By David F. Pendrys
HAMDEN, CT- The issues of racial profiling and racial inequality and the tensions between communities and police is nothing new, and a panel discussion held at Quinnipiac University Wednesday showcased how the slow pace of change can be very frustrating to those awaiting it.
The panel was moderated by TV anchor Keith Kountz, and included Reverend Kennedy D. Hampton Sr. of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in New Haven, Tanya Hughes, the Executive Director of the CT Commission of Human Rights and Opportunities, QU Professor of Sociology Don C. Sawyer III, and State Police Lieutenant and long time spokesperson J. Paul Vance.
Kountz opened the night asking why it has been so hard for lines of communication to be opened up between the police and communities where there has been tension. Vance noted that ‘community policing’ when it’s properly implemented and there is funding to support it could help lead to better communication, but that many programs that have programs bearing the community policing name have changed what it means, largely due to financial pressures, so that is not true community policing.
Hughes agreed having police officers in the community getting to know the people within it, and being culturally competent would help given that there is a lot of distrust between communities and police departments. She noted that almost all citizens are law abiding, and most officers are good, but it’s the bad apples on both sides that are the issues.
Hampton went further stating having lines of communications open is not the issue, that there already is communication, but the issue is a lack of conversation. He emphasized that how police and the community communicate is important and that’s where conversation is key as opposed to a more confrontational approach. The Reverend went on to say that change may not be able to come until those in the policing community can step up and admit that the concerns of the minority communities are legitimate, that there has been “years of pain”, and that in situations where there is a mistake made that the police apologize, rather than just saying there is no charge and sending a wrongfully accused person on their way. Later in the evening he would point out that the same issues that were being talked about following the Rodney King beating in 1991 are being talked about now. He wondered when things would change. He compared the issue to when a disease is discovered like measles or Ebola, the experts try to find the origin. He concluded that unless society finds the origin of racial profiling and these tensions, society will remain in the same place.
The topic of the differing realities that people of color may face compared to other communities came up repeatedly. Sawyer talked about how some of his students couldn’t understand why people would riot. He brought up the comparison that in some communities police officers will be at someone’s barbeque or coaching youth teams, whereas in others that is not the case.
Kountz asked about how the make up of police departments being similar to the communities they served might be a factor in the problem, and asked how it might be changed. Vance responded that it has to be a goal to make the police force diversified with all genders, all races, all colors, so that they understand each other a bit better. But he also conceded the problem won’t rectify itself tomorrow, that it will take some time. He believed in Connecticut most departments represent the communities they serve. Vance admittedly did not have stats on the State Police diversity, but guesstimated it at 35% minority members. Hughes pivoted off that point to note recruitment is key, and that education and outreach is so important, as many in various communities to not revere police officers. She pointed to data that said African Americans can be detained for 30-50 minutes for issues where white people might not even be detained at all.
Sawyer also spoke to training and larger beliefs surrounding it concerned about the images people can have in their heads because everyone is impacted by bias, but that most do not the power of life and death like police officers do. He surmised that if a police officer does not live in a minority community, they will get their ideas from other sources, with TV, media, music videos, films, newscasts as a potential major source. He and Vance both agreed TV is not accurate as well, so misconceptions can grow within people if not checked. Vance agreed biases must be fought through recruitment processes and training, and not just training once but throughout the a trooper’s career. He also stated that in his 40 years of being a trooper he had seen a lot of change. He admitted when pressed by Kountz that while training is available there should be more and that financial constraints played in. Hughes volunteered that her agency gives free training to police departments and that her agency was deeply concerned about the implicit bias that can people are affected by.
Hampton asked Vance bluntly if there was basic training for just respect, stating that when police pull someone over, the person pulled over just wants respect. He also observed that if communication breaks down it only affects one side, since the police officer still has the power in the situation. Vance made a point that police officer actions are sometimes misunderstood including when they raise their voice on a highway, because they want to say what they say once and resolve the traffic stop as fast as possible to prevent being hit, as troopers have been. He also said the CSP sends troopers into schools to help build community. He admitted there was once a barrier between police and young people when he started, but he thinks it is breaking down and it took a long time to do so.
Kountz wondered if the 24 hour news cycle was constructive or destructive. Sawyer noted it could be useful to give information to people who aren’t at a location about what is happening, but also brought up the example of if one car was set on fire but everything else was under control, the media would fixate on the car on fire. Kountz recalled his own example of how following the Garner grand jury result there was one store looted in Ferguson and that seemed to attract more media attention than the issue at hand. Despite being in the television media, he lamented TV news pursuing the “best picture.”
