For most of my life, I was afraid and generally distrustful of police. And yet, about a month ago, a colleague introduced me as “the one who makes sure we don’t say anything too mean about police.” To my surprise, I realized it was true, that even when I feel frustration and outrage, I find myself working to avoid stereotyping police into one kind of officer. Because now I’ve had the chance to get to know many of them as individuals.
Growing up in a predominantly Latino and low income community, where I still live, my experiences with law enforcement were almost entirely negative. Too many times I saw neighbors, relatives, and friends unfairly targeted and harassed by police officers. Once, my mother and I were stopped, made to get out of the car, and walk towards a dozen officers with weapons aimed at us, that moved when we moved. Our car and belongings were searched, we were questioned, and released-all without an explanation or apology. We were left to draw our own conclusions about the encounter. And we did.
The worst part about what happened to my mother and I is how commonplace such interactions have become, especially in neighborhoods like ours, where police are heavily concentrated. Aside from the trauma and distrust that such police interactions foster in communities, these individual actions add up to national patterns of discrimination. When data around these stops have been analyzed, some troubling patterns emerge around who is most impacted. A
recent study, which analyzed 11 years of data, found that nearly 1 in 3 Americans will be arrested by the age of 23. Data also confirm what communities have long affirmed: race plays a key role in the frequency and outcomes of police interactions.
I understand the frustration spreading through our nation, especially in communities of color where people feel that they continue to be unjustly mistreated. At the same time, my professional experiences, from my training in public policy to serving on the LA County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, have taken me on a journey in understanding the role law enforcement can play in safe and healthy communities. I’d like to share a few of the realizations I’ve come to, which allow me to remain optimistic about this work in spite of the troubling and tragic incidents that continue to come to light.
Although I believe that most law enforcement officers are dedicated to doing their job with integrity, the system they work under is limiting and broken. Even as officers absolutely should be held accountable for their individual actions, that, alone, is not sufficient. We must work to address the aspects of policing that harm communities’ (including officers’) health and safety. The very history of policing in this country and its inherent connection to slavery is so dark and painful that many, including officers, can’t or won’t reflect on it. I’m heartened by the recent acknowledgement of this history by former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. There is much work to do toward helping all officers recognize that regardless of their individual intentions, the system they work within has historical baggage that precedes and affects them.
I have come to genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of our women and men who go into law enforcement do so because they want to make a positive difference. I’ve gotten to know officers whose path to joining law enforcement challenged the stereotypes I held. Many of these officers have grown up in neighborhoods that are similar those they have gone on to work in-precisely because they want to make things better. I’ve talked to officers who grew up in housing developments and the foster care system, who remember what it was like to experience the 1992 South LA uprising as teenagers. I’ve come to see that making blanket generalizations about police officers is as misleading and wrong as making them about any other group of people.
It’s important for me to clarify that my new understanding of and relationships with police do not make me any less concerned about the increasingly-available evidence of police officers making decisions that are absolutely unjustifiable. This age of cell phone videos and YouTube means that the millions of us who watch videos of police misconduct are traumatized and/or re-traumatized. Every time a new video emerges of an officer acting improperly, I am tempted to wholeheartedly fall back into the fear and distrust I felt toward police for so many years. I am sure that others are tempted, as well. But despair is not an option. The stakes are too high to simply give up on mending our broken relationships with law enforcement.
When I see another example of the kind of policing that doesn’t do anything to make us safer or repair trust, I cycle through the same emotions: anger, outrage, and indignation. What disrupts that cycle for me, now, is my firsthand knowledge of the places where communities are working in partnership, to improve health and safety. Even on this day, when all I can seem to think about is the way that one officer chose to end a teenage pool party in Texas, I also think about LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership, in Watts’ housing developments, where officers and community members have worked together to cut violent crime in half even as they also reduced arrests by 50%. I think of Dignity and Power Now, which was successful in creating a Civilian Review Board for the LA Sheriff’s Department. I think about Fresno, where there is a newly-formed Youth Advisory Council, which will give feedback directly to Police Chief Dyer. I think about Salinas’ police chief Kelly McMillin, who is doing away with special units so that officers can get back on the streets, interacting with and serving residents. I think of Richmond, where Police Chief Chris Magnus recently stood in solidarity with RYSE Youth Center and other community members, holding a sign that affirmed that, indeed, black lives matter.
Despite the many serious challenges around policing, I am humbled and inspired by the work our partners are doing to make their neighborhoods safer while improving relationships with law enforcement. They’ve shown me that when people, sworn and civilian, alike, are willing to acknowledge and push past their fears and biases, real and meaningful change will come.