The Continuing Problem of Police-Black Community Relations

Dr. Elsie L. Scott


The recent shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year old African American male by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 focused the country’s attention on relations between African Americans and law enforcement agents once again. In the 1960s, a number of cities experienced violent uprisings that resulted in property loss and damage, and loss of lives. Since that time, incidents involving the police and black civilians have resulted in uprisings in a number of urban areas. After each of these incidents, public officials, media representatives and citizens have assessed the causes and suggested improvements.

The reaction to the 1960s riots that started with the Watts riot of 1965 was unlike the reactions to the other uprisings in that national attention was placed on the incidents. The President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed an 11-member commission (the Kerner Commission) to review the causes, the effects and preventive measures. The Kerner Commission found that police action was a major precipitating factor for all of the uprisings they studied. Federal and local resources were invested in actualizing some of the Kerner Report’s recommendations. Some of the reforms implemented were changes in police policies related to police misconduct, changes in citizen complaint process, recruitment and promotion of black police officers, and the implementation of programs designed to increase positive police-citizen interaction.

Despite the positive changes in police-community relations that were implemented in the 1970s, another major uprising took place in Miami, Florida in 1980. The not-guilty verdict of four police officers charged in the killing of a black motorcyclist led to three days of rioting that resulted in deaths, injury and property destruction. Reacting to the riot, a citizens’ review board was created, but there are questions about its effectiveness. More black and female officers were hired and promoted, but the culture did not immediately change.

The police case that personified problems with the police in the 1990s was the Rodney King case in Los Angeles. A tape of police officers beating a black man captured the nation’s attention, and when the police officers charged in the beating were acquitted, rioting started. Over one billion dollars in property damage resulted, and 53 people were killed. The chief of police who helped to create a culture of suppression and confrontational policing was forced out, but it took time and a federally-mandated consent decree to change the culture to one that was more community focused.

Cincinnati took center stage as the major uprising of the first decade of the 21st century. In 2001, four nights of looting and rioted followed the shooting death of a teenager by a police officer. The city was placed under a federal consent decree that resulted in training for officers in handling the mentally ill, changes to the foot pursuit policy, establishment of a Civilian Complaint Authority and the collection of race-related data during police stops.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri has taken the headlines. It is too early to know what the results of case will be. What is known is that the Ferguson police seemed to have learned little or nothing from the earlier cases. Some examples of mistakes they made were 1) not releasing details of the incident; 2) shooting the “suspect” multiple times even after he seemed to walking away; 3) refusing to name the officer who shot Brown; 4) responding to the uprising with military equipment; 5) leaving the dead body in the street for hours.

In some of the cities that have experienced unrest, improvements have been made in police processes, but the improvements often have not been sustained, and they have not been holistic in approach. The problems with the police cannot be isolated from the problems within the rest of society. In many urban areas, people have risen up in part because of the economic oppression they are facing. The police shooting is just a spark that ignites a flame after years of frustration around unemployment, underemployment, housing conditions, etc. Until investments are made in addressing economic and social disparities, uprisings will continue to occur.

After an incident, rhetoric is heard from the various sides, bandages are placed to stop the bleeding or a stop-gap solution is applied. Business goes on as usual or people find a way to move on in a new environment, but the core of the problem remains. At the core is the legacy of slavery and racism. The stereotyping of black men as criminals has become ingrained in society to the point that police officers and other people are quick to act upon mistaken assumptions of the motives of black men, whether they are walking or driving. Until the country is willing to develop and implement a long-term strategic plan to address deep-seated racial problems and issues, Fergusons will continue to occur.


