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The Missing Pieces in the National Dialogue on Policing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carmen Ashley
April 7, 2017

The most recent issue of Public Administration Review covers many aspects of the current divide that exists between law enforcement and those they serve – particularly, black citizens. There is certainly a need to discuss the relationship between law enforcement and black people. Most of us have at least some familiarity with the stories of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice – who, along with other black people, have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement.


Photo credit: Johnny H. Nguyen

This piece is not about affixing blame or making judgement calls in retrospect. We all have our opinions about these killings. Rather, my intent is to explain the pieces that are missing from this national discussion regarding the relationship between law enforcement and black people.

I preface the rest of this narrative with the following disclaimer: I am a 42 year-old professional black female married to a 60 year-old professional white male. My husband retired after 36 years of public service in law enforcement, his final role being that of a police chief. I often call him a law enforcement oddity. He has always been a vocal advocate of customer-oriented policing. He sought to address the root causes of crime, rather than a punitive focus; and he completed his MPA and not a criminal justice degree.

We disagree more often than not in our opinions on each of the cases mentioned above. It makes sense; I cannot walk in his footsteps on the path through 35+ years of law enforcement experience. Much the same, he cannot crawl into my 40+ years of being a black person having my own experiences with law enforcement. But we do agree the national discussion on the relationship between law enforcement and black people is missing the following dialogue pieces:

This issue is much larger than law enforcement

A population whose existence in this country began under an oppression that manifested itself in different and cruel ways over the past century cannot simply “get over it” and move on without everyone actively acknowledging this ugly side of our nation’s history.  This does not mean that all white people bear the responsibility of what their forefathers did to black people during slavery, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement. Nor does it mean that all black people should justify certain behaviors because of what their forefathers experienced during slavery and the period thereafter.

Law enforcement is one of the institutions of our society that has historically failed to actively acknowledge this ugliness. It is not the only entity, though. The same can be said for many of our political, community and social institutions. How many of you knew about the racial cleansing of 1,100 black residents that occurred in Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1912 before Oprah Winfrey made a visit to this county? Before Patrick Phillips’ book about it? How many of you are hearing about it for the first time now? We all have to acknowledge and deal with past and current “unpleasantries,” or progress toward improved relationships will be stymied.

The efforts to repair relationships cannot be unilateral

There are arguments that the ownership of this problem is on law enforcement, and there are arguments the ownership of this problem is on the individual society. Both sides must take ownership in this problem by accepting mutual responsibility and accountability. During the 2017 ASPA Annual Conference, Dr. Brian N. Williams discussed the need for “Police as Citizens Academies” during a Presidential Panel in addition to the traditional “Citizens’ Police Academies. The idea is to have police officers step into the role of the average citizen who find themselves interacting with law enforcement in often stressful situations. This is just one example of a bilateral relationship activity that would provide valuable experiential insight into how one group perceives and reacts to the other.

People get the kind of law enforcement they desire

People are willing to sacrifice some degree of civil liberty for safety and security, and do so every day. This balancing act establishes the limits we set for law enforcement in our respective communities. We set these limits through local elected officials, civic and pressure groups, and the issues that comprise the public policy agenda.

One could hardly disagree that a culture of policing readily accepted in inner-city Chicago would quickly be rejected in Beverly Hills. The needs of each community are very different; police, as the agencies of government charged with regulating behavior, adapt their activity to those individualized needs. This takes the form of laws that may be selectively enforced, minor criminal activity that may be ignored or extra-legal behavior from law enforcement that may be tacitly tolerated for the perceived greater good of the community.

A community where citizens are frequently the victim of street muggings might be willing to allow police a wide swath of tolerance for stop-and-frisk, in hope the citizens may be able to walk the streets in safety. It is when police service no longer reflects the desire of the community that we see groundswell initiatives for change.

As practitioners, we must help add these missing pieces to the national dialogue. Or, we risk breaching our duty as public servants.

Author: Carmen Ashley is a doctoral student at Valdosta State University, and she is a public health analyst at a federal agency. She enjoys “messy conversations” with public administration colleagues to advance the public interest and the common good.  Her email is [email protected]

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