By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
For years polls have shown distrust and a disconnect between African-American citizens and police officers sworn to protect and serve them in their communities.
This tension has risen over the past decade as the nation records a growing list of unarmed Black men killed by the police, notably Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, or other citizens brutalized and disrespected.
A new poll, involving 8,000 police officers, conducted May to August of 2016, and recently released by the Pew Center, shows a majority of White officers participating in the survey believe the shootings are isolated incidents.
Over two-thirds of the officers who responded to the poll, administered by the National Police Research Platform and Pew, believed that the deadly encounters are not indicative of more serious and historic tensions between Black communities and police.
A more interesting finding of the views of the rank and file officers are the differences of Black police officers on the subject compared to their White colleagues.
For instance, 72 percent of White and Hispanic officers say they see the deaths of Blacks killed by officers during altercations with officers as isolated incidents.
But a majority of the Black officers, according to the survey, say the incidents are symbolic of broader problems between African-American civilians and police.
On another front, while White officers say the nation has advanced on the issue of racial equality, only 29 percent of the Black officers who participated in the survey agree.
This view is reflective of civilians racially. While 57 percent of Whites say that there is significant progress in racial equality in the nation, only 12 percent of African American civilians agree.
The survey pointed out that Black officers expressed more sympathy and connection with the growing wave of protests conducted after deadly police shootings than their White counterparts, Seven in 10 Black officers say the protests are generated because of the participants’ genuine outrage over the shootings, police reaction to them, and demands for accountability by the departments and courts.
But only three in 10 White officers had this view.
Seventy-five percent of the officers said the shootings have made their job of policing in Black communities harder and the tensions are more evident.
Surprisingly, six in 10 White and Hispanic officers say they have a positive interaction with Black residents, but only 32 percent of the Black officers did.
Most of the officers said they have grown more worried about their safety. But they believe they have been trained adequately to do their jobs.
Only one percent said that the use of force doctrines imposed by their departments should be stricter.
While the schism between the officers’ view of the deadly shootings and their relationship with Blacks was a surprise, according to some media accounts from leaders of departments who participated in the survey, such findings are not surprising for academics studying the trends and advocates of police reforms.
Dr. Mona J.E. Danner, was recently named chair of ODU’s Department of Criminal Justice. She said she has been studying disparities related to race, gender and class and the historic and ongoing social factors which foster them for over two decades.
“This was great research on a very critical issue,” said Danner. “But its findings are not surprising.”
Danner said she is not surprised with the differences in the view on policing revealed by White cops and civilians about the treatment of minorities compared to their Black counterparts..
“Police, like members of such groupings, often see things differently, believing ‘no one understands our world and the pressures we are under,”’ said Danner. “But police have historically been used as a tool of social control of racial minorities and immigrants.”
Also, Danner said, the nation applies this tool punitively and becomes increasingly militaristic in their policing policies and methods.
Danner said the increasingly racially segregated nature of the nation has attributed to the fact that “we do not know each other.”
“We see other groups as cultural artifacts or stereotypes which penetrate our social conscience from what we see from the media,” said Danner. “So if we do not know a person of another racial or social group, we get good or bad stereotypes of people (from the media)…most of those people are all alike and their view of the world is different from ours.”
She said oppression of Black people did not end after slavery. It continued during Jim Crow and continues even today, by institutions such as the police departments “which took a lot of energy and resources to build and maintain.”
Ronald Hampton, 73 retired from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department after 24 years of service as Community Relations Officer. Now he speaks on issues of urban policing for the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice (NABCJ) in Durham, N.C.
Hampton, too, believes that the cultural gulf between Black citizens and police officers is due to a lack of trust and interaction.
He said shootings of unarmed Blacks are not rare and isolated incidents and have happened for years and across our nation.
Hampton noted that many officers worry about their safety when responding to calls in Black communities due to these tensions.
“Officers say they don’t know what to expect when they make a call in a Black community,” said Hampton, who was president of the National Black Police Association in 1992 during the Rodney King incident.
“But they have been there before. When these officers go into Black communities like Anacostia in D.C., they know who lives in those communities,” said Hampton. “But they go in there with a siege mentality.”
“Where you live in this country will dictate the kind of policing and treatment you get as a civilian,” said Hampton. “In department stores you get more scrutiny if you are Black because you are perceived to be a born thief.
“We have sought reforms for decades but it seems that nothing has changed,” he said. “Police departments have gotten more sophisticated about how to respond to public outcries after a shooting and avoiding calls to be held accountable by the protesters and the victims of the families.”
Hampton said with the election of Donald J. Trump as President, reforms sought by President Barack Obama via his 21st Century Policing Initiative may be ignored or cast aside.
He said local and national police unions are powerful and have voiced contempt at the way the Obama Department of Justice has investigated police departments who have a history of abusing Black civilians.
He said while local police leaders say they are stretched for resources, the Department of Justice has only 20 lawyers tasked with overseeing investigations of the 18,000 police departments in the country.
Their jobs may be made harder by a DOJ run by conservative Jeff Sessions, who is a strong supporter of police unions, he noted.
Hampton said civilians could counter the power of unions by supporting and lobbying for civilian police review boards which could be created by edict by city councils or referendums of the voters. Such panels would be tasked with not only investigating police misconduct, but hiring and policies.
Such commissions, Hampton said, should impose policies to monitor the movements of troubled police so they will not be moved from one department to another without being screened for overuse of force.