A vital part of any successful relationship is trust. Whether it’s a marriage, a friendship, team sports, or on the job, trust is one of those attributes needed if varying types of relationships are to be healthy and void of dysfunction. At the heart of the protests that have taken place of late and reached an apex over the weekend is the issue of trust.
With a rally cry of “Black Lives Matter,” individuals of varying ages, races and socioeconomic status gathered and protested in cities across the country highlighting incidents that have contributed to a deep level of mistrust and lack of faith in how policing is carried out in communities across the nation and how justice is often not blind when it comes to how it’s dispensed among African Americans.
But, the rejoinder may come that poor, inner-city communities often necessitate heavy-handed police tactics, and with the high occurrence of crime in these areas, often such people are getting the treatment they deserve.
Yet I would submit, law enforcement in any community has a mandate to not only protect citizens, but serve them as well. It’s a task that requires not only the proper application of strength and force, but humility too. Poor communities are not prisons, or battle zones, but places inhabited by people — Americans — who are no less deserving of being treated respectfully.
As a former police officer with the Mobile Police Department, I was trained and had the opportunity to work under and with some outstanding officers. One of the first things I learned was regardless of who I interacted with — a drug addict, prostitute, homeless person, etc. — you always afforded that person a measure of respect and looked at their humanity, not their state.
Oftentimes, the simple act of addressing someone, regardless of economic station or status, as sir or ma’am could go a long way toward easing the tension of a situation or communicating that you are actually there to deal with them fairly. They maybe didn’t want me to be there, but they could more easily accept my presence and allow me to do my job because they could see and sense that I was offering them respect and treating them as a human being, not as a pariah.
In inner-city communities there are generally three main institutions that serve as vital transformational agents: schools, churches, and the police. The public in general has little sway over the outreach efforts and community actions that churches engage in, but we can affect the policies of our schools and the police. If we want troubled communities changed for the better, we need to ensure the schools and law enforcement agencies that serve such communities see themselves and operate as institutions of positive change.
Regarding the police, it starts with having leadership that recognizes the importance of putting in place policies fostering a transparent and trusting relationship with the public, and makes it a priority to ensure officers are trained and taught how to deal respectfully with the community it serves. That leadership recognizes there is an imperative to creating an organizational culture that fosters the mindset that not only do “black lives matter,” but “all lives matter,” regardless of the circumstances life may find someone in at the moment.
That’s why I have to applaud Mobile Police Chief James Barber’s efforts in putting in place programs to reach at-risk youth, rehabilitate prisoners and build community relationships. It’s the type of proactive policing and relationship building amongst the community needed to engender trust. He seems to understand the police mandate to not only protect, but also to serve.
Conversely, I was so saddened and disappointed by the NYPD police union chief after the Eric Garner decision. The day the grand jury verdict came out, the mayor gave an eloquent and heartfelt response about the decision and its wider implications, it was viewed by many as right on target and spoke to the situation in a very appropriate manner. Unfortunately, the NYPD police union didn’t see it that way. They accused the mayor of throwing them under the bus and also described the officer that put the deadly chokehold on Eric Garner as a “model” police officer.
To me they missed a critical moment in which they could have taken action towards building a bridge of understanding between themselves and the people in the community they serve. Also, they totally missed the point of what the mayor was saying. No one was throwing the police under the bus. Everyone knows that law enforcement is a necessary part of society, rich and poor alike, we all need the police. But people should respect the police: not fear them. People should be able to trust the police. If they can’t, something is wrong.
We want all our communities to be safe. However, this cannot be done without a healthy relationship between the police and the people they’ve sworn to serve and protect. When the partnership is healthy, members of the public feel as though they have an ally in transforming their community for the better. When the relationship is unhealthy or dysfunctional, the ones who are sworn to protect become the very one’s those in the public feel they must also fear. The latter should not exist in a democratic society.