Can’t We Just All Get Along

Can’t We Just All Get Along
Dr. Elsie L. Scott
Director, Ronald W. Walters Leadership & Public Policy Center
Howard University

When Rodney King finally spoke after his beating by Los Angeles police officers, many were expecting him to say something about his beating, but he uttered the words, “Can’t we just all get along?”
These words came to me when I realized that today, April 29, was the 22nd anniversary of the verdict in the Rodney King case was issued, and rioting started in Los Angeles. There are no cities burning today, but the headlines and the blogs are full news and reflections on race in light of the leaked tape of Donald Sterling. It is not just the Sterling case that has us talking about race. It is also the Cliven Bundy case and the Supreme Court decision in Schuette v. Bamn. These are the topics of the day, but there will be other race-related topics in the future because we refuse to deal with the race issue in this country.
People of African descent were held in involuntary servitude for close to 250 years. Then a proclamation was issued stating that they are free, and later some Constitutional amendments were added to give them legal standing. The “freed” people were not given land or compensation for their labors. No schools or few schools were established to educate their children, but they were expected to catch up with the born free citizens. When they started businesses and found other ways to provide for their families, their businesses were destroyed, their rights were taken away, they were re-enslaved through the criminal justice system, and they were asked why they could not succeed like others.
Many blacks have tried to just get along and have found themselves falling further behind economically through unfair labor, banking and legal practices. They have tried to get along and found discrimination in housing. They have tried to get along and found they have been profiled, restricted, labeled and stereotyped.
Despite the dream of many Caucasian Americans that they would not have to deal with the issue of race, race issues are woven into the fabric of American society. The framework was established by the founding fathers when they allowed slavery to be legalized, and they allowed enslaved people to be defined as property. There was an opportunity to do something about it when slavery was abolished, but weak government “leaders” allowed the defeated South to continue a form of enslavement.
Notwithstanding all that African Americans have gone through, many have tried to find a way to just get along. Affirmative action was seen as one way to make the playing field even and to adjust for some of the past discrimination, but the term “reverse discrimination” was coined and this measure was stripped of its effectiveness.
What seems to be the final nail in the affirmative action coffin is the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Schuette v. Bamn. Affirmative action was needed because we all cannot just get along. The University of Michigan, in arguing for keeping the policy, stated that universities must have race-sensitive admissions plans to ensure diversity.
We have seen the impact that the change in admissions policy has had on California universities. At UCLA, for example, only three percent of the law students are black (33 out of roughly 1,100 students).
It was sad to watch two black female law students on the Melissa Harris Perry Show talk about what it means to be part of the three percent. The experiences they talked about were similar to my experience as the only black in my graduate school program at Iowa years ago. (I was the only black in my program, and we had no black professors.)
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion in Schuette, essentially stated that the will of the people supersedes concerns about racial equality as long as it does not violate the Constitution. He seemed to question “race-based categories” (affirmative action) when he wrote: “Government action that classifies individuals on the basis of race is inherently suspect and carries the danger of perpetuating the very racial divisions the polity seeks to transcend.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a brilliant dissent in this case. She outlined three prominent areas in which race matters. “Race matters…because of the long history of racial minorities being denied access to the political process.” “Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society.” “And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away.”
We did not magically enter into a post-racial society when an African American was elected president. Many people had hoped that they would not have to hear anything else about racial discrimination and inequality. They hoped that we could just all get along, but nothing had been done to weed out the Donald Sterlings and Cliven Bundys.

It is not just the white men over 60 who are preventing us from just getting along. There are numerous hate incidents of college campuses such as the white students at San Jose State University barricading their Black roommate his room, displaying a Confederate flag, writing the word “nigger” on a white board in a common area, attaching a metal bicycle lock around his neck and calling him “three-fifths”. Black faculty at majority institutions are being charged with discrimination for highlighting black history, and young white people moving into inner cities are not showing respect for the institutions and culture of original residents–black people.

No, we cannot just all get along because the majority refuses to admit that race matters and that racial discrimination and inequality are still prevalent in society. No, we cannot just all get along because to too many people, getting along means subservience for people of a darker hue. We cannot just all get along because we are not all starting from the same place. We cannot just all get along because there is no real communication between the races. No, we cannot just all get along because people in the U.S. want to be able to wish away racial problems, by closing their eyes and by some type of magic, we would all just get along.