Want A Path Toward Police-Community Reconciliation? Acknowledge The Past

Mar 7, 2017

Many American cities are struggling with police-community relations, and racial divisions are often the heart of the problem.

On this week's episode of 90.5 WESA's Criminal Injustice, Pitt law professor David Harris talks to David Kennedy of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: Like so many cities, Pittsburgh has problems with crime, gun violence, homicide, drug activity, etc. People in the neighborhoods want the crime and the violence to stop and so to the police, but they find themselves on opposing sides sometimes – unable to cooperate or even understand each other. What's the community thinking? What are the police thinking?

"When the community looks at that person in that uniform, what they see is something that goes back generations."

DAVID KENNEDY: Well what the community usually thinks is ‘We've never had a good relationship with the police. We're used to disrespect. We're certainly not used to help. I don't really trust the police and I don't expect them to help me.’ And that not surprisingly makes them angry and withdrawn, and the police look at a community that's angry and withdrawn and says to itself, ‘These are bad places full of bad people, and they don't care about what's going on. They won't help. They won't tell anybody what's going on. They won't say who did what. And the only thing we can really do is occupy them.’

HARRIS: How do you break through this? You've called it reconciliation. What's that mean, and what does success look like when that works?

KENNEDY: Some process of understanding the past – what got us to where we are – recognizing what has really happened, the harms that have been done. Acknowledging those and working to build enough trust and relationships where we don't have them right now so that communities and law enforcement that right now are just fundamentally at odds with one another can have enough common understanding and common ground so that they can go forward together.

HARRIS: I can imagine a police officer today saying, ‘You know, I wasn't even born when all this bad stuff happened. I had no role in those injustices from long ago. Why do I have to apologize? Why am I cleaning up the mess?

KENNEDY: That's absolutely right. That officer was not present for slavery or reconstruction or Jim Crow or fire hoses being set on peaceful civil rights marchers. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she also hasn't done anything else when she has been on the job that has been either illegal or that the community has found offensive. The fact still is that that officer is part of a profession and an institution that has real history with the community and that institution is seen by the community, not everybody but frequently, in genuinely dire terms. Pastor Ben McBride is a minister who works with the Oakland California Police Department, and he talks about this to recruits. What he will say to the recruits is the past has stolen your identity. And obviously what he means by that is that when the community looks at that person in that uniform, what they see is something that goes back generations. It's not the fault of the person standing there in (uniform), but if that person's institution doesn't recognize that dynamic and deal with it, we will not go forward.