How to Save Black Lives

Black Lives Matter. Period.

The deaths of black men at the hands of police are tragedies that we as a society must work to stop.  Demands for change are appropriate and necessary. But, I worry that anti-police and anti-government protests don’t help us move forward. To me there is a difference between insisting on systemic changes and insisting that authorities are evil.

In the 1960’s governors stood in the doors of schoolhouses to keep black people out, politicians publicly advocated segregation, and law enforcement openly planned how to violently attack marchers.  There is no 2015 — or 2020 — equivalent to George Wallace, Sheriff Clark, or even the “moderate” States’ Right advocates who protected segregation in the 1960’s.  I haven’t heard governors say black kids deserve to be profiled and shot. I haven’t heard law enforcement departments say that they are content with their alienation from the communities they police.

There is no entrenched, intentional Evil in this discussion.

In 2015 when this post was first drafted NPR interviewed Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who sued the LAPD in the 1990’s.   Here’s what NPR reported (read more at NPR):

Rice’s time battling the LAPD, and specifically captain Charlie Beck, who is now LA’s police chief, eventually led to a place where there could be trust. They worked together to reform the department.

Some of that change included LAPD officers going into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities closer together.

Here are some interview highlights:
On use of police force on minorities:

“Cops can get into a state of mind where they’re scared to death. When they’re in that really, really frightened place they panic and they act out on that panic. I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren’t overtly racist. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men. I know a lot of white cops who have told me. And I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them I didn’t realize that they needed an outlet to talk.

“They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men.” I mean this is cops who are 6’4″. You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6’4″ talking about he was terrified. But when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

I see police departments – especially the field level officers – struggling to figure out what to do to improve relations, to keep from being afraid of black men.

Rage and grief at the loss of black lives is appropriate. But, questioning the intention of all police officers and entire police departments feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

Ultimately, I believe we can best find solutions when we all are open to the belief that all parts of the community are acting with good intentions. (No, not everyone in all sections of the community. But, I do feel that mayors and police chiefs are trying to end the build-in prejudice.)

Long Beach Police Department Communications Supervisors circa 1980

Long Beach Police Department Communications Supervisors, circa 1980. Bryan Hawkins, Ethel Gelman, Galen Workman, Linda Trujillo, and Paul Stein.

My conviction of the human goodness of most police officers comes from my first-hand experience during my work in Long Beach.

As citizens we need to argue for the budgets for training and community building. We need to focus on programs like those Rice and LAPD developed and make sure that office holders understand that our interest is not another passing fad. Money and responsibilities should be transferred from police departments to other agencies. But, it’s critical that we as a community/country and work together.

Let’s not needlessly create enemies.  Let’s refrain from demonizing people who are trying to find ways to do better, or to simply survive their work shift.

We also need to acknowledge that situations leading to the death of unarmed people don’t always involve one-sided police action.  The black-and-white “good, unarmed angelic kids vs. jack-booted cops” story line is not always accurate. Some of the people who have been killed by police have done something illegal or contributed in some way to looking dangerous (like by pointing a “toy” gun at a police officer).  They did not “deserve” to die, and we as a community need to figure out how to train officers to be less afraid and feel less like civilization will fall if they don’t push the trigger and shoot someone the cop thinks is dangerous. But, at the same time, it feels unfair to not understand the human impulse to protect yourself when you think there is a gun pointed at you.

The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, so many others are tragic, and the list of heartbreak seems unstoppable with George Floyd, Sean Monterrosa, Rayshard Brooks, recent victims. Even if they died in interactions with police after they were involved in some non-violent crime, deadly force was not warranted. And, many people of color who are virtuous pillars of society are stopped, treated badly, and often hurt without any justification.

Still, I don’t see that the solution is to scream at police that they are bigoted storm troopers. We need training and programs to integrate police into the communities they serve. We need to show them how to feel less frightened and more skilled in ways of controlling situations involving black men they don’t know. We need to clarify exactly what the police are supposed to do and maybe get the police out of non core law enforcement duties.

I wish/hope/believe that with training and mutual outreach we all can get along.

Note: this post was originally drafted in 2015 after a black man was killed by police. I did not publish it then because I thought I didn’t need to add my voice or perspective. I need to publish this updated commentary now, five years and too many deaths later.

 

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