Hampton suggested that the media possibly wants to portray African Americans that way, to suggest they should be locked up, to suggest that they were attacking a store, next it will be your house. He added the that when the media reports on a criminal being searched, there is a disparity in how they describe if the search is for a black suspect or a white suspect. Vance had a criticism of his own saying the media show lines of police in riot gear suggesting they are ready to attack, as opposed to being there to keep the peace. Hampton responded quickly some were ready to attack. Vance agreed, but said there are bad apples in every barrel, across all professions as well.
The issue of police “militarization” came up. Sawyer while stating he had the utmost respect for police he was not a fan of what seemed like the development of the “warrior” cop as police departments became more militarized. Vance agreed with the concern, saying he was not a fan of law enforcement in camouflage, although there is a rare time and place for it. He believed it was inappropriate to make the police look like the military, and asked if such a show of force was necessary. He asked if any department in Connecticut really needed a grenade launcher.
Kountz asked if the “black lives matter” movement would continue. Sawyer believes the movement would continue due to the momentum of young people. Kountz wondered what the concrete goals of the movement might be. Hughes responded that it is important for goals to be set as well as educate if there was to be grand jury reform for example. Hampton said the the people are chanting and what they are chanting is that “we just want liberty and justice for all.”
Kountz admitted he told his now adult daughters when they were growing up how to deal with law enforcement. Hampton asked what he taught them, and he responded to be respectful keep hands on wheel et cetera. Vance quickly pointed out that is an issue for everyone of all races and that any cop who says they aren’t scared to death when they pull someone over is lying as they don’t know who they have pulled over. Vance went on to say that black lives matter and all lives matter. Hampton agreed but also noted that the realities are different for people, that that he can be uncomfortable when a cop is behind him. Vance noted feeling uncomfortable when in Massachusetts as he is not friends with cops there. Hampton responded directly that the data was not in Vance’s favor as racial profiling hit African Americans far more. In respond Vance referenced an improvement in racial profiling in CT over time. Hampton agreed it got better but wondered why. He asked if it due to improvement of police or due to the fact they were being monitored and the public could document things better. Hughes agreed all lives mattered but it was black citizens who had to deal with being treated differently, even in the sense that some non-blacks who shot up a school or were involved in World Trade Center attacks lived to see trial.
A question from the audience from someone who was older referenced the idea of “driving while black”, and suggesting that many feel like that across the country, that many blacks are nervous about driving at night in certain communities. He also said that some students were discouraged from participating in protests by faculty. The questioner wondered how education can happen if there are threats of retribution. Sawyer responded that there isn’t a conversation on race, society assumes we’re having one, but we’re having an argument, and that people are afraid to be uncomfortable, but the uncomfortable moments are what lead to growth. Sawyer also related how some say the black community has to forget about the past, but that as some things have gotten better, other problems have gotten less overt, but not gone away. Hughes said the CHRO can sometimes help if people are dealing with some sort of retribution.
Vance expanded on the level of training the CSP received and explained that it is demanded that officers show respect and that training goes on at various levels and is ongoing. He said CSP has also learned from mistakes and tragedy. Hampton however criticized how when he went to make a complaint a barracks, he was obstructed and told to wait, and told to come back later. Vance promised that issue has been fixed and there is an online way to make a complaint without a face to face meeting. Vance suggested the issue had been resolved awhile ago, but Hampton replied the issue had been a year ago. Vance reiterated complaints would be taken seriously. Hampton went further asking if there was training for troopers in how to report complaints about their fellow troopers if they were acting improperly. Vance noted there are and that the CSP has learned over time.
Another questioner asked what the stats were on how the CSP recruits diverse candidates, and also the person noted that it is not only an issue for police of one color to police in communities of the same color, but for those of different colors to police areas that are not the same color, that otherwise, a power dynamic develops suggesting that white is the color of power and the color of knowledge, whether it be police officers or teachers. Vance admitted he didn’t have stats but that recruitment efforts were widespread. Sawyer expressed concern that it wasn’t just a matter of the race of a cop, and that a black police officer or Latino or any race member can uphold the same power dynamics as a white officer. It was the that system needed to be changed.
A questioner asked about implicit bias, wishing that everyone on in the country could take a test to identify theirs, and she noted growing up her own biases that emerged from media sources when she was young. Another questioner commended that questioner’s honesty, but said that there isn’t enough discussion of white privilege. Sawyer said that there isn’t honest discussions, returning to people’s fear of being uncomfortable but noting that it is systems in place that have exacerbated the problems. He brought up the idea that if crosses aren’t burning or there are separate water fountains the problem can seem solved to people. Hughes closed the evening noting that even whites can be racially profile and these issues are everyone’s problem.
It was clear from the night’s discussion that there is a frustration with the pace of change, and that efforts made by police well intentioned or not are not seen as going far enough. The discussion was incredibly respectful though the differing realities that communities face were well on display as well as answers seemingly right at hand, but also so far away.