More Black Cops Are Saying Community Control of the Police is the Answer
TRNN talks to Black law enforcement including a Baltimore police chief as well as local leaders over the growing calls for communities to govern the police that serves them
Jaisal Noor: Police in cities like Baltimore continue to grapple with the broken relationship between them and the communities of color they serve. Neighborhoods plagued by violence, crime, high unemployment, and poverty are also haunted by the specter of renewed mass protests and unrest over the killing of unarmed black men by police. We talked to 34 year retired law enforcement veteran, Neil Franklin, after a panel discussion about what especially black officers can do about this.
Neil Franklin: Under the current system what can police do in making changes? How to interact with the public, leadership, many, many things came out, things that we’ve heard many times before; education, training, and all that stuff. Basically, treating people with respect and dignity and having the leadership to push that and to promote that. The other side was about the system that we’re currently working in. Some said it was a broken system, some said, “Well, it depends on what the system was designed to do.”
Jaisal Noor: The discussion took place at the 2017 National Organization of Retired State Troopers. Recording was not permitted but afterwards we caught up with Baltimore Police Chief, Melvin Russell.
Some of the panelists said the first step to really healing the rift between community and police is to have some type of community control over the police. What are your thoughts on that?
Melvin Russell: Well, let’s call it community accountability, keeping us accountable. I have no problems with that. At the end of the day we’re still public servants so my thoughts is, “Yes, I agree with it.”
Jaisal Noor: The issue of hiring and firing police officers, having a say in who the police chief is or some of the things that were mentioned today.
Melvin Russell: Absolutely, I wholeheartedly agree with that. There are townships, there are cities where I actually like … Let’s talk about sheriffs … Where they’re elected. Even our own city of Baltimore the sheriffs are elected. I think that’s something we do need to look at because we’re not giving the community enough buy-in or say in the input and I’ve seen … I’m on my 13th commissioner and I’ve seen many times where the community has shouted and jumped up and down, “This is who we want for our commissioner,” and almost never has it happened.
Jaisal Noor: Other panelists had a different message.
Speaker 2: Officers show respect for people in the community, treat them fairly, and it’s a one-to-one relationship that we build over time. I think that a lot of ideas were explored here today and we have to kind of take them all together, that’s what we want you to do, and figure out what’s workable, what isn’t, and what we can do in different communities.
Speaker 3: Well, I think the structural changes are what are going to ensure that officers are consistently treating people better, right? It’s nice … I think that’s the outcome of better community control of police departments and there are a lot of things that you can do. We have resolutions about training, about hiring, about retention policies and all that. The fundamentals are really that the community has to have a voice at the table and not just in community forums, not just to get as an advisory piece, but actual true power over how their communities are policed.
Jaisal Noor: The demand of community control of police was also echoed by some officers and community leaders who attended.
Speaker 4: Serving as a police officer and particularly at the state level and also having an opportunity to serve on the city and metropolitan area level and seeing all of these different issues that are popping up, I believe that. I believe that you have to have the community involved. In other words, the police are actually serving the citizens. If I serve the citizens then I should have some say so as to who is actually serving the community.
Jaisal Noor: The biggest obstacle to what you’re saying are police unions, the FOP and other unions. How do you respond … Their argument is that you don’t know what it’s like to be an officer. You shouldn’t have a say in how the police are run. That’s what they say to …
Speaker 4: I understand that and I understand some of those political powers and also the contracts that they come up with but I think they’re being very naïve to begin to believe that just because I’m not a police officer. I live in this community, I know how I want to be treated, and there’s a tendency to de-value me as a citizen based on the fact that I’m not a police officer.
Speaker 5: That’s just a matter of true community oversight, true community leadership where we have kind of spoke on these unconstitutional or oppressive practices in our police departments for decades. It is time for a collaborative of black law enforcement to kind of step up and not conform to the establishment.
Jaisal Noor: We also asked participants if from their perspective underlying issues like unemployment, mass incarceration, and homelessness must also be addressed.
Melvin Russell: If you’re servicing your community in a holistic manner, I’m talking about public safety, from a public safety standpoint. As a police officer if I’m serving them holistically. I’m looking beyond why do you keep breaking into these cars? There’s a drug habit, because you don’t have a job, whatever it is. I begin to maybe bring resources to you so you can then take that off the table, then yes. Number one, what you’re doing is you’re giving your community increased stability, you’re moving the criminal element from the community. You’re doing a lot of things rather than just putting handcuffs on somebody.
Jaisal Noor: What can be done on a political level, let’s just say in Baltimore to make that happen, to get those resources to East and West Baltimore?
Melvin Russell: Listen, political level that’s beyond my pay grade so I won’t talk about political level, I’ll stay in my swim lane.
Speaker 3: I think it’s really important for the police to recognize that and I think they can be allies in the fights that we need to fight to make sure that things actually change. For example, there’s a lot of people who talk about police action, like social workers, because there are other services that people aren’t able to access like mental health services, drug treatment. Well then, we need to actually be working with police as allies to say, “Okay, if you can’t change this as police chief then work with us as we’re advocating to the people that can change this.”
Speaker 5: We have to first acknowledge the history of policing and not only Baltimore City but our country. There are multiple root issues caused by this history of oppression and slavery and all of those aspects that cause a certain dynamic. In the years policing has kind of evolved into what we see today. That comes from the need to kind of control a population.
Jaisal Noor: You also were one of the lone voices raising the issue of the drug war, kind of the elephant in the room here. Talk a little bit about why you think that’s so fundamental in having community control and improving, again, improving that relationship between community and police.
Neil Franklin: Yeah, well I think most people know that the drug war never could be won. If you really want to reduce crime, disease, death, and addiction it’s not through our criminal justice system, it has to be a health centered program.
Jaisal Noor: For much more on this topic including a recent episode of The Real Baltimore that discusses why many are saying only empowered communities can address violence go to therealnews.com. With Cameron Granadino this is [inaudible 00:07:51].