By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
On Tuesday July 13, Presidents Barack H. Obama and George Bush joined other officials at a memorial service in Dallas, Texas to honor five policemen who were shot to death by a former Army soldier Micah Xavier Johnson in a sniper attack on July 9. This event culminated several days of mourning and reflection in the city, as its Police Chief and other city officials seek to determine why it occurred and how to move forward.
Johnson cut down the officers and wounded several others after a peaceful protest march secured by police. The march was called to protest incidents where police officers were caught on video, shooting to death Black men, one in Louisiana and one in Minnesota. The incidents are believed to have triggered Johnson’s rage which he expressed during a police standoff where he said he wanted to “kill some white people, especially white officers” before he was killed by police.
Three days before the Dallas assault, Alton B. Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, La., was shot to death as he lay on the ground, restrained by two White police officers. A day later Philando Castile, 32, was shot by a White police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, the state capital. Sterling was known for selling bootleg CDs outside of a convenience store, according to its owner. On the night he was shot by police, allegedly he sought to ward off a panhandler with a gun. The panhandler called the police reporting the incident.
Sterling allegedly resisted the officers’ efforts to arrest him. While he was penned on the ground, one of them shot him several times in the chest, killing him instantly.
In Minnesota, a bad tail light caused an officer to pull Castile over. According to reports, Castile, who had been stopped 50 times for various reasons, told the officer that he had a gun in the car which he was licensed to carry and a stash of marijuana. His girlfriend, who witnessed the exchange between the officer and Castile, said Castile was cooperating, and in response to the officer’s order, was reaching to retrieve his wallet to get his license and registration when he was shot to death.
Since 2012, starting with the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, heightened by the death of Ferguson, Missouri teen Michael Brown in 2014, and the shooting death of Walter Scott in Charleston, S.C. in 2015, as well as a number of other high and low profile police killings of Black men by police, the nation has been reminded of its racial legacy and historic tensions between Blacks and the police.
“Black Lives Matter” Movement
Response to the racial unrest has sparked what is being called by some the emergence of a third civil rights movement called Black Lives Matter (BLM). Its supporters are highlighting a need for police reform and justice in cases involving police-civilian violent interactions. The protest march in Dallas had been organized by BLM and had just ended peacefully when the sniper launched his assault.
Since the Dallas tragedy, police departments around the nation have been on heightened alert, fearing other attacks against them by Blacks who want to vent their frustrations at police.
Over the past weekend, “Black Lives Matter” protests against police violence toward Blacks escalated across the nation amid scenes of solace and prayer for the slain police officers orchestrated by supporters of “Blue Lives Matter.”
Scenes of racially diverse prayer vigils in Dallas and elsewhere symbolized sorrow over the officers’ death, competing for media attention with images of Black and White people shouting “Don’t shoot” and “Black lives matter,” to denounce the police shooting of Black men.
Police Reform In L.A.
As the nation revisits still unsettled issues which divide it down racial and political lines, historians, lawmakers and community activists are being asked to provide ideas on how to resolve problems. Constance L. “Connie” Rice is a prominent Black civil rights activist and lawyer. She is also the co-founder and co-director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles, where she worked to help reform that city’s police department which had a long history of abusing poor Black and Hispanic residents.
Rice, the cousin of former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, cut her teeth in civil rights laws working at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) where she defended poor minorities who were arrested for being involved in the urban drug market. She noted that her clients were receiving rare legal support, but were being killed by the police and rival gang members, and she wanted to fight against it.
Rice said the current controversy and tensions between the Black Community could be relieved by installing, as they have done in L.A., “compassionate community” policing, which fosters partnering between Black and Hispanic residents in the most crime prone and poorest sections of the city. “We know that change is taking place in the L.A. Police Department,” she said. “We encouraged hiring and screening for socially conscious officers who are promoted not for putting people in jail, but keeping them out and reducing the tensions. This kind of policy takes a lot of political will from city leaders.”
Rice said L.A. created a unit called the Community Safety Partnership Office whose officers patrol public housing communities, and do not arrest people unless there a threat of violence in the public housing communities. “They do not arrest people for smoking blunts. Police are patrolling with civilian gang intervention specialists and crime and police-resident tensions are down,” said Rice. “Once upon a time these same officers were trying to kill gang intervention people, now they are cooperating with each other.”
Rice said racial diversity is another weapon police departments could use to reduce the racial tensions. She said the L.A. Police Department is now over 60 percent minority. There are many communities where a majority of the officers are White patrolling mostly minority and poor communities. Rice said if there is “no political urgency and will” to change policy and practices, police violence and abuses will continue in poor Black and Hispanic communities in the cities and suburbs, especially against Black men.
‘There has to be serious urgency … if whites were being treated like poor Blacks and Hispanics, there would quick wholesale change,” she said. “Activists and leaders must keep up the pressure for reform or nothing will occur.” She said that although Dallas Police Chief David Brown endured criticism and pressure for installing such reforms, “he was brave enough to make these reforms because he knew they were needed.”
Rice said if she is called to help reform and change the practices at a police department, she can easily determine some of the key factors which have caused things to go wrong.
“First, I look to see if the current chief is really in charge and how much power he has,” said Rice. “At roll call, if the chief is not talking to the troops and is locked up in his office that a bad sign.”
“Secondly, how much power and policy to create culture and policy do the captains and commanders have compared to the chief,” she said. “They are closer to the rank and file officers and instill the culture and hire the officers.” Rice said bad policing has created divergent views that Blacks and Whites have about policing, with a large portion of African-Americans being less trustful.
She said many communities are “getting the policing that they basically want.” “The police do for the most part what society wants them to do which is suppress crime and keep it in the poor minority areas,” she said. “This goes back to slavery. I talked to L.A. cops and they were open and told me their jobs is to make sure the gangs and dangerous Blacks are kept in the poor part of the city and do not wind up in Nancy Reagan’s back yard.”
Rice said that Black Lives Matters and their supporters need not lose the moral high ground on their fight against police violence because of the Dallas tragedy which could be used to divert attention from their work. She said the public should not believe that BLM is an organization calling for violence, as many right wing organizations are trying to do.
“Black Lives Matter should speak out against both,” she said. “We should also appreciate what they are doing to bring attention to police violence and calling for money for prevention, mental health treatment and reform. They are just reminding us of how we got here and the reforms needed to stop it.”