These recent stories simply are heartbreaking. First to make national news was Ferguson, Mo. Police officer Darren Wilson shot to death an unarmed teenager Michael Brown. A grand jury declined to indict the officer. Thank goodness, he resigned from the department.
Then we heard about a Staten Island officer acquitted in the choke-holding death of an overweight, middle-age, unarmed black for selling cigarettes on the street. Actually, we got to see this on videotape. A United Nations panel of human rights expects expressed shock that the officer, again, wasn’t indicted.
There’s been even more news about police conduct. An 18-month Justice Department study of policing in Cleveland found a pattern of cruelty and routine violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.
In his column this Friday, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson cites a pervasive pattern of racism that persists throughout the country and infects police departments. Indeed, dating back generations, official reports have lamented the great racial divide in America. This divide can been seen in housing patterns, employment, segregated schools. As the Koerner Commission might have put it today, we remain two nations, separate and unequal.
Policing just happens sometimes to illustrate the worst side of that racial divide. But another side greatly complicates the picture. These recent stories brought to mind my own experience. I got to ride one night with a decorated Memphis police officer almost 20 years ago. I had joined two Fort Wayne officers to get a close look at the Memphis model program for officers encounters with mentally ill persons.
After a banquet honoring a number of Memphis officers, I climb into Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) member Tony Mullins’s patrol car. Shaved bald, husky, wearing black gloves, Officer Mullins was no cop I ever wanted to encounter in a dark alley. But what I witnessed that evening was a highly trained officer who handled those people on the street late at night with extreme patience. He didn’t yell at citizens. He didn’t order them to go home. Rather, his conversations involved his mostly listening to the person.
Like police departments throughout the country, Fort Wayne and the country departments here adopted the Memphis model of policing. Since then, police have made far fewer arrests of mentally ill persons. The CIT here had been such a model that our officers are now invited to instruct other departments on this highly successful form of policing.
As I suggested, the tragic encounters recently in the news represent part of the story about how police in this country treat citizens, particularly minorities. But CIT programs point the way to more just and effective policing everywhere. First, CIT officers are carefully screened even before they can start training. They receive hours and hours of additional classroom and field work. Then they’re supervised in the early days they’re formally regarded as CIT officers.
To be sure, part of the problem in many departments is racial prejudice among officers. How to deal with that when so much of the general population harbors those feelings? Surely for starters, you can’t have a department that doesn’t reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community. Ferguson, Missouri, has only a handful of minority police officers out of a force or more than 50. This is just asking for tragedy. Beyond that, I hope community leaders, in light of the recent news, would examine the experience of towns and cities that have excellent records of police-community relations.
The good news is that these highly-publicized tragic encounters between police and citizens have sparked calls for reform from President Obama and other political leaders. Nobody can be proud of the tragedies, least of all police.