Teaching About Policing and Race in America

03/30/2015 02:17 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Oceanside High School is located in a suburban, overwhelming White and middle class community on Long Island in New York. The school sponsors an annual Human Relations Day that brings in speakers and sponsor panels on a range of topics including HIV/AIDS awareness, drunk driving, military families, fire safety, and diversity.

I opened a discussion on race in America with two groups of students by examining the February 2015 statement by FBI Director James Comey. He was at Georgetown University on "Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race." According to Comey "all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups . . . It is a hard truth that lives on."

The Oceanside students, who were almost all White, agreed with Comey that these were hard truths, but generally favored addressing individual values at home and school rather than more systemic social change. Some were from police families and were grappling with things they heard in the media and their love and concern for family members who put their lives at risk. I expressed support for their efforts to sort out conflicting feelings, but stressed that Comey and protesters were not targeting individuals but a "history" of racism in American society and police forces and other institutions that need to be reformed. I also questioned whether their life experiences in a small isolated White community and racially segregated school effectively prepared them for college and careers in a much larger and more diverse world.

According to the recently released United States Justice Department report the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, where Black teen Michael Brown was shot to death in August 2014 by a White police officer, is guilty of systematic racial bias. Police in Ferguson disproportionately ticket and arrest African American men, including for "crimes" like jaywalking, and officials use the revenue collected from the fines to balance the town's budget. The Ferguson Chief of Police, municipal judge, city manager resigned as did two police supervisors after the investigation showed they were linked to racist emails. The Justice Department concluded that the Ferguson Police Department routinely violated the constitutional rights of its Black residents.

Over the winter months I participated in a series of forums and actions growing out of the Summer 2014 killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers. Unfortunately, it seemed that at each gathering another unarmed Black man had recently been killed by police officers. In a previous Huffington Post I reported on a student forum on police-community relations at Uniondale High School on Long Island that opened with a dramatic student "die-in."

During this time I met with students at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City to discuss the impact of the "school-to-prison" pipeline, helped students at Alfred E. Smith High School in Bronx New York organize a petition campaign against the use of metal detectors in minority high schools, was interviewed by Susan Modaress of Inside/Out on the impact of the prison system on Black and Latino children whose family life is disrupted by the arrest and imprisonment of parents, and was a panelist in a Hofstra University program "Police and the Community: Where Do We Go from Here?"

At each locale I made the same basic point with students. The problem with police-community relations is rooted in the long history of institutional racism in the United States. It is primarily the result of actions by police departments shaped by that history, not minority communities. I do not believe the problem is individual police officers. Many officers are decent people who take seriously their professional responsibilities. They help to suppress crime in what can be dangerous areas. At every venue, including schools where the student population is overwhelmingly Black and Latino, students testified to the heroic actions and humane behavior they had witnessed by individual police officers. NO ONE WANTED TO SEE POLICE OFFICERS INJURED.

Police departments are part of the racist and oppressive system described by FBI Director Comey that has a long history in this country. It is a system with roots in slavery and Jim Crow. It is a system that pretends impartiality but basically is designed to protect White people and White owned property and control people trapped in inner-city ghettos. The problem is a police system that increasingly has been militarized by federal and state authorities leading to greater isolation from minority communities.

We live in a society that sorts out and channels Black and Latino youth into poorly performing schools where they must pass through metal detectors on a daily basis, into dead-end low paying jobs where and when jobs are actually available, and too often, into prison. The police are a crucial part of that system. Comey conceded that today, in African American neighborhoods police develop a "cynicism that shades their attitudes about race." According to Comey, some police officers scrutinize African-Americans more closely using a mental shortcut that "becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights."

Comey and I are certainly not the only ones who believe racism shapes police attitudes and behavior. Ira Glass of This American Life conducted an interview with Robyn Semien, a program producer, on the death in police custody of Eric Garner. Semien and a friend who is a New York City police officer watched the videotape together of Eric Garner being killed in Staten Island by a police officer who left him lying on the ground gasping for breathe.

What striking in the broadcast is how the civilian and the police officer viewed the same incident and saw it so differently. According to Glass, "When Eric Garner says over and over, I can't breathe, Robyn sees a man who's dying. Her friend does not. She tells Robyn people say that all the time when they're being arrested. They can't breathe. You're hurting them. It happens all the time. The officer totally understood why the police on the scene did not pay any attention to it."

Semien was shocked at the way her friend's police training and police point of view blinded her to what was taking place on screen. According to Semien "What's odd to me is that now, even after the fact, we know that he really couldn't breathe. And she kind of wouldn't even totally cop to the fact that he was probably telling the truth as we watched the video."

At Hofstra University program, one of the panelists was a New York City police detective who defended police action and the operation of the American legal system in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases. He challenged the other panelists to list specific things they wanted to see changed in police attitudes and behavior to improve relations with minority communities where they are often seen as an invading army. At the panel I made four concrete recommendations. Since then I have added to my list.

