News: After the Shooting

Responding to use of force by police makes the difference

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Cameron Knight

Richard Biehl

Five shots ring out in a dark alley after a high-speed pursuit. An unarmed African-American teenager lies on the ground, clutching his cell phone. A young white police officer stands over the dying boy's body and calls into his radio, "Man down. Man down."

Within minutes the police chief, FOP president, detectives, reporters and neighborhood gawkers swarm into the alley. Tension builds: The community wants answers, the FOP wants to protect its officer, the chief is in the middle. No one knows the facts. Rumors spread fast.

Will the community and police head toward reconciliation or will the situation spiral out of control?

On June 22 community groups and police officials across the country discussed this hypothetical situation in town hall meetings organized by the National Urban League and the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

The meetings began with a 90-minute Webcast debate in Washington by a panel of journalists, police, federal officials, politicians and community leaders.

The breakdown
The panel in Washington focused on how to deal with the aftermath of police shootings, rather than on preventing use of force incidents.

At the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati the discussion shifted to the bleak state of Cincinnati's police-community relations and the underlying problems that cause the divide. Panelists also expressed more compassion for the teenage victim of the scenario than did the Washington experts.

"The first thing that has to be said is how sad we are that a citizen is dead at the hands of the police," said civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein. "That sadness, that remorse is not any less because that citizen may or may not have been a criminal. That's death. That's terrible and we should care about that."

Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher Jr., the Rev. Damon Lynch III, Wendell France, director of the Citizens Complaint Authority and about 40 other community leaders participated in an hour-long discussion facilitated by Richard Biehl, executive director of the Community Police Partnering Center. Notably absent were members of city council, as Biehl pointed out.

"That's one factor that we seem to be missing all the time," he said.

The disconnection between a community and its police department after a use of force, arises from how the two groups analyze the incident, according to panelists. Police officers and other officials examine the incident to see if officers followed proper protocols and laws, while community members view the situation on moral grounds.

"That is where the breakdown takes place, because you hear the police department saying the officers' actions were correct from policy wise and legally" said Det. Scott Johnson, president of the Sentinel Police Association, an African-American organization. "On the other hand you have the community seeing the results of those actions. And a lot of times there is not a lot of meshing to bring those two together."

The solution, many panelists said, was to increase the level of trust and communication between police and community residents. Lynch said the police department builds trust when it tells the truth.

"There is the notion that you get punished for telling the truth," he said. "What message is that to send to a police officer? We need the truth. They need to tell the truth and it needs to be told."

Streicher said economic and educational disparities, problems the police cannot correct, are the root cause of poor relations between officers and communities.

"For cops all cross America, in major cities that disparity in the poor sections of town is resulting in some of the highest crime rates, particularly the highest violent crime rates," Streicher said. "The issue here goes beyond what occurred to what is the cause of the crime that is occurring and as a society how you are going to prevent it."

Cops in the hood
Several members of the panel suggested that problems in police/community relations stem from the fact that officers don't understand Hip Hop culture.

"What is the understanding of Hip Hop?" asked Aaron Pullins, a member of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. "In that respect, not being into stereotyping but being able to look further than just what's in the air, in terms of our youth."

But Streicher countered that police officers have a solid understanding of different cultures. Officers often spend more time in the communities they patrol than they do in their own neighborhoods, he said.

"The police really do have a very profound and fundamental understanding of various cultures because of the interaction," Streicher said. "The police spend more time with different cultures in society than any other group in society does."

The problem is not only with the police. Teens also stereotype officers.

"All young men with white T-shirts should not look at all police officers as the bad guys, just as police officers should not look at all young men in T-shirts as the bad guys," Johnson said.

The few teenagers present at the meeting remained quiet when Biehl asked for their opinion on Hip Hop culture and police relations with youth. Instead, a few panelists spoke for them.

"We don't talk about how they internalize (police use of force)," said Iris Roley, vice president of Black United Front. "And believe you me, that is going to come back out sometime down the road at somebody."

At the end of the meeting, Biehl suggested holding a forum to bring together officers and high-risk teens to discuss a similar scenario and build tolerance. There was general agreement with the proposal when the meeting adjourned.

"The level of tolerance has to be raised to a level that is unprecedented here in the city of Cincinnati," Johnson said. "That is how we really change this, to move the relationship forward." ©

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