The Black And The Blue: A Peek Into America’s Law Enforcement Culture

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

The disproportionate policing of minorities, especially black men in America has been a topic of national debate for some time now. Michelle Alexander captured this evolution poignantly in her book, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Even so, there is another voice chiming into the larger issue in an effort to add a deeper understanding of policing in America. Matthew Horace, Corporate Security Executive and retired Law Enforcement Executive, co-authoring his latest book; The Black And The Blue, says his new book may shed some light into this social justice issue in America’s law enforcement culture.

Horace, a frequent CNN law enforcement contributor, says his first co-authored book, The CALL, started as a project aimed at mentoring young black men but following his frequent guest appearances on national news programs, he realized he needed to reach a bigger audience and decided to write a second book. “I was being called to go on-air, on national news, to talk about the spate of police shootings of black men and others around the country and it seemed that week after week, month after month, there were more incidents… The Black and The Blue started by examining Coptics. I came up with the term Coptics. And, what Copitcs is, is the optics of policing in the digital age.” Horace says he coined the term Coptics because it became very clear that video was changing the course of the narrative, “and was sort of creating a discourse because now people were seeing what some communities had been talking about for so long.”

Alexander alludes to this troubling realization by saying, “…I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control and functions in a matter strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” There’s no debate that African Americans have disproportionately felt the brunt of American policing. This treatment is not new as Horace and Alexander assert. And, the Walter Scott case is more clear evidence of the Jim Crow style of policing subjected to blacks in America. Horace adds, “Had most people not seen that on video, they may never had believed that a police officer would have shot somebody in the back who was running away, you know, five or six times. So, now this puts the whole world into the living room of what actually happens out here.” He says it is incidents like these that galvanized him to take an analytical view on American style policing.  “Taking a look at the different incidences of what actually happens and what the public thinks. But, also, the idea that the 10-second video clip doesn’t create the entire narrative because it doesn’t capture the whole incident.”

Horace says there are several elements to consider when analyzing the Scott case. “There’s the incident; you know, what actually happened, what is the truth. What was the engagement? Were police right or wrong in their use of force? There’s the crisis management and how the police respond to the community after the incident.” Also, he says the media coverage adds to the overall narrative of an incident. “And, whether the coverage accurately reflects the actual incident,” Horace said. He explains that the Scott case was unique because the video came from a private citizen and not a dash cam or body camera most police officers are required to wear now due to these types of police-involved shootings. “The video came in right away and because the Walter Scott case was after some of the other cases like Michael Brown and others, the government, meaning, the Mayor’s Office and the police, had to respond pretty vigorously, and they did. They fired the police officer ASAP awaiting charges. They came out with very strong communications messages that it was abhorrent, despicable and they were going to get to the bottom of it. They met with the community; they voiced their displeasure with the incident with the community. So, in that case, the government in my view did a really good job of managing the crisis from the community perception stand-point.”

Horace says despite the numerous incidents of police involved shootings, citizens must still give law enforcement officials the benefit of doubt before rushing to conclusions based on a short video that doesn’t tell the entire story. “If we can’t believe broadly that police officers are telling the truth, than we can just turn the lights out and go home because broadly we are dependent upon to tell the truth. Not just about incidents, but in court matters and matters of public records.” He adds that the presumption that an officer’s account is the truthful one has a lot to do with culture, more so than the process. “Culturally, other police officers are definitely going to side often times with police officers before they have all the information. So, you have the presumption of truth and then you have the cultural aspect of, ‘we believe the cop first.’”He says sometimes it’s the right move and sometimes it’s not.

Nonetheless, the contradictions lay at America’s ethnic history that encompasses an ugly truth Alexander brings to the forefront in her book when she talks about our racial caste system that’s still on full display in many of these police and even civilian shootings of unarmed black people. She says racism is highly adaptable, adding, “The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged.” Giving law enforcement officials the benefit of doubt would be more widely accepted as a cultural norm if our racial history told a different story of how justice is carried out… still. And, although our justice system is structured to be blind, we see case after case, incident after incident that our unyielding past still rears its unsightly head to muddy the American ideology we are striving towards. It is a common assumption that a black American or another minority will experience a heavier hand of justice compared to white Americans, making institutions like the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) and Southern Poverty Law Center, (SPLC) extremely necessary in the pursuit of equality for those unable to escape the stigma of brown skin.

