“A tragedy of American life — one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them — is that young people in ‘those neighborhoods’ too often inherit from that dysfunction a legacy of crime and prison,” said FBI Director James Comey in a recent speech at Georgetown University. “And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer — whether white or black — sees the world.”
As Black History Month comes to a close, Director Comey’s remarks remind us that there is a legacy of a violent eco-system in many communities that lives on, in spite of the civil rights movement. In light of the events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and most recently Washington state, we’re doing what we always do—talking, creating task forces, protesting and ignoring the fact that relationships have been damaged and are in dire need of rebuilding.
The anger and animosity that we see today stems from the absence of relationships, and connections, not only to people like ourselves, but also those who are different from us. Director Comey points out the history of law enforcement’s poor treatment of African Americans that has led to these broken relationships.
We must build and strengthen communities to be more inclusive by engaging police, community residents, and other people of differing race, ethnicity, and means to create a sense of community—one that provides a feeling of belonging and membership. Not only does developing a sense of community create greater trust, but it also creates greater caring, health and well being that benefits the larger society. If we begin to trust and care more about each other, then we are in a better position to solve underlying differences and social problems that cause inequities in our society.
“We must better understand the people we serve and protect — by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement,” said Comey.
Requiring new agents to study how the FBI treated Martin Luther King, Jr. and to gain a better understanding of the black experience is an important start. But to begin building these relationships, law enforcement training and job design must change. Recruits must be integrated into the communities in which they will work, and be trained in problem-solving— not just making arrests—and put a reward system in place that highlights working with the community to prevent and solve crimes, and reduce violence.
In order to really make a difference, we must involve everyone from the larger surrounding communities. We need strong relationships between the institutions that are there to serve the community in order to solve the complex problems related to poverty and powerlessness, which provide the tinder for these volatile events. If we’re not “all in it together,” the problems of crime and violence and animosity among police and minority communities will never change. This does not happen by chance. It takes a very intentional and well thought-out strategy with direction that comes from the top down – from the chief to the sergeant to the beat cops and cooperation from city administrations.
Throughout the civil rights movement, Dr. King often spoke about the beloved community. He believed that “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
While the beloved community is a lofty goal, it can be achieved if legislators, civic leaders, and others create reasonable policies that develop inclusive communities. Only strong relationships between police, members of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as members of the more affluent and white community will lead to health, justice and equity for all.