What’s it to Utz? – Summer in Pyongyang

Posted by Decaturish.com January 30, 2015
Hans Utz

Hans Utz

By Hans Utz, contributor 

It is safe to say that 2014 held many lessons for us all about effective policing.  There is no such thing as ‘perfect’ policing, and we often unfairly expect the police to be better than their community at large when it comes to matters of equity and particularly matters of race.  But let’s take a look at what has transpired this year and explore how local policy sets the stage for what follows.

A few years ago, an interesting post explored the differences in how Newport Beach, CA and Decatur, GA recruit their police officers.

The recruitment video from Newport Beach shows a bunch of all white male ‘roid-rage ‘romper-stompers’ (in the dismissive parlance of an army friend) running through a series of violent takedowns and fetishizing their military surplus gear.

Decatur’s video uses the word ‘community’ multiple times and shows a wide diversity of officers respectfully interacting with citizens.  It is tough to imagine a starker contrast, and I’m incredibly proud of Decatur PD and how they represent the city’s values through the video.

I am a law-abiding white citizen, statistically unlikely to be unfairly harassed by a police officer, but I’d still be terrified to live with the type of officer attracted to the Newport Beach video.  It starts with the values you seek in your police force, and anyone who thinks the Newport Beach video leads to quality community-oriented policing is welcome to live there.  I hear Pyongyang is nice in the summer.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.  It is a tall order, but for a moment leave aside your opinions on the shooting itself.  Even in a perfectly trained force there is always a chance of tragedy, and of the many adjectives you could apply to Ferguson PD, ‘perfectly-trained’ is unlikely to top the list.  Let’s instead explore the response of the department in the aftermath of the encounter.

We train our military in escalation of force standards because we know that going in ‘guns blazing’ can, and often will, result in a level of collateral damage that compromises the intent of the mission in the first place.  Ferguson never applied the same sort of sensible standards and utterly failed to use the right amount of force at the right time.

No rational person would argue that an officer should allow looters to burn innocent businesses, but there are multiple tactics that a properly-trained department should deploy prior to firing teargas, drawing high-caliber weapons, and arresting innocents whilst threatening their lives.

In short, the ill-trained overreaction of Ferguson PD after the shooting directly contributed to the chaos that descended afterwards.  It was apparent that they had long lost their credibility as an impartial enforcer of the law and instead behaved like an occupying force, and a grossly incompetent one at that.  In hindsight it is surprising it took until 2014 to break down.

With that context, let’s examine Decatur in 2014.  In late 2013, Don Denard, a former Decatur City School Board member, was stopped by officers in an incident he described as an example of racial profiling.

During a community meeting, the testimony from Mr. Denard and a number of black men describing their encounters with Decatur PD is both compelling and disturbing.  An internal investigation by Decatur PD found no evidence of racial profiling in Denard’s case, though it acknowledged, “we caused you to lose faith in our police department”.

The possibility that a racially charged police encounter occurred in Decatur should surprise no one.  In 2013, Decatur had experienced a sudden uptick in property crimes, in particular burglaries.  The perpetrators were widely reported as young black males. The reasonable advice to the community was to be on the lookout and report anything suspicious.

But here’s the rub: when a majority-white community suspects that a group of young black men are committing crimes nearby, ‘anything suspicious’ tends to be interpreted as ‘any black man walking’. Callers don’t necessarily bother with minutiae like age, or whether the person is carrying a coffee mug rather than a weapon.  And most damagingly, the innocence of the overwhelming majority of young black men is often overlooked.

In other words, our community racially profiles.

We expect our police department to behave better than we do.  We can train officers not to profile and we can hold them accountable if they do.  But make no mistake about it: we are holding our officers to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.  We are asking them to serve as a filter to our own racial biases.  And no one monitors us to ensure we are not racially profiling when we call 911 on the 60-year-old black man walking down his own driveway in the first place.

This is why you recruit quality officers and train (and train, and train) them well.

What is most instructive about the incident in Decatur is how the city leaders responded to it. Rather than shove it under the rug, the city held public hearings that led to changes in policy.  Decatur PD is now reporting statistics on the racial makeup of police-initiated stops, presumably so that we can hold them accountable if they profile.

I’d like to see more detail, and specifically the racial breakdown based on the type of stop. It seems reasonable to suspect that on-foot stops will be disproportionately of black men.  I could be wrong.  I hope I am.  But compared to the manner in which one would expect Newport Beach PD or Ferguson PD to respond, I view this as welcome progress.

I think Mayor Baskett captured the call to action as well as anyone, and so I’ll leave him with the last word:

“Growing up in the South as I did, if you’re my age, you recognize that it takes a great deal of vigilance, self-inspection and checking of yourself and your attitudes and the way you relate to others…  We can’t ever sit back and say ‘Oh, no. We’re good. We’re better than that. We’re a progressive community. We’ve got all that worked out, and all that behind us.’ No, we have to continually make certain that we are engaging our own ideas, engaging other people in dialogue and conversation and making sure that our own biases and our own fears are not making anyone in our community ever, ever feel like a lesser part of the community.”

Hans Utz has lived in and around Atlanta for 25 years and formerly served as the Deputy COO of the City of Atlanta.  He writes about local and national politics. He and his family currently reside in Decatur.

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