Alexander points out that since the abolishment of slavery and Jim Crow, new rules “in the legal framework of American society” have only morphed with language for a new social consensus that produces the same results. It’s no coincidence that the demographics in American jails show minorities—especially black men—being the majority. For Horace’s Coptics to work as intended, America must continue its trajectory towards racial equality. Reva Siegel, a legal scholar at Yale Law School dubbed this phenomenon, “preservation through transformation.” Alexander quotes her saying it is, “the process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change.” She adds, “This process, though difficult to recognize at any given moment, is easier to see in retrospect. Since the nations’ founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time.”

Horace also highlights his book as a discussion on the convergence of black and blue. He says blacks and other minorities in blue uniform are also facing down mostly black protesters that typically follow a police shooting of an unarmed black person. “What we are facing in the world right now is a convergence of technology—everyone is armed with an iPhone—we have the use of video technology and then we have this idea that police actions are now being caught live and in living color by ordinary citizens.” He says law enforcement has not adequately kept up with the pace of technology making them more victims of it than partners to it. Despite this observation Horace says it’s actually a good thing for all involved. “And, here’s the reason why; because the video evidence doesn’t lie. There may be ways to interpret the video evidence, there may be ways to evaluate the video evidence but at the end of the day, there is no better evidence than an accurate account of what exactly happened. So, in that light, in defense of policing, often times the video evidence defense the story or narrative that they’re using. And, not just the story for the public but the story for the police reports, which are used in court rooms. And that can go from a local court all the way to the Supreme Court.”

As it pertains to body cameras, Horace says while it’s a crucial tool meant to protect police and civilians, there was resistance from some in law enforcement that had more to do with the culture of policing. There is a great resistance to change he says, adding, “A lot of departments didn’t want to do it at first but most departments now have body cameras.” He says they have come to embrace it as another avenue of documentation of their actions. “Now, it doesn’t help when officers aren’t doing the job the right way, but when they are doing the job the right way, these video depictions of events actually help them. Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion had never changed throughout the years.”

On the other hand, when Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion become a profiling technique to stalk black men and other minorities, law enforcement officials are inevitably causing more harm than good. A form of profiling called Stop-and-Frisk was a major police tactic that blossomed under former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. However, a Federal District Court in New York ruled that the tactic violated the constitutional rights of minorities. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin who rejected the Stop-and-Frisk tactic concluded in her decision that, “The City’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner. In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of singling out ‘the right people’ is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.” Despite her decision, Scheindlin says the Stop-and-Frisk program is a useful tool for law enforcement as long as it’s not used to discriminate against minorities.

The Black And The Blue, as explained by Horace, stresses the importance of seeing the full picture of a police incident or policing in general before rushing to judgments. “We want people to remember that there are several different sides to every story. For instance a 10-minute video of a 30-minute incident does not give you an accurate depiction of what actually happened. Also, people should remember that policing is no different than any other profession. I lived and worked in it for 24 and a half years. Yes, there are racist law enforcement officers. Yes, there are sexist law enforcement officers. Yes, there are officers that should not be on the job. And, police departments need to do a better job of hiring, promoting, screening and retaining or terminating those bad officers. But, the overwhelming majority of police officers do the job well and do it for noble causes.” And, he says the public needs to understand that when it comes to the use of force there is a graduated level of force to the process called, The Use of Force Continuum. “Whenever you see things escalate to the point where police officers are using deadly force, there should have been a graduated level of force process.” Horace says often times there is a time for that but sometimes things escalate too quickly for this process to work as intended. “In dire situations a suspect pulls a gun, or a knife or a hatchet, things are evolving very quickly, you may not have the opportunity to go from talking to walking to empty hand control, to physical control to use of deadly force. In those situations things happen so quickly you don’t have the opportunity.”

