Two weeks ago I described my concerns about the New York City Police Department. It’s actually a much bigger problem – police all over the country have been using their power and their guns instead of their heads. Many people in our communities have been paying the price for years. Big problem, all over the place, persistent, rooted in the system, so are we stuck with it?
So let me offer some suggestions.
First, police brass can act. They can look at the records to see which policemen frequently charge people with the kind of minor crimes police use to cover up their own abusive behavior – charges like resisting arrest. The brass could demand that police make good relations with people on the street a priority. Unfortunately, however, that won’t work without buy-in by a large portion of the department. Otherwise it will disappear – resisted, pushed out, forgotten.
By comparison, Vietnam taught the generals the importance of race relations – you can’t have a multi-racial military with an internal race war. Soldiers who’d be happier if the next guy in the foxhole took it for Old Glory are not “with the program.” That’s an internal problem rather than community relations but it’s instructive. The military didn’t get all ideological about how to do it and they didn’t run up the old race pride. They just asked what works.
So they made race relations a part of the responsibility of every officer. You want a promotion? You’re going to have to see to it that all the soldiers in your unit work together, that all the talent gets recognized, and promoted, regardless of color. And they got buy-in because people throughout the military understood the need.
Often when I run into people in the service I ask them about it. Blacks tell me life is much more civilized in military than in civilian life. They know that their accomplishments will be respected, that it’s worth their effort and cooperation.
For the police, responsibility would have to include relations with the communities served, and all the people in them. Imagine police having to think about community relations when they decide to stop and frisk someone because he’s Black or isn’t dressed nice, or before they pull a gun on or kill someone who is unarmed.
Unfortunately, I’m not confident we could get buy-in for such a good top to bottom renovation of the Force. Let me offer a wake-up call. New York City created community school boards, decentralizing the school system, a few years back. They put the communities in charge of the schools. That had problems but it had one big advantage – it broke up pre-existing power centers. It meant that people had to pay attention to the community. Imagine if the police had to make nice to the communities they serve. That’s an interesting suggestion, isn’t it? And the responses would highlight the problems. First the prejudices would show – “they,” meaning minority communities of course, can’t handle that. Some officers would have to bury those attitudes. That alone might do a lot of good. And police would respond that their perks are at stake. Well that is the problem – one of their perks has been the ability to abuse people without consequences.
Whatever you do in your community, apologies don’t solve the problem – get police attention with a significant proposal that puts the community in charge and let the police try to fight that with guns ablaze!
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 27, 2015.
 See “NYPD Disciplinary Problems Linked To A ‘Failure Of Accountability’” with Robert Lewis and guests Darvel Elliot, Samuel Walker, Candace McCoy, Richard Emery and William Bratton, on Morning Edition, January 16, 2015, 10:00 AM EST (National Public Radio).