Monday, August 18, 2014

Fergusons among us

Much like the situation in Israel, about which I blogged recently, the situation in Ferguson, Mo., creates for me an awkwardness.  I believe that most police officers operate with the public interest in mind.  They place themselves in difficult situations where others would--and should--run away so that people who would do us harm are stopped from doing so.  They work long and difficult hours for comparatively little pay.  They are expected to make split-second decisions that can take or save a life.  When confronted with emergencies, their first impulse is to help.

I am a big fan of the police, or at least most of them.

And yet...

It is difficult to ignore the more sensational examples of police misconduct that have made headlines in recent years, not just in Ferguson, but also in places like Oakland and New York City.  And lest you believe that these examples get more airplay because of the 24-hour news cycle, I point you to a startling statistic.

According to FBI statistics, in the United States between 2006 and 2012, on average, a white police officer killed a black person once every 3.8 days. 

That's almost two a week, 96 a year, and 672 over that time period.  Almost one in five of those killed were under 21, like Mike Brown, the teenager killed on August 9 whose death sparked the unrest in Ferguson. 

And, as the article I linked notes, not all police departments participate in the FBI's data-gathering function, so those numbers probably underreport the actual numbers.

I'd like to think that Ferguson is a unique case, or at least rare.  In Ferguson, the population is about two-thirds black.  The police force is 94.3% white.  Most of the interactions between police and citizens in Ferguson are going to involve a white police officer and a black citizen.  That is a statistical certainty.

But if I were a black citizen of Ferguson, I would look at those numbers with a high level of suspicion.  Having a police force that so poorly reflects the racial makeup of the community it nominally serves suggests that design is at work.  Part of this is, of course, history.  White people are more likely to pursue careers in law enforcement than minorities because white people have historically gotten better treatment from police than have minorities. 

One of the more pernicious effects of institutionalized racism, even after it is ended, is the way that its long fingers extend themselves into more enlightened times to suggest a natural order where there is none.  We see it in the way differences in scholastic achievement persist despite sixty years of efforts to make educational opportunities more equal across racial lines.  Such a situation gives hope to those to hold onto their racism by suggesting, falsely, that black children are simply less capable of learning than are white children.

And it suggests falsely that black people are less capable of behaving themselves as citizens of a free state than are white people.

This is not to excuse criminal conduct.  But if you believe as a first principle, as I do, that we are all equal in our rights and capable, with the right access to opportunities, of becoming the kind of model, fulfilled citizens who don't interact with police in this way, then there is a question that deserves discussion:  What can we as a society do to ensure that the effects of past institutionalized racism are mitigated?

It is foolish to think that we can resolve three hundred years of slavery and a hundred years or more of institutionalized discrimination against black people by changing a few laws.  It is particularly foolish to think we can do it when there are so many who fight every incremental change with such ferocity and who clamor to end the effort as soon as any green shoots are seen.

It occurred to me that one thing we might do to rebuild, or perhaps build in the first instance, the trust between the police and minority communities is to examine where there are instances of racial mismatches between police departments and the communities they serve.  I'm not suggesting a quota system.  But where police departments in black communities are overwhelmingly white, particularly in leadership positions, black people are deprived of seeing members of their own race in uniform and helping the community.  More importantly, white police officers are deprived of the opportunity to work with black officers who are their equals.

So, an important question arises:  In Little Rock, where the population is 40% black according to the most recent census, what are the racial proportions among the Little Rock Police Department?  The same question might be asked about many different police agencies in Arkansas.  It turns out that's not an easy question to answer online.  I'm still looking for a source that won't involve me calling individual police departments' public information offices.  I'll update when I have an answer.

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