Police brutality: The struggle isn't over

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The news has been full of stories in recent years about police killing unarmed African Americans.

Those reports have been disturbing:

The nation watched video of Eric Garner repeat over and over again, “I can’t breathe,” as New York City police put him in an apparent choke hold to arrest him.

In Baltimore Freddie Gray died after being arrested and thrown in the back of a police van.

In Cleveland, video captured images of 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he was shot by a Cleveland officer.

And in Ferguson, Missouri, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead in the street.

That shooting in the summer of 2014 led to 17 days of protests.

Outraged people marched in and around the St. Louis suburb carrying signs which read “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Night after night they faced a huge police presence. On both sides, it was not always peaceful.

These events and others have increased racial tensions in cities across the nation in a way not seen since the 1960s.

One woman in Ferguson, who only gave her name as Keyla, explained that summer why so many people protested that shooting death, which the officer said came after a struggle.

“I believe it was because you’ve had so many within maybe the last two years. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like, this is it. I’m done. I’m tired. Something needs to be done,” she said.

Nearly two years later, Ferguson, Missouri residents are still concerned that police are too quick to shoot unarmed black people.

On a recent spring night, people lined up to attend a City Hall meeting. As usual, there were more people than seats. Police used metal detectors to scan everyone who entered until capacity was reached.

Winfred Cochrell has been speaking out at City Hall meetings again and again because he thinks racial bias might have been behind the shooting of Michael Brown.

“Stop looking at me, the color of my skin, judging me. Everybody stop. Just stop. And let’s figure this out,” he said to city council members, adding, “We got to make things better for each other.”

Cochrell was trying to persuade the Ferguson City Council to accept a U.S. Department of Justice agreement to better train officers to work with the community.

The Ferguson officials were resisting because of concerns about the cost. A week later, the council did approve the agreement, joining about 20 other cities operating under the supervision of the U.S. Justice Department.

The largest police force – one of the fifty departments at the Ferguson protests - is the St. Louis County Police Department. The County Police Department leads the area’s Police Academy. Although his department is not required to, Police Chief Jon Belmar has been talking with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services about how police could have handled police actions better during the protests.

Belmar told reporters he asked the feds, “Well, where do we focus the areas?”

They discussed policy and procedures regarding the shooting, and a review of “after actions” concerning the protest.

That “after action” by police was highly criticized. A report from the Department of Justice found police actions inflamed tensions by deploying dogs, putting snipers on armored tactical vehicles, and inappropriately deploying tear gas without warning.

The Department of Justice is also encouraging “bias-free policing.”

Some researchers believe this different kind of police training can reduce the number of shootings of unarmed people of color.

This fairly recent idea is based on research which first appeared in a Florida State University study. It found some people have an implicit or unconscious racial bias.

“I think that there’s implicit bias research and shooter bias research that make it clear that there is a majority of people, disproportionately white, that view black people as a danger, as a threat, as a body that needs to be controlled,” explained Blanche Cook, an Assistant Professor of Law at Wayne State University.

That “shooter bias” research found during computer simulations, some officers were initially more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.

But Cook says the researchers also found with extensive training, officers were able to eliminate the bias. It can be reversed once it’s recognized.

“If the flip side of the argument is that people cannot control their implicit bias, then that means they can’t educate us, they can’t police us, they can’t ever have any kind of authority over us because they’re going act on that implicit bias at a subconscious level and never be able to control it and we simply can’t have that kind of world,” Cook said.

Back in Ferguson, Missouri, talking just outside City Hall, Winfred Cochrell said beyond police shootings, he thinks there’s a larger matter for the nation to discuss.

“My thoughts of it is it’s time to finally put the big issue on the table: race. We keep avoiding it like the plague. It’s time to talk about it. It really is. We need to sit down and have this conversation. It’s long overdue,” Cochrell said.

That’s a conversation that’s desired by many African Americans across the nation.

Kwasi Akwamu is an activist, small business owner, and former journalist in Detroit.

“There’s never been a period when we’ve never been lynched, we’ve never been slain in the streets for suspicion of an act. You know, the lynchings and the accusations of rape, those things are part of our history. It hasn’t changed. It’s just changed form,” Akwamu said.

He believes the recent protests are not a new black uprising. They are African Americans continuing a struggle they’ve been fighting for a very long time.

“They come from the ‘60s and ‘70s. You know, we struggled against brutality. This is not the first era of the struggle against police brutality and violence,” he said.

The racism that causes that struggle is never fully discussed by the nation as a whole.

And all evidence indicates the struggle is not over. That’s especially true in predominantly white suburbs with growing black populations. The racial make-up of the police force often does not reflect the racial make-up of the community.

Blanche Cook at Wayne State University says that implicit bias, the unconscious bias, of some white people leaves them wary of people of color.

“You’ve got people who feel threatened by black and brown bodies,” Cook said.

Much of white America’s vision of home has been predominantly white people of a certain class. That’s been dramatically changing in some suburbs over the last couple of decades.

“They feel particularly threatened when they’re seeing their world become more diverse. They’re workplaces are becoming more diverse. Their neighborhoods are becoming more diverse. Their communities are becoming more diverse. And their claims to supremacy are also being challenged,” Cook said.

Getting to the heart of society’s issues with race can’t be solved by re-training police alone. But, the police might be the most important starting point.

Cook says testing police applicants for implicit bias might be considered. She suggests when there are killings by police, special investigators should be appointed, as well as special prosecutors, and perhaps special grand jurors. Cook sees a conflict of interest when law enforcement investigates law enforcement and when law enforcement prosecutes law enforcement.