He adds that the book is also aimed at shedding light on the typical questions that come up following an incident. When the public wants to know why an officer didn’t use a taser instead of a gun, or why did an officer strike a person rather than subdue them or wrestle them to the ground, etc… “These are all questions that people that are not in the profession don’t really understand the answers to no matter if they’re watching the video or not, so we’re trying to shed light on that.” Horace says police officials need to understand the public’s perception of policing from the early 1600s up to now. “Policing was used back during Jim Crow and prior to that to enforce segregation laws. So, a lot of people still view law enforcement as enforcing laws that were discriminatory from the very beginning of time, and the only way to overcome that is through good community policing strategies.”

He says it’s crucial to understand that policing is not a black and white issue. “That’s why there’s no title in the book that says, white and black and blue.” He goes on to give an example of the Department of Justice, (DOJ) finding wrongdoing and violations of citizens rights in Ferguson, MO—a predominantly white police force and governing body—and in Baltimore, MD—a predominantly black police force and governing body, following investigations on the heels of two high profile police incidents, (Michael Brown and Freddie Gray) that caused rioting and major protests. “So, we as a culture should not assume that this only happens in situations where whites are in control of politics and blacks aren’t. It’s happened in departments throughout the United States where there’s been equal representation of blacks and whites, so it’s a problem that we need to come to the table and solve together but we have to do it truthfully and honestly and with a real open eye.”

Horace explains that in progressive law enforcement circles there is an honest attempt to get officers to understand how their own implicit biases impact their ability to treat people and the public. “And, that goes for police, fire and everyone.” He says policing is very different than other professions because they have the power to take people’s rights and lives away, and he adds, “Implicit bias plays a very big role in policing, it’s not only direct racism. Part of it is recognizing where your implicit biases lie and then understanding how to manage them so that these behaviors aren’t the norm and may become the exception. Things have to change. We have to get better.” He says biases create an issue for all of us when you paint people and communities with a broad stroke and fashion what he calls, “The Boogie Man Factor.” Fear of black men is not a new phenomenon in American culture and Horace says recognizing that it has been a historic and cultural problem in the U.S. is the first step in enacting wholesale culture change.

The International Chiefs of Police, (IACP), an institution founded to support law enforcement members, also joined nationwide efforts to improve policing and law enforcement culture in America in light of the increasing number of police involved shootings and killings of unarmed black men and other minorities. In an October 2016 statement, the group’s then president, Terry Cunningham said, “There have been times when law enforcement officers, because of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments, have been the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens. In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans. While this is no longer the case, this dark side of our shared history has created a multigenerational—almost inherited—mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies. Many officers who do not share this common heritage often struggle to comprehend the reasons behind this historic mistrust. As a result, they are often unable to bridge this gap and connect with some segments of their communities. While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future. We must move forward together to build a shared understanding. We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.”Horace says the statement started an important dialogue within the law enforcement community. “There were a lot of people in the profession that disagreed with him because they felt like he was painting a broad stroke, but he wasn’t. He was just saying, listen, we’d all be fools to sit here and say that law enforcement is not a part of the problem.”

The country is at a crucial point where the expectations of communities all across America are greater than they’ve ever been. This shift has also paved the way for social justice groups like Black Lives Matter, (BLM) to form and vigorously demand change and equality in policing. And, Horace, who believes BLM is an important and vital movement, says if law enforcement refuses to adapt to these changes taking place, “We risk losing confidence and the faith of people that trust us to police.” He says using technology to support the law enforcement narrative will improve relationships with the public. “You have to be a part of what the community values.” Horace says hiring the right people for the job plays a vital role in policing. “We have to continue to bring people in that will help execute the agenda that communities across America, and the government demands and anything less than that is a recipe for failure.” He also asserts that there are internal processes in place to deal with cops who break the law, saying, “They are no different than anyone else who commits crimes, and make it very difficult for the rest of us to maintain credibility.” Horace says in general the public depends on police officers to show up when they dial 9-11 and appreciate the work they do.

Although America is guided by laws, it is not a perfect system. We still have our work cut out for us. Nevertheless, this experiment that is America still reigns supreme when compared to any other society on earth. Nowhere else on earth have so many different people come together to try and form a union based on shared values and a strong belief system. We’ve certainly come a long way but the road to the American ideal is still being paved and we have to keep working together, and hand in hand with law enforcement, to fulfill it.

 

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