Racism, while arguably nowhere near as bad as it once was, is still an issue. Before you poo-poo that idea, let me also add that in some places, it is much more an issue than it is in others (here’s looking at you, Louisiana). One of the most obvious (and most highlighted by the media) areas where racism crops up is when something goes wrong during police interactions.
Whenever events like the ones that took place recently or at, say, Ferguson, people everywhere start lashing out at anyone with a badge (just for reference, Ferguson was back in 2014). Something is wrong, and it is frustrating to see abuses of power going unchecked. What is even more frustrating is when people rant about it on social media, but no one seems to actually change anything outside of their twitter stream, or if they do, they lash out directly at beat cops for no apparent reason beside the fact that, well, cops wear uniforms.
My dad was a cop for 25 years. I still hang out with cops. Yesterday, ten cops were shot by snipers in Dallas. As of my writing, three are dead. This is the sort of violence that begets more violence. I don’t like it. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone when every three minutes someone walking by starts chanting “hands up don’t shoot”? It’s hard. It’s distracting. As a non-uniformed person in the equation, it puts me on edge. It definitely does nothing to improve citizen-police relations. However, I understand the sentiment behind it, especially when you look at the fact that this latest wave has been three years going, and nothing has changed.
From my dad’s time on the streets, and then, later, overseeing lots of policy and procedure, I have learned that when something goes wrong, there was generally a failure somewhere in three different levels. One, there was a failure in the cop’s action: this means the cop was trained to do something one way, but they chose to do it another way—this would be a failure on the part of the individual. Two, there was a failure in the cop’s training: the cop was inadequately trained (or not trained at all) in a required area—this would be a failure in their office. Three, there was a failure in the requirements for training—this would be a system failure, where the system did not require that the office train the cop. Failures can occur at one level, or it can occur at multiple levels.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at racism. If you have a level one failure, that would mean the cop is racist, but his office has tried to train him not to be. In this case, the office might train him to look for probable cause, but the cop insists “he was black and wearing a hoodie” is probable cause. If you have a level two failure, that would mean the office either has incomplete training or trains in a racist manner. In this case, the office might train its cops that they need probable cause, but fails to tell them what is acceptable probable cause, or it trains its cops that “he was black and wearing a hoodie” is probable cause. A level three failure would be where the office is not required to train their cops about probable cause at all, or is required to train cops to pay more attention to black males. See how each of these failures can result in the same thing (say, a wrongful death), but their causes are very different?
If you really want the problem to be fixed, then, you have to try to figure out which of these levels the problem is on. This becomes even more difficult in times like these, because directly after a highly publicized wrongful death, people tend to become antagonistic toward cops, and cops tend to expect everyone to be after them, and it snowballs into lots of bad situations that could have been avoided. On the one hand, I would like wrongful deaths to not occur, but on the other, I would also like it if people did not automatically assume all cops everywhere are out to get them. Most cops are actually good people who really do want to protect and serve, and they don’t like it when other people are in it for themselves. They hate the bad cops just as much as you do.
But this brings us back to my original question: how do we change police culture? What can the average person do to make sure that we aren’t constantly adding more names to the list of people who need to be remembered? Clearly what has been done in the past hasn’t worked. If it had, say, back when everyone was protesting and talking about Ferguson, Alton Sterling would probably be alive. Philando Castile would probably still be alive. So clearly what everyone has been trying so far hasn’t been working.
I think part of the reason is because it is easy to get mad about something on facebook or twitter or whatever else, and we don’t really know what else to do. Thus, I want to introduce you to something that nearly all states have (and the states that don’t have, should have): POST. POST stands for Peace Officers Standards and Training, and their job is to make sure that across the state every agency upholds certain training standards and that all their cops are trained to a certain level. Sometimes POST also has regulations for hiring, which I like, because those tend to weed out the cops that are more likely to act out in unacceptable ways. POST is designed to make sure Peace Officers have standardized training and to make sure agencies adhere to those standards. It also helps defend against the “good old boy” system, which I personally believe is responsible for a number of the small racisms which the media doesn’t talk about.
Nothing annoys me more than politicians vowing to make a change—especially when they say something like “we must get rid of racism in our policing communities!” I mean, it’s a great idea. But how are they going to do that? Make a law that says “Cops Shall Not Be Racist”? I’m not a huge fan of politicians (I think they lie far too much), but POST standards are something to hold both cops and politicians accountable. If politicians are really serious about what they are saying, they will make sure that their state has POST system, and that those procedures are properly reviewed and updated by individuals who are properly informed (because I also think that politicians fully in control of police forces are very, very dangerous). There are people who spend their lives focusing on the best possible policing procedures, what works, what doesn’t, and who spend most of their time reviewing cases where something went wrong and trying to figure out how that wrong could have been prevented. Those are the people you want running POST.
POST also gives us, the people, a way to see if politicians are actually representing us or if they’re just full of hot air. “Getting Rid Of Racism” is a thing that’s been going on for decades, and people can talk about it until they are blue in the face. In fact, we’ve watched them spend years talking about it, and what good has it done us? None, as far as I can tell. The problem with asking for overhauls or reviews by POST, however, is that it takes more time. It takes finding out who you send the letters to. It takes sitting down and writing a cogent letter. It means writing multiple letters–because not only do those letters need to go to the places where wrongful deaths have already occurred, but they need to go to the places where they haven’t occurred yet (or haven’t been publicized yet). It also takes lots of people asking for the same thing, from the same people. It takes asking both individual offices and state agencies. Basically, it takes time and work, but it should be time and work that is worth it.
