Perspectives on the Divide and How to Bridge It
IUP Criminal Justice Training Center students practiced clearing rooms in a now empty Leonard Hall
(Photo by Keith Boyer)
“Police shooting” became a well-worn phrase in the summer of 2016.
A series of violent confrontations took place between police and civilians in Charleston, then in Baton Rouge, then in Dallas. Or was it St. Paul?
For many, the news became a blur. And the shootings went both ways—shootings by and of police officers. Most often, the violence pitted minorities, mainly African Americans, against police.
While each incident arose from unique, isolated circumstances, some IUP criminology professors say history has produced a culture in America that makes such incidents more common, and more commonly reported.
They say today’s technology, social media, and mainstream media have heightened Americans’ awareness of police shootings—and thus their concerns about them.
Jonathon Cooper, IUP assistant professor of criminology, said the deaths of African American men at the hands of police in Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson, Missouri, since 2014 have contributed to the culture of conflict this year. He also traced that culture back to the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police two decades ago.
Even that incident, he said, was rooted in the division and hostility that grew between civilians and police 50 years ago and culminated in the antiwar protests turned riots in front of national television cameras during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“Those riots, quite frankly, were well deserved against the police,” he said. “And the federal government came out with the report, ‘The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,’ that lambasted the cops” and blamed them for law enforcement’s poor community relationships.
Since the ’60s, Cooper said, police agencies have tried to rebuild their connections with communities by hiring more black officers and women officers and by mandating sensitivity training.
“Agencies have been talking with leaders from minority communities, especially pastors, and saying, ‘What are the problems that you perceive, not just in our community but with us, and how can we do better?’” Cooper said. “And I think the evidence is pretty good that police agencies as a whole do good things in that regard.”
But relationships erode when police violence makes the news.
“So, we’ve got the minority community with a rightfully owned, well-earned historical fear of police. And we’ve got cops with a rightfully owned feeling that ‘nobody likes us,’” Cooper said.
John Lewis, IUP associate professor of criminology, said police and community relationships have suffered, too, when mainstream media publish judgmental reports before the entire story has unfolded.
“Somebody in our system is innocent until proven guilty, but a lot of the media had the officer in Ferguson and all six of the officers in Baltimore guilty before they went to trial, before there was ever a grand jury,” Lewis said.
Juries in Baltimore went on to acquit four officers charged in the custody-related death of Freddie Gray, and a judge dismissed charges against two others. Gray was being transported in a police van after his arrest for possession of a switchblade knife. He fell into a coma and died of a spinal injury six days later.
And in Ferguson, forensic evidence and autopsies disproved heavily publicized witness claims that Michael Brown was shot in the back as he fled from an officer. Brown was shot to death when he charged an officer who had stopped to question him about a convenience store robbery.
John Lewis (Photo by Keith Boyer)
“Nobody wants to trust anyone,” Lewis said. “They don’t trust the facts, the FBI, or the forensic teams. The people believe what they heard from the media.”
Lewis served 23 years as a military policeman before coming to IUP to attain a master’s degree in 2002 and a PhD in 2006, both in criminology. He joined the IUP faculty 10 years ago and recently served as interim director of IUP’s police academy, the Criminal Justice Training Center.
Cooper is in his fifth year on the IUP faculty. His research has focused in part on policing and how its organization behaves and changes.
Lewis and Cooper said police work has evolved with changes in political philosophies.
Beginning in the late 1800s, local political bosses chose police officers and dictated the enforcement agendas.
Civil-service hiring in the early 20th century removed political influence and focused officers on fighting crime but distanced them from the public.
Next came the contemporary era of community policing, which made officers neighborhood problem solvers and put them in closer contact with civilians.
Cooper said current political and legislative policies may be hurting community relations by making police work more impersonal.
“Police are being driven by information,” he said. “Intelligence-led policing works, but when you reduce your individual to a piece of datum, it’s easier not to treat that person like a human being.”
Public attitudes toward police also change with changes in the population, Cooper said.
Young people learn from their families to have respect for officers, answer questions, and keep their hands on the wheel, he said.
But, in broken families or economically disadvantaged areas, it can be different, he said. “It’s, ‘You need to be extremely deferential, or they will beat you.’
“But I do think this is an extremely small part of what might be going on,” Cooper cautioned, adding that negative attitudes toward police seem to cross all demographic boundaries.
At IUP, Cooper said, students in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department are mindful of the violence and strife of the past summer, and lessons on diversity and ethics are getting greater emphasis.
