Many are rightfully outraged by the recent killings of unarmed African American men by police officers. As a result, there is an important national movement now to protest the killings, to demand that Black lives matter, and to address a criminal justice system that continues to target Black men with little accountability. From my thirty years of experience with the National Coalition Building Institute, I offer one perspective on how to effect institutional change among law enforcement agencies to make them more responsive to Black and Latino communities.
Community residents and local police officers are often both victims of larger institutional racism. When theNational Coalition Building Institute first started leading local training programs between law enforcement agencies and community activists, it became clear that neither side completely understood the other. Community leaders felt under siege by the police, recounting their experiences of constant racial profiling. They understandably organized against the violence from the local police, but sometimes with little awareness of the daily struggles that law enforcement officers face. Police officers in the U.S., like the rest of us, are a product of centuries of racism. They have internalized a great deal of unconscious bias that informs their actions. When the police are called to account for their racism, instead of facing it and changing, they often react with enormous defensiveness, retreat inward, and shut off important contacts with the community.
TheNational Coalition Building Institute has found, however, that even in communities with a history of police/community tensions, it is possible to rebuild trust between the police and community activists. We often work first with each group separately, allowing each side to vent their grievances about the other before bringing them together. When we do bring the police and neighborhood residents together, significant change becomes possible only after each side hears what we at theNational Coalition Building Institute call “stories from the street,” each side’s personal experiences of discrimination or mistreatment. The key is acknowledging that each side has a story to tell. We are not confused. The experiences are not parallel. Blacks and Latinos have a long history of dealing with institutionalized racism at the hands of the police, whereas the police do not have a comparable experience of oppression from Blacks and Latinos. And yet, police officers have difficult, dangerous jobs that they often perform heroically. In many communities, particularly since the recession, the funding to train police officers effectively has dried up. In several communities where theNational Coalition Building Institute worked, we were able to document significant reductions in racial profiling and police violence. But all too often in the current economic climate, there has been little funding available to support the needed training.
When law enforcement officers and community leaders can listen respectfully to each other, a new, constructive relationship becomes possible. When done well, listening is a powerful tool, establishing the necessary groundwork for building trust that leads to institutional change.
To correct the injustices of a criminal justice system that targets Black men, we want to be mindful not to single out only the deficiencies of law enforcement agencies while passing over other large institutions that systemically perpetuate racism. Still, in the wake of recent events, there is a good reason to focus on radically changing police culture. In addition to the necessary demonstrations, legislation, and lawsuits, community activists can use another tool to bring about systemic change. They can also support trust-building initiatives between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve that include direct work on racial bias.
Cherie Brown is the founder and executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute. Fabienne Brooks and Guillermo Lopez lead the National Coalition Building Institute’s Police Community Initiative. For more information, see the NCBI website: www.ncbi.org