What else can you do? Well, I have two other suggestions—but again, these take effort. If you are going to change police culture, it also means you have to change how you act toward the cops.
1. See Yourself As A Community Liaison
…which starts with choosing not to antagonize cops. Cops are a bit jumpy by nature. I mean, think about it. They basically go to work every day knowing people are going to spit, snot, vomit, bleed, pee, and maybe even defecate around or on them, either because they are hurt or because they’re mad. On top of that, they go to work every day expecting people to swing at them, throw things at them, stab at them, try to run them over, and shoot at them. This is why it is important to follow a cop’s directions as closely as possible—they get concerned you’re going to do one of the above when you don’t. When someone yells at them just because they can, it puts them on edge, and humans on edge is never a good thing. Even moreso when people shoot at them for no reason.
Instead: If they aren’t busy, walk up to them and talk to them. Thank them for keeping you safe, even if you don’t feel particularly safe at the moment. Ask for a sticker (most cops carry them. They used to carry baseball cards, too, but I think most places have given that up now). I generally advise against buying things for cops, but if you do see them in line at Starbucks and you decide to buy them a coffee, watch them. Good cops will throw a fiver in the tip jar, because cops on duty don’t take free stuff.
2. Bring Bad Things To Light
Cops get yelled at a lot. Cops know that when they arrest one person, it isn’t unusual for that person’s buddies to yell at them, curse at them, or even fight them (in which case, more than one person will get arrested). Cops are used to being told that every arrest they make is a wrongful arrest, because bad people don’t want to go to jail, just as much as good people don’t want to go to jail. Many arrests feature people yelling and screaming and fighting because they don’t want to go to jail. Sometimes, people who don’t know what’s going on decide to get involved by getting in the way of a cop. Making a scene won’t change their mind. Ranting on Facebook won’t help change the situation, either.
Instead: File a report. Peace officers are trained to take proper care of the people they are arresting and not to make frivolous arrests. If you think an officer is doing something wrong, (calmly and politely) ask to speak to their supervisor. If a supervisor is unavailable or for some reason the conversation does not take place, or if it does, and you feel the explanation was unsatisfactory, every office has an Internal Affairs division, and their entire job is to make sure the cops uphold the standards the department has set. Most of the time, IA is really trying to make sure all the cops do their job properly, and they will give each complaint a full investigation. Also, if you are calm and polite and an officer is over reacting, they will be more likely to notice if you are reserved than if you are yelling back at them. Also, if you are a bystander, keep in mind that cops do not owe you an explanation—most of the time, they’re trying to make sure they keep you safe, too. Taking the time to deal with things after the fact is often safer for everyone involved—but, again, it requires you take the time to actually do it.
When something like the events of Baltimore or Ferguson or Staten Island occur, there needs to be actual action on the part of looking at training and standards. Often we get so focused on finding justice for one person who has already been killed that we fail to think about how we can prevent the same scenario from playing itself out again in the future. We get angry that someone was killed–and often righteously so–but we get angry in theory, not in practicality, or if someone gets angry in practicality, they react in the wrong way. If after the deaths in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, or any of those other deaths, someone had taken the initiative and asked for substantial and visible change, Castile and Sterling might be alive. Three cops in Dallas might be alive, too.
Unfortunately, we cannot mandate that cops cannot be racist. We can, however, demand that they are held to a standard where they must be professional and cannot act in a racist manner. If we make sure those standards are upheld, racist cops will either grow as individuals, or they will give up and find a different, less damaging corner of the world to be racist in (or, if they’re really stupid, they’ll get fired and sent to jail themselves). Until we get a magic wand that lets us change everyone’s preconceptions a la Dollhouse, POST standards are the best we can do. And until then, the next time you see a cop, don’t be a punk and yell “hands up don’t shoot”. Talk to them. See what’s going on. Respect them (and by respect them, I mean treat them like a normal person, like you would want them to treat you). If they tell you they’re busy, say “cool, just stay safe, okay?” and walk away. Good cops hate bad cops as much as you do, but it’s discouraging to be a good cop who everyone thinks is a bad cop. There are more good cops than bad cops. Until they prove otherwise, assume they’re good cops.
Encourage the good cops. Please don’t shoot at them. Get the bad or incompetent cops fired. Ask for standards to be supported. Save lives.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: The states which do not have POST or a POST equivalent (at least, do not have one discoverable on google) are as follows: Delaware (which has a barely traceable “Council on Police Training”), Hawaii (which currently has no statewide standards), Indiana (has statewide minimum qualifying standards), Iowa, Maine (has statewide minimum qualifying standards), Massachusetts (which had resolution H.2202 to establish a POST division, but the resolution stalled in 2014), New Mexico (has statewide minimum qualifying standards), New York (has statewide minimum qualifying standards), Ohio (has statewide minimum qualifying standards), and Pennsylvania (only has statewide standards for municipal police). Beyond that, it never hurts for a state to sit down and review its standards, or make sure that all the agencies in its jurisdiction are upholding those standards–so just because your state didn’t make my compiled-in-twenty-minutes list doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reviewing.