“We encourage the students to take classes on world religions and on race, ethnicity, and gender,” he said. “They need to know how to work with people different from them.
“We really push ethics, and we do a lot of humanities work with them,” Cooper said. Time spent journaling or talking and writing about their feelings can make criminology majors more introspective.
While IUP has a diverse class of criminology majors, few from minority groups go on to work as police officers. Lewis said most of the department’s African American students opt for careers as corrections or parole officers, because their families discourage them from joining the police.
“Socially, they’ve been trained that this is not the person on their side,” Lewis said.
In minority communities, African American officers don’t win more respect than white officers, Cooper said.
“My understanding is that blue is blue,” he said. “Your status is determined by your occupation before your race.”
For every opinion on what has led to the recent acts of violence, there seems to be an opinion on how to reduce the turmoil.
Protesters marched in several cities to call for accountability, explanations, and changes.
In Wichita, police invited leaders of a planned protest by a Black Lives Matter group to join them instead for a cookout in the park. They asked and answered questions and built trust in one another, one officer said.
At the IUP campus this fall, student groups invited area law enforcement leaders for a two-way exchange of concerns.
Students at a Black Student League forum came to a quick consensus that “all cops are not bad cops” but suggested that police spend more time learning about people in the community.
Jonathon Cooper (Photo by Keith Boyer)
One student at a panel discussion organized by the IUP chapter of the NAACP blamed the media for creating tension between police and communities.
Another said there’s mutual fear between police and African Americans, and police could help solve it by talking to civilians.
“Come meet us,” he said. “You might find out what you thought is wrong.”
Patrolman Michael Rayko ’05 of the Indiana Borough police told the students that an open dialogue can help police solve problems.
He urged students to ask questions if they’re involved in a police stop.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you will get an answer right away,” he said. “And be calm.”
Since last year, Rayko has served as the department’s liaison to the IUP NAACP chapter, and he regularly meets with the group. Further strengthening the campus-borough tie, Amirah Macon, IUP’s NAACP president, holds a work-study job with the Indiana police.
During the panel discussion, Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty ’97 encouraged students to take the initiative and start conversations with police.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to a police officer when you see one walking around campus,” Dougherty said. “It’s a two-way street.”
President of the IUP chapter of the NAACP and a workstudy student with the local police, Amirah Macon spoke at a Black Student League forum in October about perceptions of police use of force compared with actual occurrences. (Photo by Keith Boyer)
John Lewis believes citizens’ perceptions of police departments would improve if police were better at public relations.
“They have to get out in front of issues,” he said, “and let people know why they are not releasing certain information.” He cited needs such as keeping confidential the details of investigations and the names of innocent people.
“But I think the police are really bad at telling the public, ‘This is what it’s like. Come out and ride with us for 24 hours,’” Lewis said. “Almost every department has a ride-along program.”
Some police departments invite the public to participate in a sophisticated police training exercise often called “Shoot/Don’t Shoot.”
In this exercise, students at IUP’s Criminal Justice Training Center are tested on split-second judgment skills by interacting with life-sized, computer-generated images of people who respond to their commands. An instructor silently controls the video to make the person comply with police commands or threaten the officer with a gun or knife—or an innocuous loaf of bread.
Officers-in-training are critiqued on how they handle the confrontation. According to Lewis, civilians who try the exercise generally are incredulous when they realize how fast and unpredictably a scenario unfolds.
Lewis also said police departments should capitalize on academic resources in their communities, such as the research capabilities of the IUP Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
By partnering with universities, police departments can gain insight, for example, on why one officer is writing so many citations, Lewis said.
An analysis of citation or arrest records compared with local demographic data can show whether an entire department or one particular officer demonstrates bias in law enforcement, he said. The findings could help police improve practices, avoid litigation, and respond to public criticism.
“We have the subject-matter experts to dig deeper,” Lewis said.
Looking to the future, Lewis has concerns that policing is moving back into the political era, when police were the “enforcement arm for the government.” He cited as an example the Baltimore police chief’s handling of crowd control following the acquittals of officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death. The chief followed the mayor’s advice and kept police out of riot gear. After many officers were injured, the chief lost the support of the rank and file and ultimately lost his job.
“Hopefully we’ll stay in the community policing era and get better at it,” Lewis said.
Cooper believes the tide of violence will recede.
“We’ve weathered far worse,” he said, referring to the mass riots and violence of the ’60s. “I honestly think most agencies deeply care about the communities they work in, and I think that shows. So I am pretty optimistic.”