Police-Community Relations: A False Paradigm

by Shayok Chakraborty

I think there’s something very crucial we must understand about the nature of police brutality and racist policing in America. There is talk on both the left and the right of “police-community relations,” of “mutual understanding” between police and policed, and to me it creates a false equivalency between the two sides, as if police and policed have equal burden for today’s problems. The narrative is as follows: current problems in policing because police can be abusive and racist, but also because the community can be disrespectful and distrusting of the police, leading to a situation in which tension on either side may lead to deadly situations. I see a similar trend in the way that we talk about racism and oppression in general in other spheres. “The races need to come together and have empathy for each other.” “Let’s all love each other and listen to each other.” “We aren’t black and white; we are one human race.”

In the abstract, we should obviously strive towards such ideals. But when the power differential between police and community is so large, and the relationship is so fundamentally oppressive, such rhetoric can skew the conversation.

We should not be coy about precisely which side is doing most of the disrespect, the lack of understanding, and the lack of empathy. We should not be coy about which side has to try to maintain all those things because to not understand and adapt to the oppressor can mean extreme suffering or death.

The past and present of police-community relations in America is just such a relationship. Racial profiling, harsh zero tolerance arrests, and unjustified use of force, possibly deadly, have been perpetrated by one side and not the other – and as this Washington Post article shows, these measures cannot be simply explained away as a result of “violent black criminals.” Police have been predatory towards poor and minority America since the creation of the institution. Many police departments began as slave patrols, and the continued civil rights violations against black and brown Americans by police have been recounted in everything from the Kerner Commission to the recent Department of Justice’s investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. This is a problem that has spanned generations.

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Police abuse ranges from the morally bankrupt to the patently absurd. In Baltimore, for example, police officers once subjected a black woman to a strip search and anal cavity search on a public sidewalk, and yet such degradation yielded no contraband. In New York, black and brown Americans have been punished for “crimes” like “manspreading” and putting your foot one the subway seat, following a zero tolerance approach that overwhelmingly targets New Yorkers of color. In New Orleans, the notoriously corrupt NOPD gunned down three unarmed black people during Hurricane Katrina, though its negligence of the “protect and serve” ethos in all areas has been well documented. Of course, the premise of such a task is clearly absurd. And that is why the lens through which we examine police brutality must change.

In order for one to show that both sides have equal blame for tension, they must show what black and brown America has done to police departments that matches what police departments do to black and brown America every day.

When we ask black and brown Americans to respect the police, should we not expect police officers to act in a way that deserves respect first?

When we ask black and brown Americans to cooperate more with police, shouldn’t the police show that they are guardians and not occupiers of the community first?

When we ask black and brown Americans to not “mouth off”, to not run, to remain utterly calm when police are approaching them for being “suspicious,” shouldn’t we expect the trained police officer, and not the untrained civilian, to remain calm and de-escalate the situation instead? How can it be that flipping the bird to an officer gives them the right to be violent? Is discourtesy a crime?

I am not saying that the community shares no responsibility in upholding public safety, or that ideally it should not respect or cooperate with police. But I say that an ideal police-community relationship holds the community equally responsible for public safety the same way that I say an ideal marriage should exhibit mutual respect between partners. If one partner is beating the other to a pulp every night, however, I won’t sit them both down and talk about “mutual respect.”

What must be done first and foremost is stop the abuse, because that is the root of the problem.

We need to stop police harassment, beatings, profiling, and unjustified shootings. We must radically change the culture, accountability measures, and daily practice of policing in America. Only once police have earned the right to respect should we talk about “mutual understanding.” The police as an institution must show its sincerity for change – and we should make no mistake that there are clear, effective, and just alternative models to the dominant zero tolerance model. Even if racism itself were to magically disappear, they would need to be able to accept a few more years of angry tirades, suspicion, and lack of legitimacy among black and brown Americans. Because let’s make no mistake – for so long, the policed have had to endure so, so much worse.

Shayok Chakraborty is a sophomore at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He is from Los Angeles, California and plans to major in Public Policy Analysis. He also writes for Claremont Radius.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The picture above is by Loavesofbread – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and can be found here.

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