Sunday, December 07, 2014


I would say that this is like a bad movie, but that would make light of a very serious and real situation in America. If you didn't live here and were reading the headlines every day, you might think that being a Black man or boy is a crime in America, punishable by death on the spot. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix are the most recent Black men and boys killed by police, but certainly not the only ones.

"Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI" (USA Today). This statement is based on data submitted to the FBI by police departments, and it is a very incomplete and, some think, very flawed database. However, the stark reality is clear, young Black men are killed by police at a disproportionate rate compared to young white men killed.

Propublica has a good summary of these data in a recent article. The graphic below is from the Propublica article.

But rather than get lost in the data, which is readily available on the internet, I want to stick to my opinion, which is, after all, what you are reading.

Racism is alive and well today in America; however, in my opinion the core issue is not racism of individuals but racism inherent in our institutions. A lot has been written on this topic, and should be required reading for every US citizen, not as a guilt trip for white readers, but for the sake of educating all of us. 

There is a lot of justified anger in minority communities, as well as in a large proportion of society in general, concerning the treatment of Black men and boys in law enforcement and the judicial system. (Note that this is true in the Latino community as well.) Some of this anger spills over as rage, and mob mentality has taken over in some places resulting in destruction of property and looting. These actions are not by the majority of protesters and demonstrators, no matter how often the media shows us video and photos of the flames. 

There is a growing movement nationwide focused on police brutality and judicial indifference. Some commentators predict it is a new phase of the civil rights movement, and could grow into a major movement. I hope this is true, and I also hope that leaders emerge who can coordinate strategies, put forward a consistent message, distance the movement from the fringe groups and individuals who favor violence, and organize support for change by a majority of Americans. 

I don't condone war against the police; this is not productive and is a losing campaign. Nor do I condone blaming and labeling all cops as racist. There are many statements and interviews in the media right now by active and former police officers who admit that there is a problem, and state that some small percentage of police officers are "bad cops" who do bad things, and should not be in these positions. They also admit that the majority of cops typically don't speak out when they know what the bad apples are doing, either because they don't want to get involved, or they are concerned about their own careers. This obviously needs to change.

It is not just the bad cops that are the problem, however; it is the system, the institutions of law enforcement and justice, that not only allow these individuals to be in positions of authority, but protect them when they do bad things. The death of Eric Garner by policemen, ruled a homicide by the coroner and seen by millions in a video on the internet, was not considered worthy of a trial. This is the outrage. A policeman killed a citizen whose potential crime was selling cigarettes, and the cop was not indicted.  Would Eric Garner be alive today if he was white? Would the cop be on trial if Mr. Garner had been killed and was white? It is not OK for a cop to kill someone without justification; but it is even more egregious that the justice system takes a pass on it. 

I have been working closely with the Portland Police Bureau over the past year to address issues in our neighborhood. The police formed a special unit, based on what they are calling relationship policing, to conduct daily walking patrols in a few neighborhoods. This has been a pilot project, and has been very successful. The officers assigned to the unit were selected using a set of criteria, including their communication skills. Many cops feel that the public hates them, and they are reluctant to get out of their cars and walk around. But the community response to these walking patrols has been overwhelmingly favorable, including many "street people" who are afraid of the bad elements on the street. The goal of this pilot project is to have cops and people in the community get to know each other, on a first name basis, and to have the cops out there to help people who need assistance, diffuse tense situations, address issues of behavior in public places, and help build a greater sense of community. As Ric, the Sergeant in charge of the unit often says, good parenting is not ignoring your kids until they do something wrong and then punishing them, but that is how policing has worked for too long (and he is quick to point out that police are not your parents!). The situation in our neighborhood has improved greatly, and by the way, this special unit of officers made very few arrests and issued very few citations, not because they weren't doing their job, but because they were doing their job in a different way.

I am hopeful that, working together, we can make needed changes in our society. I'm not yet delusional enough to think that this will be a slam dunk; it will be hard work. Institutionalized racism is buried deep in the core structures of our public institutions, and there is a tremendous amount of inertia to keep it that way. We need to change laws, we need new legal precedent, we need individuals inside federal, state and local governments, including police forces, to push from the inside, we need citizens to participate in public discourse and to vote

Next time you see a cop walking around your neighborhood, stop and say hello. Introduce yourself, get into a conversation, talk about what's going on. Build community.