Police as Community – a Challenge for Us All

by on June 8, 2020 · 5 comments

in Civil Rights, Ocean Beach

By Joni Halpern

Antonin Scalia, the late Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, was fond of reminding people that he and other American children of immigrants were not responsible for slavery.  His folks had emigrated from Italy, he said; they had nothing to do with the subjugation of Black people in America.

This was not the only point on which the revered Justice was grossly ignorant, despite his celebrated intellect, but it was a point he shared with many of us white Americans.

For nearly 400 years, with very little interruption, we white people have taken refuge in this and other morally bankrupt justifications for how things have turned out for yesterday’s and today’s Black Americans.  And even today, most white Americans allow Black youth and their supporters to march without our visible presence behind them, allowing them to bear the full brunt of rage by police departments desperate to remain as they are, militarized and polarized into an “us-versus-them” idea of their role in our communities.

Police argue they are doing all they can.  We put our lives on the line for you, they tell us.  We need more guns, bigger tanks, bigger battering rams, and more military training.  We need less oversight; if there is to be any review of our conduct, we do not want it to come from citizen review boards.  And if any such boards are created, we do not want them to have subpoena power or independent investigation authority.  We can decide internally what it means to “protect and serve,” we are told.

For decades, we in the white community have gone along with this fiction. We are inclined to respect police, to trust them. After all, they are the ones we call when someone suspicious enters our neighborhood, or our car is stolen, or our house burglarized.  They come into our white neighborhoods to help us, not place us in a chokehold or push their knee into our necks.

When we white Americans serve on juries, we give police officers deference as witnesses. We hate to think they would lie.  When they explain to us how someone armed with only a cell phone or a pencil became a deadly threat that required the person to be shot and killed, we accept them at their word, even if we are a bit uncomfortable.  If the sneaking suspicion that they might be lying slips into our minds, we might shake our heads and grumble, but who wants to start a fight with police if you don’t have to?

When politicians run for office, they seek the coveted endorsement of police. What does it mean to say that police support Candidate Jane Doe? Does it mean she will never support a Citizens’ Review Board with subpoena power? Does it mean she will never advocate for police accountability? We never ask; instead, a lot of us white voters just go along with the notion that if the police say a candidate is okay, then the candidate must be okay for white people.

We might want to start asking ourselves what we want from our police department.  I’ll go first, and we’ll see what comes of it.

I want a police department that hires people with solid qualifications. That means police academy candidates not just out of high school, fast food, or the Army, but who have completed at least a two-year community college education, and preferably a full four-year college degree, with some attention to the study of people in our society – who they are, how they live, their values and their struggles.

I want police officers who see themselves as part of our community, not as our adversaries.  I understand the value of kinship among co-workers, but what family would you trust whose members promise to lie for each other? That is the same rule of cohesion that has made it so difficult to police criminal gangs.

I want my police force to understand that many of us, perhaps even most of us, want to protect them. We want them to have the necessary equipment, training, and health insurance. We want them to have the best disability and life insurance. We should increase police salaries so we can attract and keep the best officers. We should protect their families so that if, god forbid, an officer is hurt on the job or loses his life, his family will be provided for.

I want individual common sense and decency to be just as important to the officers of my police force as the order of the day. I want my police to be honest. I do not expect them to be perfect; I expect them to do the same thing they require of me when I make a mistake: Come clean.

I do not think any of us as citizens has upheld our responsibilities to the police or to any of our public servants. We have allowed our city and county governments to be commandeered by substantial interests who aggregate power for their own economic gain, leaving our public servants, including police, to fight over crumbs when it comes to their own recompense.

We need to fund our police department so its salaries, working conditions, disability and retirement funds are solid and generous, for these are the attributes that will attract police officer recruits who can meet high standards.  If we want police to become part of our communities, they have to be able to support themselves within them.

Like it or not, we are wed to our police department. If we want them to do better, we need to do better. We need to set higher standards for recruitment and better enticements to attract qualified candidates.

We need to insist on a Citizens Review Board with subpoena power, independent investigative power, and adequate funding.

