TOPICS > Nation > Race Matters: Solutions

How can America narrow divisions between police and community?

September 17, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
High-profile incidents of police force against people of color have raised anger and protest across the country, but in some cases, law enforcement has maintained that officers were simply doing their job. How can the public and the police bridge the gap in understanding? Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault speaks to Brian Jackson of the RAND Corporation.

GWEN IFILL: Now: how body cameras on police and cell phones everywhere are changing our views on justice.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the latest installment in our series Race Matters.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: From the Michael Brown fatal shooting by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, last year to New York City last week, when a plainclothes police officer roughly threw former tennis pro James Blake to the ground, police have been under fire for attacks on black people.

But, in many instances, police representatives have pushed back, insisting their offices were merely doing their jobs. How to narrow such profound fractures between the public and the police is the subject of extensive research by Brian Jackson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank working on improving policy and decision-making.

Brian Jackson, thank you for joining us.

Your study focused on what you describe as profound fractures between the public and the police, and you say it’s been a long trend. Can you expand on that just a little bit?

BRIAN JACKSON, RAND Corporation: Well, of course, policing in the United States isn’t something that started a week ago. It’s something that started at — near the beginning of our country.

And the relationships that police have with their communities goes back to events that happened during the era of segregation, during war protests, when police didn’t always take actions that today, you know, we see as appropriate.

And so for individuals who have an interaction with a police officer today, they’re often seeing that interaction as part of a pattern that went back a long time. And this is part of why it’s very challenging to build and maintain trusted relationships between police officers and different communities, because the police have to sort of take on and understand this history that goes back probably well before any of the officers who were on the force now were police officers.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, it’s going on in the heads of black people or people who are victims, but not in the heads of policemen?

BRIAN JACKSON: Well, yes, indeed.

And it’s not just a minority community thing — issue. I mean, you have people who were members of protest communities during the ’60s and ’70s, who have very different views of police.

Really, this is a question of the many communities that exist in the United States and the fact that all of them need good relationships with the police departments that protect them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But I think you see statistics showing that blacks are three times as likely as whites to be killed by the police. That widens the fractures, doesn’t it?

BRIAN JACKSON: Absolutely. When you have a sort of preexisting breakdown in trust, these very serious incidents — and a police use of force is always a serious incident when it results in loss of life of a citizen. That’s always something that is a challenge in a democracy.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So how do you see race fitting into this?

BRIAN JACKSON: Our country has a very complex history around race, to make a very sort of obvious and understated point.

And so race is something that is behind all of this. And it’s not that individuals are necessarily racist. There are folks who study unconscious stereotypes and how race can affect the way that people make judgments about another person.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Unconscious stereotypes?


I mean, someone may view someone else as a threat because of stereotypes that exist around race, where they may not even realize that that is what is driving their decision. And so there are folks who are looking at, OK, how do you train people to recognize this, to understand that there are stereotypes, to let people step back from themselves as they’re making these incredibly important decisions, sometimes in a very short time, and work through those issues to make sure that they’re making the right decision for the right reasons, not because of a stereotype that they have learned overtime?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So are you saying that this can be fixed?

BRIAN JACKSON: I’m an optimist by nature, so, yes, I am saying it can be fixed, although this is a training issue.

It’s about sort of teaching people about other cultures. It’s — this is embedded in sort of the notions that are behind community policing, of police departments, building connections with the community, so they have a way of understanding where people are coming from, understanding what their needs are, the problems that police should be involved in solving.

And part of that is about building these person-to-person relationships that mean people are making judgments less on mental shorthand, and more about, you know, who is this person who is in front of me and understanding what is going on.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In your report, you talk about narrowing these gaps and divisions being a two-way street, that the police have responsibilities and the community has responsibilities. How do you work that out?

BRIAN JACKSON: When you look at the rhetoric around sort of challenges about police oversight, police are concerned that members of the public who don’t know what high-pressure interactions where the police officers are at risk work, and are concerned that they’re not going to make fair judgments about — you know, about the police officer’s decision-making after the fact.

Members of the public are obviously concerned about that decision-making, because it’s in that decision-making where we get uses of force, where we get decisions about who gets searched and who doesn’t, who gets stopped and who doesn’t.

And so there is an element in this where, you know, increasing transparency in those interactions to give the public more data, more information — I’m a researcher, so I go back the data and information as a solution.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, it sounds like that may be what is happening in the Ferguson case, where we have just had a report by a commission that looked into those incidents there.

And they said that people need to engage with the report, discuss, debate and argue about it, even though it is likely to be difficult and take a long time. Is that what we’re looking at?

BRIAN JACKSON: They are going in the right direction. These are not easy questions. I mean, we expect the police to use force in situations to save lives.

And we expect — but we expect them to do it appropriately. Where is the line? Well, that’s a tough — that’s a tough line to draw, and it varies place to place. In a democracy, that’s done by sort of people coming together and having those debates, having those discussions.

You know, broken windows policing, or order maintenance policing, as it’s called, was a philosophy of trying to control crime. But that approach has a lot of impacts on the communities that are affected by it. So, part of what needs to happen there around a policing tactic is for people to come together and say, well, do the benefits that we think we’re getting from reducing crime worth the side effects that this has on everybody in the community where it’s done?

Is there a right and a wrong answer there? No, but the answer for me there is going for more transparency, so these bad incidents that happen — and there are terrible incidents that happen, where we get the one cell phone video. They travel the Internet. They have a very large effect.

On that same day, a lot of interactions between the police and the public happened that were very positive. Sometimes, those go viral. For example, there was the case of the African-American police officer who was helping a white supremacist at a Confederate Flag rally who was being overcome by the heat. And a picture of this officer leading this gentleman away so he could sort of get water, again, went viral.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there anything in this whole equation that gives you optimism that this fracture can be narrowed and maybe even resolved?

BRIAN JACKSON: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, we’re seeing sort of explorations with use of technology like body cameras, although they’re not the answer to everything. We’re seeing, you know, police departments proactively sort of reach out to communities. We’re seeing the public debate.

And the public debate is part of this, about, you know, what the country wants from its police forces, what the right balance to strike in a democracy about the power given to police vs. citizen oversight. What the society wanted from police 30 years ago is not the same as what society wants from police now.

And I don’t know what the changes will be, but I’m quite sure that, in 30 years, there will be changes. And so what I’m optimistic about is that we have a process going now where people are focusing now on this issue and where we will sort of work through the problem set as a country to come up with better solutions over time.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Brian Jackson, thank you.

BRIAN JACKSON: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: On Monday, we will expand on that conversation in a PBS prime-time special, “America After Charleston.”

Join me as we explore the many issues propelled into public discourse after a white gunman shot and killed nine African-American worshipers in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church last June.