The larger issue is this: Americans have to honestly come to grips with the racial tension, white attitudes toward black and brown people. If that doesn’t happen, the nation is doomed to see a repeat of these cycles of unarmed people of color being killed and outraged citizens taking to the street because there seems to be no other way to make the powerful listen.

“Until we deal with the way in which white supremacy, racism, and implicit bias frames the way in which we look at the world around us, we’re going to continue replicating this problem again and again and again,” Cook concludes.

Assistance with the report came from St. Louis Public Radio.

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Comments

matt
Thu, 04/21/2016 - 4:46pm
Combining every police shooting of a young black person without attention to differing circumstances does this important issue no service but to question the motives of the writer. Obviously not all were unjustified although one could question others. Including the whole "Hands up don't shoot" Michael Ferguson troupe in this list, when this especially was proven in court to be a lie hurts your credibility and detracts from the issue. Clearly the issues of drug laws and treatment, mass incarceration and permanent criminal records and their impact on the black community needs attention but turning it into a giant racist plot hurts the cause .
duane
Sat, 04/23/2016 - 11:19pm
I would like to participate in a conversation about resolving an issue that seems to be holding back people from taking control of their lives, that seems to be contributing to the lack of academic success of children, that seems to drain our society emotionally and of it resources. For such a conversation to be effective there needs to be a well-defined description of the problem/issue. It is a must because when you bring people together, each will use their perspective on what the problem/issue is unless there is a single definition that all can use. Even this article seems to have difficulty in appreciating the issue of personal perspective versus establishing a group purpose. The article talks about ‘race’ and uses police actions to draw attention to ‘race.’ To make this linkage the article features a particular incident that created a diversity of perspectives rather than creating a common view. While the author seems to ignore the findings of investigations by the FBI and others, many of the people he may want to reach could place great weigh on those findings, in contrast to how it was/is presented in the media and with slogans and signs. The author seemed focused the bias of the ‘shooter’ and didn't see any bias by the media or the promoters of events presenting their view of the incident. The reliance on a single perspective rather than a description of the problem/issue risks ignoring those with other perspectives and effectively removing them from the conversation, from any solution. The reality is that Mr. Graham will never fully understand my perspective of 'race' because he wasn't there for my first experience of 'race' on the school playground, what my parents taught me, how I saw and experienced it, what my reality was in a rice paddy, in school, at work, what we taught our daughters, he did not live my life. I will never fully understand his perspective for I never lived his life. But as I have seen time and again, it is when people/kids have a common view of what to achieve they bring all that they have learned together with those around them and can achieve what they want. AN example of a different perspective on the issue/problem of ‘race’, I offer mine; I see ‘race’ as a stereotyping of problems not truly a description of those problems, as a tool of convenience for those appealing to emotions rather than seeking inclusive ideas. The problems seem to be those of the individual, their situation and the means they use to address them. Poverty crosses all races, injustice crosses all races, prejudice is something everyone experiences, education/learning is important to all races, each thing that is blamed on ‘race’ in reality is a concern for each person of any race. A major influence on whether an individual successfully deals with each of these conditions has much to do with the ‘micro’ cultures they live in rather then who they are. People are unlikely to ‘hear’ thoughts and ideas of others because they offer/hear through their perspective which is different from others. Until Mr. Graham and myself have a common definition of the problem/issues to focus our minds, our ideas to addressing we will struggle in listening to what is being offered. I hope the author is successful in creating a conversation, I hope that the conversation is structured to have a positive impact on the problem/issue.
mike
Mon, 04/25/2016 - 1:58pm
at what point do you think you might mention and start to consistently talk about the idea of the citizens of Detroit modifying their behavior so that law enforcement is more comfortable with them? Meaning they don't always have to be on high alert for in appropriate behavior. Steven Henderson made the commenbt earlier this year that he worried about his son when he left the house wearing his hoody and the other currently fashionable thug look clothing, that he might not come home. Possibly if that is the worry maybe he should think about not dressing in a way that labels him like that. Mostly what i am getting at is that the citizens of Detroit seem to feel they can act anyway they want and when it goes bad the rest of the state is to bail them out. Possibly you and they could start talking about the high rates of teen age pregnancy, single mothers of all ages, the drop out rate, the discipline problems in the DPS that require teachers to spend too much time refereeing and not enought time teaching. the stigmatizing of "acting white" when the kids who do that are a lot of time your better students. Of course Michigan as a whole tends not to value education and accomplishment. How abot instead of alway saying who is going to give us money with no accountability and someone needs to fix this for us, you start talking about fixing it yourselves. Detroit and other failing cities have been run by democrats for years and the only solution seem to be to try and get some else's money to continue to spend on ineffective programs. We need to shrink the welfare tolls and motivate people to actually help themselves. Let's hear bridge magazine talk about that sort of thing
Mark
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 7:52am
This has nothing to do with race. Obey the law, obey police instruction, act in a civil way and all this goes away. Let's not lower standards because a population segment have issues with it.
duane
Thu, 04/28/2016 - 10:58am
Mark, I agree that doing what is expect, when the police say stop you stop, will significantly reduce so many incidents of all levels of severity. The challenge, one so few seem willing to consider, is why people don't comply with well established and lawful practices. I would like to see a public conversation about why people don't do what is best for them when the police intervene in a situation, how to we ensure people know what to do, and how to encourage them to do it.