“Protect and Serve” or “In Your Face”

by James J. Zogby Dr. James J. Zogby is the President Arab American Institute 08.12.2014
In 1971, I was working at a Boy's Club in the Germantown section of Philadelphia running an after-school program. One day, the Police Athletic League representative dropped off a pile of coloring books for the younger kids. On the cover was a picture of a policeman walking hand-in-hand with a little girl, clearly (or so I thought) helping her across the street. My assumption, however, wasn't shared by 7 year old Tanya. The minute she was handed her book she shouted out "oh, oh, she's in trouble. He's taking her away to jail". 

I shouldn't have been surprised. I had lived in Philly for 4 years. They were the "Frank Rizzo years"—the notorious "tough cop" who was remembered for wearing a billy club tucked into his tuxedo cummerbund. I knew of the "no holds barred" way police interacted with the African American community and, though white, I had experienced some this rough treatment myself. Still, Tanya's reaction did surprise me. I tried to tell her otherwise, but she and the other youngsters in the program would have none of it. Police, to them, were not "Officer Friendly". As these little ones saw it, the police were not in their community to "protect and serve".

Tanya and the other kids at that Boy's Club are in their 50's now. As I watched the Michael Brown saga unfold, they came to mind and I wondered how they saw it. 

The tragedy of Ferguson has certainly generated a national conversation about race, about the over-militarization of local police departments, about the excessive use of force, and about the prosecutor's abuse of the notoriously unfair Grand Jury system. What we have not yet discussed, and need to, is the culture of hostility and impunity that has come to define too much of our nation's approach to policing.

When I saw the excerpts of testimony from the Ferguson Grand Jury, I was immediately struck by one glaring discrepancy. It wasn't whether Michael had his hands up or down, whether he was charging or staggering, or whether Officer Darren Wilson gave fair warning before shooting. It was at the very beginning of the story where Wilson claims he said to Michael "why don't you guys walk on the sidewalk?", while Michael's friend, Dorian Johnson, claims that Wilson shouted "get the F*** on the sidewalk". I knew which account Tanya would believe. 

I must admit that I also found Johnson's recollection of the events of the day to be more believable. I've see such displays of "in your face" police hostility before. They happen too often, and too often they accelerate into violence, ending in tragedy. And therein lies the heart of the problem that we must acknowledge.

After New York City recently declined to charge police in the homicide of Eric Garner, the New York Times ran a string of pictures of young black men who had similarly been victims of what the Times called "fatal police encounters" in the last decade. There are too many of these killings. Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post, presents a tally suggesting over 1000 per year—with too many of them being African American males or young men with disabilities.

Reviewing the stories behind many of these killings, a pattern emerges of a hostile "us versus them" mentality on the part of the officers escalating into the use of brute force and tragic death. 

Race is a key factor here, but it is not only African American men who are victims of this pattern of behavior. I recall the story of Ethan Saylor, the young man with Down Syndrome who didn't understand why he had to leave the movie theater after the film he was watching had finished. Three off-duty Maryland policemen, working as security at the theater, instead of recognizing Ethan's disability and dealing with him accordingly, roughly wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him and watched as he was suffocated to death. They, too, were acquitted. Ethan's story was not unlike that of Eric Garner who was killed when a New York City officer applied a banned choke hold. The video of handcuffed Garner laying on the ground saying "I can't breathe" as officers watch him die is sickening.

Because of their long experience, African Americans understand the injustice and the horror of this out of control situation. A recent Washington Post poll found that while 58% of whites agreed with the Ferguson Grand Jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson, 83% of African Americans disagreed. And a New York Times poll showed that 45% of African Americans believed that they had been treated badly by police, because of their race.

Now I don't doubt for a moment, that many police officers feel at risk in many of the circumstances they are forced to confront. And I also know many good policemen and policewomen who are motivated by a strong commitment to community service—and who often perform heroically saving lives, rescuing those in need, and defending the innocent.  It is for the sake of these good officers and for the communities they serve that the culture of policing must change. 

I remember a few years back as we were being inundated by stories of pedophile clergy, a priest at my church took to the pulpit one Sunday and spoke from his heart. He decried the victimization of so many innocent children and condemned those who had committed these horrible criminal acts. But then he went on to denounce the bishops of his church who had for years covered up these crimes. My priest charged that these bishops had not only absolved criminal behavior and continued to put other children at risk, they had also made victims of good priests who were now being looked at, as a group, with suspicion. The same holds true in the case of police. The behavior of the hostile and threatening cop and the acquittal of those who have indiscriminately used unnecessary lethal force has cast a long shadow. That was why little Tanya couldn't even imagine a kind policeman.

This is the discussion we must have. It's not just about the weapons police use or making them wear cameras. It’s about the culture of hostility and impunity that has separated communities from the police. The problem doesn't begin with the patrolman on the beat. It begins with the training they receive and the bad behavior that is tolerated by those who lead them. And it won't change until the heads of departments take action to hold officers accountable for bad behavior and until prosecutors assume responsibility and indict police who use unreasonable force.

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