Two former NYPD officers sat down with Hari Sreenivasan on PBS Newshour to discuss police departments and race relations. Mike Byrd and Russell Williams talked about how they felt about general attitudes towards police and police brutality since Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s deaths, as well as what might have gone wrong in New York City, and the feeling that police in general (and the NYPD in specific) are inherently racist.
These two former officers don’t share the hardline attitude of many police officers out there right now, that being angry about police brutality and policies like stop-and-frisk equates to an anti-police attitude. Russell Williams said, specifically:
“But I think, you know, you can be against policies without being anti-police. You can be against overuse of stop, question and frisk. And, of course, you can be against brutality. Who wants to be in favor brutality?
So, I understand their frustration that they feel. Like, they feel like they’re being targeted unfairly.”
In New York City, they blame Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg for a lot of the problems. Giuliani wanted to move away from community policing to “clean up the streets.” Williams and Byrd said community policing allowed officers to speak to members of a community one-on-one — not as suspects or witnesses to a crime, but as fellow members of the community. That built trust, which has since been torn down.
Byrd blames Bloomberg for deteriorating race relations with the NYPD because he stepped up stop-and-frisk, which unfairly targeted blacks and Latinos, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. And Williams states later in the interview that policing does, in fact, focus on minority communities. Though they explain part of why that happens (such as blacks tend to smoke pot in public where whites tend to smoke it in private), that, too, tears down trust.
Their biggest piece of advice for rebuilding that shattered trust is to get back to community policing. They believe that officers should not always just drive around in their cars, looking for something or waiting for something to happen. They should walk their beats, get to know the residents in the communities they’re policing as best they can, so they can start to rebuild that trust.
They have a point; even in small suburban towns, many of us don’t know our police officers at all. That makes it hard to trust them, because when they do appear, you immediately wonder what you did wrong to make them appear. We shouldn’t have to fear the police. We should feel safe with the police.
Unfortunately, getting back to community policing might be hard, at least in the beginning. Too many people, especially in minority communities, might believe that the police are there to spy, instead of there to get to know the residents and build trust. Obviously, that’s a major hurdle to overcome if police departments were to do this.
There are other problems to address, too; this won’t solve many of the problems in today’s departments. But it’s a start, at least as far as race relations go.