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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Deborah Bailey
July 29, 2016
With tragic irony, Dallas, Texas appears poised to provide tangible remedies for the paralyzing fissure between police and African-American communities. The city and our nation are still reeling from the tragic shooting deaths of four Dallas Police Department Officers and a Dallas Area Rapid Transit Officer by shooter and discharged U.S. Army Reserve solider Michael Xavier Johnson. And yet, the City of Dallas and the Dallas Police Department has remained remarkably committed to the kind of community outreach that has brought national recognition to the police department and the city.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said that the community will gather for discussion after a time of mourning that he hopes will be healing, according to an interview given to Time magazine. “I think that mourning together as a community helps those ties,” Rawlings emphasized. Rawlings backed major policy changes implemented by Dallas Police Chief, David O. Brown including an increase in the frequency of lethal force training to every two months from the previously required bi-annual training, publicly announcing termination of officers from the force, releasing data to the public on use-of force by officers and increasing police officers’ availability to the public. Rawlings also made community relations a hallmark of his re-election campaign in 2015 after seeing the tension and unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities.
Dallas provides an excellent test case to see how community policing and transparency practices hold up in the wake of the recent police force deaths because police reform has been a rough ride for local residents. Some residents are already thinking twice about how open and transparent policing should be in Dallas. A closer look reveals that while Chief Brown and Mayor Rawlings were lauded in national circles for police and community reform, there was trouble on the homefront.
Earlier this year, Dallas’ four police unions sought Brown’s resignation after he responded to a spike in violent crime by placing more officers on evening and overnight shifts – i.e., making police more available when and where they were needed most. Members of the city council also unsuccessfully sought Brown’s resignation in the midst of the violent crime spike. Brown has to be careful to balance community access with the real needs of low paid street soldiers who earn the lowest pay in the metropolitan area. More than 200 police officers have already left Dallas to join police departments in other jurisdictions that offer better pay and working conditions.
So as Dallas pledges to continue down the path of police reform, now is a good time for each of us to examine the state of affairs in our own communities. To be clear, difficulties between police and African-Americans are not a new phenomenon. But the perception of the problem varies according to race. In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey conducted in July 2016, with adults across the U.S., more than 70 percent of African –Americans surveyed believed violence against civilians by police officers is an extremely or very serious problem. Less than 20 percent of whites surveyed agreed with this view. A little more than 50 percent of Hispanics surveyed believe police violence against the public is a serious issue.
As we mourn the fallen officers in Dallas who died while defending peaceful protesters – let’s remember that the focus of that Dallas march was to protest the deaths of Baton Rouge’s Alton Sterling and Falcon Height’s Philando Castile at the hands of police. Did these two African -American men really need to be shot to death? Weren’t there other strategies that the officers involved could have used?
Obviously, the thousands who have taken to the streets to protest in cities across the United States and around the world believe that our nation’s 12,000 police departments can find other ways to conduct routine policing. Countless Americans are now reading the sobering statistics from a new report issued by the Center for Policing Equity, referenced by President Obama in his July 7 comments on the shooting deaths of Sterling and Castile. The report confirms that force is used by police in police altercations with African-Americans more than 3 times as often as Whites and more than 2.5 times greater than the rate that force is used with all residents.
Let’s hope Dallas residents and the Dallas Police Department continue talking and working together to forge cooperation after the last memorial service has ended. It will take the resolve of the city’s political and administrative leaders, community and neighborhood groups to pull together rather than apart.
The grieving families in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights would best be comforted by seeing you and I engage in the laborious work of attending community meetings to discuss policing, signing petitions, participating in peaceful protest, talking to neighbors and voting for candidates who take police-community relations seriously. They would be honored if we refused to hide behind our “willful ignorance to the current level of racial threat” and seriously considered the conclusions of the Center for Policing Equity report seriously.
Even if your community is doing fine – another neighborhood nearby you is not. Our police officers and our communities are suffering. When other nations start issuing travel advisories to the United States, it’s time to consider that our local police practices no longer reflect the vision of America we want the world to see.
Author: Deborah Bailey, PH.D. M.P.A. is a visiting research scholar at Johns Hopkins University where she is conducting a study on social capital in the Sandtown-Winchester area of West Baltimore.
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