Better cops build stronger, diverse communities 


Recently I cut a meeting short to rush home to check on my daughter.

My son had texted me a few minutes earlier, “Mom, what’s wrong with my sister?”
“Nothing,” I replied, “I was just with her.”

“No mom,” he insisted, “she just posted on her story she needs help, and I can’t reach her on the phone.”

My baby girl, the newest in the fam to own a smartphone, is still learning social media etiquette. As it turns out, she and her friends had decided to take turns posting “scare” messages on Snapchat. My daughter’s message: “HELP! I’m at the police station.”

After I got home and assessed she was OK, I had a conversation with my daughter about inappropriately crying wolf. I then reflected on the message and my son’s reaction to it. It reminded me of another gut-wrenching sentiment my son voiced recently, while arguing with a friend about the Parkland, Florida, shooting: “You don’t know what it feels like to fear your own law enforcement, for just walking home.”

My children are vividly aware that cops don’t always equate to safety for people of color. Just look at what happened to Stephon Clark, who was trying to enter his own Sacramento home armed with nothing more than a cell phone when he became the latest black man to be shot and killed by cops.

As of April 5, a Washington Post database shows 2,267 people have been shot and killed by law enforcement in America since 2016. Using that data, Christopher Todd Beer, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College in Illinois, concludes that “relative to the portion of the population, Blacks are over-represented among all those killed by police under all circumstances.”

Keep in mind, these numbers don’t account for blacks in the criminal justice system. In Colorado, according to a 2016 report from the The Sentencing Project, 260 of every 100,000 white people are incarcerated, but that number is 1,891 for blacks and 587 for Hispanic people. This disproportionate representation of black and brown folks has long continued the system of legal slavery and oppression.

Last month, the Center for Creative Leadership, in partnership with Mayor John Suthers and the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD), introduced the Illumination Project. It’s a series of listening sessions between CSPD and community members aimed at building community trust. CSPD spokesperson Lt. Howard Black says, “We are hoping to partner with communities of color and the undocumented community to [create a safer Colorado Springs].” He says he wants communities of color to understand how the department operates — for instance, officers won’t attempt to deport undocumented people simply for reporting a crime.
Black also says CSPD is looking for more partners to host community sessions and is publicizing its message through press releases, social media posts and partnerships with churches, schools and the city’s website.

We do need opportunities for citizens to see the police in a different light and for officers to see their community differently too. But, to build real relational trust with marginalized communities, law enforcement must seek to dismantle racism in the justice system and the structural inequities that feed some crimes. That will mean building alliances, coalitions and task forces to achieve those ends.

Last year, Colorado Health Foundation Executive Director Karen McNeil-Miller and Gregory Mullen, retired police chief of Charleston, South Carolina, had a fireside chat. They talked about June 17, 2015, when a young white man opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, killing nine people.

Prior to the shooting, Mullen said he noticed that children would run from him when he’d walk through some communities, and he thought the department needed to ask, “how [can we] shift the culture of the department to go beyond law enforcement into community service?”

The Charleston police started by creating relationships with mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, service providers, the city, nonprofits and foundations. They wrote policy with communities of color, LGBTQ communities, and severely impoverished communities. “It was not about arresting our way out of the problem or creating more jail beds,” states Mullen, whose program inspired the Illumination Project.

One way their department built a bridge was by analyzing the number of traffic violations related to mechanical issues in poorer areas, and recognizing that fines created additional barriers to making car repairs. Charleston instituted community vehicle inspection checks to assess car safety and then used their own fleet services, with help from community partners like dealerships, to fix those issues.

It is amazing what can be done when police are willing to see that guns and prisons aren’t the best ways to build safe, thriving and diverse communities.

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