A colleague recently recounted the story of her 21-year-old daughter who had a long wait at a big-city train station. The daughter had scouted the place out — smiled, made eye contact and made sure she got herself on nearby police officers' radar.
The margins for error in police interactions with young black men feel too subjective and razor thin. What if my son appears confused or furtive? What if he’s big or tall, and the officer feels anxious about his safety? What if, as he’s making eye contact with the police officer, my son reaches for his cellphone or wallet?
If my son were stuck waiting at a train station, I’d tell him to make himself known to a janitor or the manager at Nathan’s Famous, not a cop. And that’s painful to say. Because I remember when Officer Friendly used to come to our elementary school, and we were told to trust him. And because my father was a police officer. Because I have a picture of him in his Chicago police department uniform holding me in his lap. He became an officer because he wanted to help people.
I recalled that conversation Wednesday after the Justice Department issued its report on police treatment of blacks in Ferguson. The 102-page report found a pattern of what feels like depravity.
One guy was stopped because his car windows appeared tinted beyond what city code allowed. The report said: “Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license.”
In a news conference Wednesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that despite being 67 percent of the Ferguson population, African Americans accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops. That blacks were twice as likely as white residents to be searched during traffic stops even though they were 26 percent less likely to carry contraband and that the police used dogs on African Americans exclusively.
Leaving aside the report’s accounts of overt racism — e-mails calling President Obama a chimpanzee and showing a minstrel’s delight in trying to mock black English — I was left with other urgent questions. Not for the bad actors, but for broader police communities and the wider society.
Is this perception of racist law enforcement what most police officers envisioned when they joined the force? To Darren Wilson, whom the Justice Department declined to charge with civil rights violations in the shooting death of Michael Brown: Did you want to have a longer career as a cop?
To Wilson, or to Cleveland Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot to death 12-year-old Tamir Rice, or New York Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was accused of putting Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold: Is what you wanted when you dreamed of being in uniform? Did you want to help turn police work into a broad shorthand for racism and abuse in the minds of many citizens? Did you want to imperil the reputation and safety of your fellow officers? Or did you want to protect and serve?
These are also questions for the people who know themselves not to be overt racists but who don’t understand their implicit prejudice. They are not able to face this notion, so they’ll never be able to change, even as black bodies are dropping.
The scales between public safety and police safety have become unbalanced, says Michael Jenkins, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton and co-author of a new book, "Police Leaders in the New Community Problem-Solving Era."
He cites the late Joseph D. McNamara, a former police chief and Hoover Institution fellow known as the father of community policing,who in September told the New York Times: "The facts are so overwhelming on the side of getting police back to the side that they are public servants and that you accept the risk. No one drafted you into police work."
“You’ll have a hard time coming across many police who say, ‘I associate a young black male with danger,’ ” Jenkins says, “but there’s been this idea that’s been well established in research literature of implicit bias.” It affects “decisions police have to make in their interactions with citizens.”
“The bias is in all of us,” Jenkins says.
But police officers have badges and guns.
For more by O'Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.