I believe the way police are trained and allowed to act adds to the racial divide in the United States. These are nine proposals in answer to his challenge. I recognize they will be difficult to implement and that given broader societal pressures there are no guarantees they will work. They will not end racism in the United States, but I believe they will help address the feeling in some communities that the police are a militarized force of occupation. I present them here with the hope they make it into high school classrooms and public forums to further the discussion called for by FBI Director Comey.

Proposals to Change Policing

1. Stop "Stop and Frisk." In August 2013 a federal judge ruled that "Stop and Frisk" police practices in New York City violated the constitutional rights of Blacks and Latinos. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton officially suspended "Stop and Frisk" implemented by their predecessors, although some New York civil rights activists believed they were still being used. Similar police policies are still in effect in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Oakland, Newark, Miami Gardens, and San Francisco. According to a September 2014 NAACP report, twenty states do not explicitly prohibit racial profile, and the NAACP has launched a campaign for a national ban on "Stop and Frisk."

2. Affirmative action in the hiring of police officers. In 2010, the population of Ferguson, Missouri 67.4 percent African American. Its police force was almost 95% White. From 1983 to 1992, police departments in fifty of the largest cities in the United States used affirmative action policies to promote diversity and make the police force more like the communities they serve. In New York City, where there has been a systematic effort to hire more minorities and women, 53% of patrol officers are Black, Latino, or Asian. However, according to the Washington Post, "More than three quarters of cities on which the Census Bureau has collected data have a police presence that's disproportionately white relative to the local population. Meanwhile, in more than 40 percent of cities, blacks are under-represented among police officers." In police departments that are more diverse, language and behavior and hopefully attitudes about race will change.

3. Return to community policing. Get police officers out of the cars and onto the streets so they meet people and people meet them. A Police Foundation study in Newark, New Jersey found that foot patrols increased both the public's sense of safety and its satisfaction with the performance of the police. Keeping them in cars adds to the feeling that police are invaders with no relationship to the people they are policing. In addition, enforce community residency requirements for police officers. Police who live in a community will respect and be respected differently.

4. Police must obey the law. In the United States police often act like they are above the law, especially while driving. In New York City, you continually witness police officers that double-park and block traffic when they stop for coffee, who park in no parking zones, who talk on cell phones while driving, who drift through red lights and stop signs, and who turn without signaling. That police must obey the law is a fundamental principle that dates back to the grievances listed against Great Britain in the Declaration of Independence.

5. Diffuse, disarm, or disengage. In the United States, police officers are allowed to use what they consider "reasonable" force when they feel threatened and they are trained to shoot to kill. In 2013, a study in Philadelphia found that although crime rates had declined, police were firing at suspects more frequently. Too many officers find unarmed Black men threatening leading to the epidemic of Black men killed by police. These policies must stop. If a police officer feels threatened, they should withdraw until backup arrives. If Darren Wilson did that in Ferguson, Michael Brown would be alive today and police-community conflict could have been averted, at least temporarily.

6. Erase the "Thin Blue Line." The "Thin Blue Line" originally symbolized respect for fellow officers who fell in the line of duty and ties between police and community. Now it means "us against them" and unwavering loyalty, especially don't rat on a fellow officer. Police officers who turn the other way when cops break the law or who refuse to testify against fellow officers should be immediately suspended without pay. In many communities it turns "blue" into just another gang color.

7. No "get out of jail free" cards. Stop the issuing and use of Police Benevolent Association PBA cards to avoid traffic tickets. In the New York metropolitan area, police officers' unions give members special cards to distribute to friends and family members that they can flash if they are stopped for breaking traffic regulations. These cards reinforce the idea that the police are a gang unto themselves who do not have to obey the law. The police unions also give the cards to local politicians to secure support and are even openly sold on E-Bay. Any police officer that lets a traffic offender off the hook because they or a family member are "on the job" should be immediately suspended without pay.

8. Police must tell the truth. In Brooklyn, New York dozens of old convictions, many for serious crimes, are being reinvestigated because a decorated detective lied under oath and other authorities turned their back on blatant untruths. Anyone who has been to traffic court knows that drivers are considered guilty until proven innocent. Police officers who cannot possibly remember the details of every individual traffic stop recite a canned statement that has little to do with your situation and it is almost impossible to get their version overturned. The police officer lies and you pay. The U.S. Justice Department found that in Ferguson, the bogus ticketing of Black men was used to raise money for the town. If people, especially members of minority communities, are going to trust and respect police, police officers must be held accountable and court proceedings must be legitimate.

9. End "zero tolerance" policies in schools. If you want minority teenagers to respect police and maybe join a police force, demilitarize the schools and top treating students like criminals. Get armed police officers out of schools. Shut down the metal detectors. Treating students like criminals backfires. According to a recent New York Times editorial, studies show that "suspensions do nothing to improve the school climate; that children who are thrown out are at greater risk of low achievement and becoming entangled with the juvenile justice system; and that minority children are disproportionately singled out for the harshest, most damaging disciplinary measures."