The mistrust between police and the people they are sworn to protect has crumbled in too many poor neighborhoods in this country. And we see the devastating results in the protests rocking Baltimore and other American cities, as those appalled by the deaths of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and other black men take to the streets to express long-simmering rage at the way police interact with their communities.
Each of these men bolted, resisted or lunged because they simply didn’t trust the police. Even Mad Mom in Yellow — Toya Graham — slapped and grabbed her 16-year-old son in Baltimore Monday because she doesn’t trust what would happen to him if the police got to him.
Trust is the elusive standard, the gold coin of policing. Where do you find it? How do you build it?
On Wednesday night in Southeast Washington, trust was being built in the tiniest, most unglamorous way, in a church basement, around two plastic folding tables, beneath a sign that said “I Am Young, Gifted and Black.”
Sitting around those tables: Lt. Teresa Brown, who just took a new job watching over Police Service Area 703, and less than a dozen people who care about policing in a patch of Washington that includes a desperately poor public housing complex, new apartment buildings and tidy brick row houses.
“Trying to get the trust of the community is always the hardest thing,” Brown told the small group. “People don’t want to talk to us, they want to keep to themselves. And I am the first one to say, we have some good officers and we have some lazy officers.”
Brown is an African American woman who grew up in the District. She has empathy for crime victims. (“I had my van stolen right out of my driveway. I know what that violation feels like,” she told the residents.) And she’s had a solid 22 years on the force.
But knitting trust in this community isn’t about who she is. It’s about what she does. So now she’s trying to figure out how to build relationships. It won’t be easy. Barry Farm, one of the city’s toughest housing projects, is part of her turf. So is Ballou High School, where two students and a 20-year-old former student were shot last year not far from campus. And at least three rival gangs collide every day.
She held the community meeting to meet people, hear their concerns and hand out her crime stat sheet — which boasts a drop in homicides (down to zero compared to two in April 2014) but a big jump in thefts and burglaries (21 in the past month).
One of the people who came to her community meeting was a running coach working with an after-school athletics program, Teens Run D.C. For the recent 5K race, kids asked coaches to change the course from one side of the street to another because the race would take them through rival gang territory. They’d like a little more help understanding where the boundaries are and how to avoid conflict.
Another person was there because she’d like more foot patrols on her street. She’s a new mom who works at home as an accountant and wants old-school community policing in her neighborhood.
“I understand that. I’m old school too,” Brown said. “I had to walk all the way to my area from the district when I started out. That was a lot of walking. But we knew our people. I’d like to bring some of that back.”
And she handed out pamphlets with safety tips for the woman who came to the meeting because of all the car burglaries in her church parking lot.
These are the foundations of trust building. Knowing the granular details about the community and the people. This is what’s been missing from policing for too long.
In Baltimore and other big cities, the unwinnable war on drugs and the zero-tolerance policing it produced destroyed the relationship between officers and the communities they are supposed to serve. And it’s not just me saying that. David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun police reporter and creator of the landmark television series “The Wire,” argued earlier this week in an interview with the Marshall Project that the drug war replaced real community policing with drug arrest free-for-alls.
“The drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department,” he said. “Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war.”
There are other factors that fuel the mistrust. In some police departments — the one in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot during a confrontation with a white officer, for example — the racial makeup of the force bears no resemblance to the community. And too often, the officers are outsiders who act like an occupying military force or who aren’t given the training they need to be effective.
In the District, there are tensions, but there hasn’t been a truly heinous police-involved death since 14-year-old DeOnté Rawlings was shot in the back of the head by an off-duty police officer over a stolen minibike in 2007. The two officers involved weren’t charged, though the city later settled a $100 million civil lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.
The killing infuriated the city’s residents, and it happened in the very neighborhood where Brown was now courting cooperation with the police.
“We’re going to empower you to take your neighborhoods back,” she said.
The challenge that night was knocking down rumors that officers identified an anonymous tipster in a spree of 10 home burglaries.
“In this neighborhood, they don’t talk to the police. They keep to themselves. [The tipster] broke that honor code because she didn’t want to be the next victim,” Brown said.
And that fragile thread of trust — whether it’s motivated by self-interest or community spirit — will be broken if folks find out who talked to the police.
“If an officer says ‘That lady over there keeps calling’ to someone? That’s a violation. And I won’t tolerate that,” she said.
She’s been hammering away at this in roll call the past few days, because it was a big breakthrough that someone — anyone — in this part of town cooperated with police in an investigation.
“I tell them you DO NOT divulge the identity of complainants,” she said.
She’s also grappling with an officer who might be a problem.
He’s big, he’s got the best stats for getting guns off the streets and, though he doesn’t have citizen complaints filed against him, she’s worried he’s cuffing more people than other officers.
“And I tell him, ‘You’re a big guy. It’s kind of hard to imagine people resisting you,’ ” she told the small crowd. “We’ve got to be extra careful. I do not tolerate excessive use of force. And I tell him I’m watching him.”
At roll call these days, Brown told me after the meeting, it’s hard not to think about what’s happening in Baltimore, North Charleston and Ferguson.
“We don’t mention these places by name. But all of these incidents that are happening? We pray for the people who lost their lives, but we don’t want to be in the news for something like this,” she said. “We gotta build that trust on the front end. Treat everyone like humans, like they could be your mamma or your brother.”
Trust starts with church basements, foot patrols, little old ladies and their stolen pocketbooks and respect. Most of all, respect.