Protests against the recent police killings of unarmed black men and boys—Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio—have put the policing of communities of color on the top of the local and national agenda. Signs are even emerging of a new level of social movement activity around racial justice and the criminal justice system that may outlast the current wave of anger and heartbreak.
What stands before us, therefore, is the hard work of both building political power and articulating what that change might look like. So far politicians, police and even many community leaders have trotted out many of the well-worn proposals that have failed to deliver in the past and offer little hope for the future.
While the racial imbalance between the police and the policed in Ferguson was no doubt a contributing factor in the breakdown of community trust in the police, increasing police diversity is unlikely to improve things much on its own. Increasingly, large urban police departments are becoming much more diverse and reflective of the communities being policed. For years, Philadelphia police have had to live in the city, resulting in a department that largely mirrors the city’s demographics. That department, however, has been rife with corruption, mismanagement and excessive use of force. As a result, residents of color have seen little relief from the daily indignities of discourtesy and aggressive criminalization. Even the NYPD has significantly enhanced its diversity in recent years in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and language skills, but few are likely to claim that this has led to a dividend of courtesy or respect.
Recent uproars over the diversity of NYPD leadership in recent months are a further red herring. There is no evidence that black and Latino police executives have been a force for moderation under either Commissioners Kelly or Bratton. Top cops like Phil Banks and Rafael Pineiro oversaw a massive expansion of stop-and-frisk under Kelly and fully embraced the over-policing of communities of color as the primary strategy for crime reduction.
Everyone likes the idea of a neighborhood police officer who knows and respects the community and can tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. Unfortunately, this is a mythic understanding of the history and nature of urban policing. What distinguishes the police from other city agencies is the legal authorization to use force. Their primary tools of problem solving are arrest and coercion.
While we need police to follow the law and be restrained in their use of force, we cannot expect them to be significantly more friendly given their current role in society. The reality is that when given the task of enforcing a war on drugs, stamping out quality-of-life violations and engaging in “broken windows” policing, their interactions with the public in high crime and disorder areas is going to be at best gruff and distant and at worst hostile and abusive. When their basic job is to criminalize all disorderly behavior, the public will resist them and view their efforts as intrusive and illegitimate, and the police will react to this resistance with defensiveness and increased assertiveness. Community policing is not possible under these conditions.