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Posted at 11:32 AM ET, 12/14/2012

Making nice with Prince George’s County police

Prince George’s County Police hope residents will trade weapons for $100 gift cards in its latest move to engage residents and shore up community relations.

(Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)
Last Saturday, the county’s police department held a Christmas Party for “deserving children.” On Wednesday, several officers attended the funeral of the county’s oldest serving crossing guard, Elizabeth Varney, 91, who had been a crossing guard for 38 years before she died on Dec. 6. And Friday, the PGPD is scheduled to deliver food baskets to seniors. Will these, and other similar efforts by police departments around the country, be enough to heal a deep and long rift between law enforcement and the African American community? I hope so.

It will take more than a couple of coats for the needy to soothe the rage of black men who have lived a lifetime on edge fearing the dreaded profiling-prompted pullover. And a parent still seething from the murder of a child whose killer was not found needs more than photo ops of police giving children toys at a Christmas party to ease her pain. But I hope collectively, as a community, we can let go of our long-held, justifiable grudge.

My youngest brother joined the force almost 10 years ago, and I married a former cop — a huge leap for someone groomed to challenge “The Man” and reared in a black nationalist organization. We believed even the black police allowed to join police departments, as a result of civil rights gains, would only be tools of “The Man” to suppress and oppress our freedoms. Videos of black officers beating handcuffed black men, or otherwise misbehaving, seemed to bear witness to such beliefs. But, for my brother’s safety, and for the safety of the many police officers — of all races — on a mission to ensure safety in communities, I hope that as a community we can make nice with our men and women in blue.

We have a long way to go, and much work to do toward this end, I think. But it’s possible. Just a few years ago, when famous professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home after he called police to report a break-in, I realized we had come a long way, but still had a long ways to go. I was working for D.C. Delegate to Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton at the time, helping her craft her messages, and her message about this incident became a teachable moment for me and the other young charges on her staff.

Gates had been charged with disorderly conduct for yelling at the arresting police. Norton, a civil rights firebrand and lover (and professor) of constitutional law, said citizens needed to know that yelling at a cop was not a crime.

“She’s trying to get somebody’s child hit in the mouth,” one of my colleagues said snidely, privately. A post-civil rights baby, her parents had taught her to be safe, respect authority. I told our boss that black parents these days teach their kids to cooperate with police. I explained that when one of my brothers was arrested and beat up by the cops after mouthing off, Norton said, “that couldn’t have been my child.” She used the opportunity to send a message to parents and police. People needed to know their rights, and police needed to understand their responsibility, she was saying.

“It is not hard to imagine how many young people, especially young black men, start down the road to a record with a disorderly conduct charge under similar circumstances,” Norton wrote in a news release, referring to the Professor Gates incident. “There is no way to reach all citizens to be sure they speak courteously to police officers. However, there is an important difference between police officers and the average citizen. Police, unlike civilians, are trained to mitigate rather than escalate disputes. The teaching moment for police departments is to re-emphasize the obligation many carry out to diffuse disputes.

The police’s handling of the Trayvon Martin murder and the protests that followed show that we still have a lot to do to improve community-police relations. But, here’s hoping our community is up to the task. Police collecting coats and toys for needy children, and residents contributing to their efforts are a small step in the right direction.

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By Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery  |  11:32 AM ET, 12/14/2012

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