Policing the police

I was a white police officer in the US – I know how deep the crisis of racism is

The gap between American police departments and the black communities they're meant to protect is huge – but it can be closed.

I served as an police officer and a detective for more than 12 years, and I have felt a particular connection to the the tragic events of recent weeks. There is clearly a massive gap between black Americans and the police departments that are supposed to serve them.

As a white American, I do not know what it’s like to be three times more likely to be suspended in school because of my skin colour, or to stand out in a crowd as a minority because of my skin colour. I do not know what it’s like to be twice as unlikely than other Americans on average to get a job I apply for because of my skin colour.

I also don’t know what it’s like to be significantly more likely to be arrested than people of other racial groups, or to be three times more likely than average to be killed by the police because of my skin colour. I don’t know what it feels like to know that if found guilty of a crime, I could be given a 20% longer prison sentence based on the colour of my skin.

This is, of course, the reality for 13% of the US’s population – the black population.

Yet I do know something about the strained relationship between black communities and American police officers, and I know it firsthand.

I know what it’s like when a community you serve declines to co-operate with you during a criminal investigation because of the uniform you wear. I know what it’s like to try your hardest to earn the trust of (understandably) untrusting communities to only see another member of the police community murder a black teen on national news.

I know what it feels like to respond to a 911 call only to have the caller request a black officer because “you can’t trust white cops”. I know what it is to be constantly told that I am a racist just because I am white and I wore a uniform. I know what it’s like to be hated because of the combination of my profession and the colour of my skin.

You see, no non-police member of a black community knows what it’s like to put on the most hated uniform in the country, just as a white police officer doesn’t know what it is to have the skin of an oppressed community.

This is the tragedy of our differences – but it also shows the immeasurable value of each personal experience when trying to bridge fractured relationships.

Americans need to know about and acknowledge these very observable gaps between themselves and their police. They need to openly discuss any intentional or unconscious discrimination that plagues all walks of society. Americans need to understand just how difficult policing is in a country where you are ten times more likely to be killed by a gun than you would be in any other developed country.

But the implications of overlooking and denying racism needs to be openly examined and discussed too – and American police departments have specifically avoided doing that for far too long.

Owning up

To improve the lethally distrustful relationships between the black community and policing, there are several things that must be done.

First, the policing community has an obligation to be transparent with all communities regarding use of force and the impact that racism has upon it. The police must acknowledge that racism exists in American policing, just as with other professions. If a police force is aware that a shooting is unjust or an incident is tainted with bias, it must immediately acknowledge and denounce it, and see that those responsible are brought to justice.

This is a critical social obligation. This would entail effective prosecution in a swift manner for any criminal charges that might have occurred after a criminal investigation has been conducted. Police communities should focus more attention on community policing tactics so further personal attachments can be built to neighbourhood beat cops.

The policing community cannot lead this effort alone. Black communities will have a part to play in opening up better communication and reaching understanding with the forces they so distrust.

But there’s something more fundamental that needs to change too: white Americans must acknowledge that their country was built on the backs of subordinated black and Native American identities. We must acknowledge the mass of laws and practices that’s been called “the new Jim Crow”, a system that perpetuates white social and political dominance while incarcerating black Americans in their hundreds of thousands. We must acknowledge and confront the effects of systemic and personal bias on real people and their communities.

After all, the first step towards overcoming structural racism within society and policing alike is to acknowledge that it exists. It’s long past time that all Americans did so.

Heather Panter, Senior lecturer, Liverpool John Moores University

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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