It’s not just racism that has led us to this point. It is a civic laziness that has caught hold of us for decades and expressed itself as a fury toward any investment in the human capital of government, no matter what form it takes.  And yet, we have stood by while our tax dollars support massive investment in over-policing low-income neighborhoods, the militarization of police tactics and equipment, and a system of incarceration that feeds on recidivism.

It will not hurt the rich if our police departments fail, for money can buy gated communities and private security.  What we need is a police department that is part of our community, one on which we can all rely to be fair, humane, and honest — one that sees its success in our admiration for the decency of its members, especially in trying circumstances.

Antonin Scalia was wrong.  All white people in America are responsible for the harm that happens to people of color.  Black people and all people of color are part of our community and our nation.  If historical truth were told, we would see it is they whose justified anger has resuscitated our American constitutional values at times when they were almost moribund.

In this moment when we are all bound by the same sorrow for a failure of justice that has played out before our eyes, we white Americans have the best chance in our lifetimes to revive hope in the American experiment.  No matter where our ancestors originated, “We the People” have the power and  responsibility to perfect our Union.  Making our police departments rejoin us as members of our community instead of as adversaries is a challenge open to all Americans.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar GS June 8, 2020 at 12:50 pm

And we have Trump administration officials spouting the party line. Yesterday Acting Director of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli saying that he doesn’t believe race played a factor in the police killing of George Floyd and denying systemic racism in law enforcement (despite overwhelming statistical data to the contrary). Not going to et anywhere while these people are in the positions they are. VOTE in November.

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Avatar Joni Halpern June 8, 2020 at 10:46 pm

GS, you are quite right. As Barack Obama has said, it is not either voting or protesting; it is voting AND protesting. We all must do what we can: write letters, make comments that inform the public dialogue, protest or make our voices heard in as many peaceful ways as possible. The truth is more uncomfortable and frightening to those who exercise power in illegitimate ways than violence is. And voting is such a sacred testimony to all that we hope for in this democracy. Thank you for adding that reminder.

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Avatar retired botanist June 10, 2020 at 4:47 pm

A good piece, Joni, but I would drill down on “voting is such a sacred testimony”…check out today’s news briefs on Georgia voting. For all those who carp on the Constitution per Amendment 1 and 2, VOTING is the BIGGEST violation of fundamental citizen right. The states should no longer be able to orchestrate and regulate their voting regimes- they have proven time and time again that they are incompetent in providing their citizens with a legal, countable vote. I think people in CA don’t notice, since CA has mail-in for any reason, thank God. The states’ right to specific voting regimes need to be rescinded, and voting needs to be federally mandated and regulated; that ANY citizen, no matter WHAT state he/she lives in, has the right to vote by mail, by paper ballot, and be counted as a component of the popular vote-
Currently, the blame is machines, polling stations, weekdays vs weekends, shortage of paper ballots, time zones, demographic districts- you name it- that’s where the finger goes. It is the most undemocratic thing we have going right now. We can look towards yet another corrupted election in November, nevermind the nullifying of my vote by electoral college- that will be the 4th in my lifetime that the elction has been corrupted :(

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Avatar thequeenisalizard June 9, 2020 at 8:13 am

Your San Diego City Council yesterday increased the police budget to $566 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year constituting about one-third of the city’s general fund budget. The previous year’s budget for the SDPD was $539 million and 2019’s was $480 million.

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Avatar Joni Halpern June 9, 2020 at 10:47 am

I saw that, and it was very troubling. The categories of expense were not broken down in a detailed way, but there was a discussion of the overtime and the pay raise. I am not a genius on these matters, but questions come to mind from your comment: How competitive are the base salaries of the SDPD? What percentage of officers’ yearly pay is composed of overtime? What is proportion of the police budget devoted to base salaries, then to overtime, then to other discrete functions? Are we paying more for a police department that is allocating resources in ineffective way, and still not hiring to the standards of education and training we all would benefit from. Thank you for a very thoughtful comment. You pointed up a weakness in my commentary.

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