To say that the events of this year have tested the bonds between law enforcement and the communities they are charged with protecting would be an understatement.
As police departments across the country have been embroiled in scandals ranging from the graphic shooting of Walter Scott to the mysterious saga unfolding around the death of Freddie Gray, trust in law enforcement continues to deteriorate considerably within communities of color.
“There is no metric that tells me that anything is particularly different now than it was before—other than the fact that we are actually seeing what’s happening,” noted Roy J. Austin during a panel discussion on community engagement and police response held during New America’s recent annual conference. Austin, who directs urban affairs for the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, pointed out that the tensions produced by racial profiling have existed for decades.
“I don’t know if I would say that it has been a bad year for the police, but I would certainly say that it has been a difficult and challenging year for police,” said Matthew Bromeland, Special Assistant to the D.C. Chief of Police, Cathy Lanier.
The ability of bystanders to capture the actions of police officers on camera has led to an effect that Bromeland refers to as the “globalization of the issues and the challenges that are facing police.” In his position, Bromeland has spent several years working with Chief Lanier on “behind-the-scenes policy.” As a member of the law enforcement community and resident of D.C., he believes that constructive relationships between officers and the public can be maintained through good policing.
But for a country that remains mired in controversies surrounding racial profiling and police brutality, the desire to preserve the image of police officers as figures that must be obeyed without question has made the idea of “good policing” seem oxymoronic among communities of color. For New America International Security Fellow Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer best known as a critic of the case against Serial subject Adnan Syed, deconstructing the “cop as absolute authority” archetype and the culture of policing that it obscures is crucial to facilitating change.
“I don’t see much discussion of the culture of policing, and I feel like when we examine why certain pathologies exist, in certain institutions, or communities, or regions, or anything we try to look at what the root causes are here, what are the cultural issues here,” Chaudry said.
Chaudry, who also works to provide “cultural competency education” for police and law enforcement agencies as the President of the Safe Nation Collaborative, stressed that negative aspects of police culture and a failure to hold officers accountable are part of the problem.
“Part of the concern of communities is that even when there is clear police brutality, you aren’t getting the accountability, you aren’t getting it in the courts, and you also aren’t getting it from the institutions,” Chaudry explained. “You don’t have any healing between the community and the institution, it just becomes a standoff.”
And once tensions have escalated to the point of a standoff, it becomes even more difficult to mend broken bonds. As the unrest flowing through Baltimore demonstrates, the frustration of an unheard community is much like a festering wound—the longer it goes untreated, the more deadly it becomes. Like any other medicine, the most effective treatment must be applied preventively.
In order to promote healing, the panelists affirmed how imperative it is that police officers and communities actively work to understand one another. In D.C., for instance, “having positive, constructive, relationships from the get-go does a lot,” Bromeland explained. “There’s a patience and understanding that allows us to have that dialogue so that it doesn’t just in an instant become conflict.”
Austin noted that in many places, the problem has gotten so out of hand because police officers fail to actively solicit input from communities of color. “The police department is a culture. The civil rights advocates and community members are a culture. If you don’t bring them to the table and ask them what they want, then no matter how beautiful your policy may look on paper, no one is going to accept it,” he argued.
The panelists also agreed on the need for effective community policing but varied in their opinions on how best to achieve that goal. For Bromeland, it is crucial for police officers to “engage internally” and “identify issues and challenges that we can face together.” But for Austin, to expect officers to independently shift from “warriors to guardians” is to neglect structural convictions that have been built up over generations.
Just one individual deciding in a vacuum to change isn’t enough, Austin continued. “Police officers have to believe that they are part of the communities that they are there to police. Not that they are the invading forces that are going in to save the community, but that this is actually their community.”
As events surrounding the deaths of unarmed black men have grown into a national conversation over the value of black lives, many have suggested that requiring police officers to wear body cameras would be an effective way to force this kind of systemic change. But Bromeland’s reaction to that idea was mixed.
“Even when there is video, there’s going to be disagreement over how that’s perceived,” he said. “What we are trying to see is if cameras change the way that people interact with one another for the better.”
Citing her focus on the relationship between Muslim communities and law enforcement, Chaudry was slightly more optimistic about the potential for body cameras to expose wrongdoing rather than increase surveillance opportunities for local governments.
“A body camera means that you are having a face-to-face interaction with an officer, which is a lot more welcome than never seeing them and knowing that they are watching you,” she observed.
Ultimately, the panelists agreed that community members’ frustrations with the police are well-founded but asserted the need for balance in how officers are perceived by the public and portrayed in the media.
“In most of the interactions [between the police and the community] it’s perfectly fine, it’s going to be a professional interaction,” Austin noted after a mother in the audience asked how she should give “the talk” about the intentions of police to her young black son. “But in far too many it is not.”
“A lot of times, people don’t understand the choices police officers have to make,” Chaudry added.
But promoting balanced opinions of law enforcement does not mean that officers should be treated with impunity. When another mother in the audience asked how she should react to an incident where her teenage son was verbally accosted by the police, the panelists urged her to file a complaint.
“If no one knows that this happened, how is it going to stop?” Austin asked.
Bromeland concurred, and pointed out that saying nothing “perpetuates that strategy [of bullying or intimidation]” for irresponsible officers. In his final comment, he challenged police officers to rethink their roles in communities.
“It doesn’t have to be scary; you don’t have to be scary to be a police officer.”
This article originally appeared in New America’s Medium publication, Context.