Our national anxiety over episodes of police violence against minorities, and an accompanying backlash against law enforcement, will not be relieved quickly or easily. It will require effort over time to understand the problem and its causes and to address them one by one. But foremost, it will require a willingness to put aside acrimony and work together in unity, which, fortunately, we can see signs of in several places. Police departments in many cities have forged relationships with community groups to increase common understanding and brainstorm solutions. Throughout the country, the law-enforcement establishment is engaging in the kind of introspection that should lead to better training and accountability. In these efforts, progress will be slow, but it must be steady.
In Salt Lake City, Police Chief Mike Brown has been meeting regularly with a loose-knit coalition of community members representing various constituencies pushing for more accountability and oversight. To the department’s credit, the group’s overtures have been addressed and welcomed. The department’s website now contains a section disclosing data on use of force, a small but significant step in the direction of openness.
The department reacted with appropriate concern when video surfaced recently of an incident in which an officer treated a woman in an abusive fashion during an arrest. While the department was quick to condemn the behavior of the officer, it isn’t clear why it took years for the matter to come to public light. Likewise, the department has yet to release body-camera video of a shooting incident earlier this year in the Rio Grande district, involving a young man of African descent. Authorities have resisted disclosure of the video on grounds of pending litigation, which may or may not be an appropriate reason. But reluctance to release the video furthers the perception of a lack of transparency, and transparency is essential for trust.
The sequence of incidents across the country in which people of color have been victims of the use of deadly force by police are a deeply troubling phenomenon that can’t be written off as a series of random events. Many claim there is a pattern of behavior that suggests an engagement in profiling based on racial or ethnic characteristics. It may be conscious or subconscious, but it would be wrong to suggest it doesn’t happen. It would also be wrong to suggest it is pervasive and deeply afflicts all law-enforcement activity.
The backlash against police is not a rational response. It is born of anger. And while that anger may be understandable, it does not justify violence. There will only be resolution when people agree to collaborate in a consistent and conscientious effort to understand the attitudes that influence behavior and work to alter those attitudes. Each high-profile incident of police violence has led to investigations and actions to ameliorate the behavior and bring proper accountability. This is as it should be, but we must recognize this process will take time and can only succeed in an atmosphere of unity, with a commitment to open dialogue and common understanding.