mutual fear and opposition have largely displaced any sort of identification. In Ferguson, I doubt that little black girls see a police car and think, "You're nice." Too many of their brothers have come home indignant about being profiled, being treated as guilty until proven innocent...or, sometimes, not come home at all.

The question is how such alienation can be repaired.

Part of the answer may be demographic--seeking to encourage a police force that more closely resembles the community it serves. Part of the answer may be prioritizing the hiring of officers with deep personal ties to the community. But much of the answer may lie in deliberate programs designed to build bridges of understanding between the police and the community: opportunities for members of the community to share with the police their feelings and needs and experiences, and for police officers to do the same--facilitated to minimize accusation and blame and maximize mutual listening and understanding.

Give law enforcement officers the chance to gather with community members to share together what they fear, what they hope, what they need. Find ways to give each side a safe space to express their anger, their frustration, their hurt--and experience what it is like to be heard.

The people of Ferguson are in a better position to know what kinds of activities and programs will help the most. What I can say with confidence is this: The question of what will help overcome the alienation between police and community is intimately linked to a question of central importance to those in Ferguson who have taken to the streets, who are chanting "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

The question is this: What should they be asking for?

The most successful campaigns of the civil rights movement were organized around very concrete goals. Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted that when community action was taken to protest segregation practices, they be clear about what, specifically, they wanted from their opponents.

In Ferguson today, there is energy for change. Anger is energy, and it's spilling into the streets. If the people of Ferguson want to harness that energy in a way that has a chance of making a positive difference in their lives, they need unity and organization, and they need nonviolent direct action strategies that will call attention to the problems and the reasons for their outrage. But they also need a clear purpose. They need to ask for something--something specific that the police department is actually able to give.

Justice for Michael Brown is one goal, but it lies beyond the power of the police alone to give. The police can commit to approaching the Michael Brown shooting with transparency and integrity--but the outrage in Ferguson arises from a problem that runs much deeper than the shooting of one person. The anger in Ferguson is fueled by more than a single shooting, no matter how tragic. It is about a relationship between the community and the police that has broken down. Michael Brown's shooting and the response are symptoms of something deeper.

Here, then, is something the activists in Ferguson might ask for, which cuts to the heart of the deeper issue: They could ask for a concrete commitment by the police department and the local government, complete with action steps, to devise and implement a community program to overcome the alienation, the us/them ideology, that has overtaken the relationship between the Ferguson police and the community. Perhaps the result could serve as a model plan for building positive community connections with law enforcement in other communities across the country.

It isn't just community members who would prefer to live in a world where their young daughters see a police officer and, rather than feel a rush of fear, smile and wave. The police would much rather live in such a world, too. As such, the problem in Ferguson is a shared problem. And a demand for addressing the schism between community and police is a demand for something that everyone has motive to pursue.

The energy in Ferguson is more than just a powder keg. It is an opportunity--a moment when, if the forces can be aligned in the right way, significant positive change can happen. Let's pray that, in this moment in history, anger and wisdom can come together and move Ferguson--and maybe the rest of us with it--in the direction of something brighter.

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