Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 12, 2016
Occasionally, tragic watershed events occur that cause a turning point in a narrative, in this case the narrative of police and black citizen relations. Let’s hope that the black men who were shot and killed in New Orleans and in Falcon Heights, Minnesota and the police officers who were targeted, shot and killed in a planned attack during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas are such watershed events. Our country needs a major change in the relations between police and black citizens.
Quoting Republican Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives on July 8 on CNN, “It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years, to get a sense of this: If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” Other political leaders need to do what Gingrich has done – acknowledge the problem.
Black drivers get pulled over in routine traffic stops by police at a frequency much higher than white drivers. Many of these stops are justified, some are not. During a traffic stop, the data shows that there is a disparity in how black and white drivers are treated.
How many white parents give their teenage children “the talk” on how to interact with police officers, a common practice within the black community? There is a reason for this. Unless you are black, it is hard to understand the concerns you have interacting with the police.
On Oct. 24, 2015, The New York Times published an article headlined, “The disproportionate risks of driving while black,” in which Sharon LaFraniere and Andrew Lehren write about a May 2013 incident in Greensboro, North Carolina, involving two brothers who were pulled over in a traffic stop for a missing license plate and the lack of a safety flag on the cargo that the vehicle was transporting. One of the brothers was tased by one of the police officers. Neither brother was an apparent threat to the officers.
We do not independently know what the facts were surrounding the incident, only those reported in The New York Times article. The incident has left a lasting mark on the mindset of the brothers. Quoting the article, the brother who was not tased, “does not leave home without first pocketing a hand-held video camera and a business card with a toll-free number for legal help. … [He] instinctively turns away if a police car approaches. ‘Whenever one of them is near, I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel safe,’ he said.” Is this how we want a significant percentage of the population to feel about police officers?
Dr. Brain Williams, a trauma unit surgeon at the Dallas hospital who treated the police officers that were shot, made an emotional statement about not being able to save some of the officers under his care. What he said during an interview on July 11 needs to be heard by law enforcement throughout the country. Williams, who is black, said, “I want you to know that I will support you, that I will defend you and that I will care for you. That doesn’t mean that I do not fear you. That doesn’t mean that if you approach me, I will not immediately have a visceral reaction and start worrying about my personal safety.” Poignant words for all police officers to think about.
Law enforcement leaders need to recognize that they require the support of all citizens, including those of the black community to do their jobs, and that changes are needed to accomplish this.
The job of a police officer is one that requires a very high degree of good critical judgment and common sense. They face potentially life threatening situations every day. During traffic stops, they don’t know whether the driver is a potential threat. They need to make split-second judgments and decisions. I have a huge respect for our police officers – they serve and protect us.
During the attack in Dallas, police officers protected BLM participants from the gunfire. Shetamia Taylor, one such participant, was shot in the leg. She shielded her sons, and was in-turn shielded by a number of officers. Quoting the July 11 Dallas Morning News, Taylor said, “I’m so thankful for the Dallas Police Department. They stayed there with us… I’ve never seen anything like that. The way they just came around us and guarded us like that.” This is what police officers do.
Are there police officers who do not have the critical judgment, common sense and temperament to serve? Yes, they need to be removed from patrol duty. Those that commit criminal acts during traffic stops need to be prosecuted. Unfortunately, the entire profession is being tarnished by a few officers who should not be on the street.
In addition to weeding out officers that do not have the needed temperament, a cultural change needs to take place within many police departments. The same traffic stop rules must apply to everyone, regardless of the race of the driver. Police officers need to understand how they are viewed by members of the black community. The black community needs to see that genuine efforts are being made to address police and black citizen relation issues.
Black community leaders also need to understand that the police are essential to their community’s safety. This recognition should be publically stated by the BLM movement, which also needs to condemn the violent acts committed against police officers in the strongest manner, as they exercise their First Amendment rights by protesting the discriminatory treatment of members of their community by some police officers.
In a July 9 New York Post article headlined “The ‘Ferguson effect’ is destroying Chicago,” columnist Heather Mac Donald writes about the sky-rocketing crime rate in Chicago. She states, “The growing mayhem is the result of Chicago police officers’ withdrawal from proactive enforcement, making the city a dramatic example of what I called the Ferguson effect,” referring to the fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri of Michael Brown in 2015. Quoting the article, “Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel warned in October 2015 that officers were going ‘fetal,’ as shootings … skyrocketed. Residents of Chicago’s high-crime areas are paying the price.” This is unacceptable, and a shirking of responsibility by Chicago’s leadership.
It is Emanuel’s job and that of the city’s law enforcement leadership to fix the problems that exist between the police and the black community, and ensure that the police do their job correctly. The black community deserves no less.
The police deserve the community’s respect. They are the only line of defense against crimes committed against members of any community, including the black community.
During the July 10 broadcast of “Meet the Press,” former Philadelphia Chief of Police Charles Ramsey stated that, “We are sitting on a powder keg. … We need thoughtful people to engage in dialogue to come up with solutions…” It will take real leadership by law enforcement, government officials and community leaders to work together to fix the current situation.
Stan Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a writer, speaker and advisor to C-suite executives on business issues and on cultivating a leadership culture within their organizations. Stan is Vice Chairman of the Board of Drexel University and a director of Friends Select School and Faith in the Future. He is the former President and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com