Jelani Cobb of the "The New Yorker" on a patrol with members of the Newark, N.J. police force.

Policing In America: 10 Questions With Jelani Cobb

June 28, 2016
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Jelani Cobb’s memory of his first experience with the police is an all too familiar one for many black men in America. As he tells it in the FRONTLINE documentary Policing the Police:

I was thrown up against a mailbox … I was coming home from a baseball game, had my uniform on, was carrying a bat and a glove. The guy said it was a crime that was committed, and so on, and I was kind of, like, “I’m coming from a game.” The next experience I had was a few years later. I was walking with a group of friends of mine, and a cop pulled a gun on us and told us to get on the sidewalk.

Of course, encounters like this are hardly rare, but over the past few years, viral video of such incidents has brought renewed attention to the issue. That’s helped spark a national conversation around policing and race, and led to federal investigations of law enforcement in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

It’s against this backdrop that Cobb, a staff writer at The New Yorker and one of the nation’s foremost journalists on race and politics, travelled to Newark, N.J. to see what happens when a police force is ordered by the Justice Department to change its ways. The film that came out of it, Policing the Police, is a firsthand look at the realities of policing in a city plagued by both poverty and violence, and where the relationship between the community and law enforcement has been badly fractured.

We spoke with Cobb about the experience. Here’s what he had to say:

You’ve been doing a lot of reporting on policing post-Ferguson. Was what you found in Newark what you expected?

One of the things that did surprise me was the aggressiveness of the police force. There were instances where people were thrown on the ground, and people’s private areas were being checked, you know, on the street — things that just seemed to be blatant violations of people’s rights. Like if you want to be safe, you have to submit to these kinds of deprivations or these privations of your freedoms. And so the extent of that was a little bit surprising to me.

You’re very open in the film about your own experiences with the police throughout your life. What do you think is different about the moment in time that we’re in where giant numbers of Americans are now mobilizing around this issue?

I think that there’s an actual momentum for change and for reform. The fact that there are now cameras in so many places and that many of the things that people said were going on have been now documented on film — you know, you can show that a police officer treated you in a particular kind of way.

That, I think, led to a public awakening among people who didn’t think that this was maybe accurate, or thought that maybe the story was more complicated. We’ve seen these situations now where they make them very hard to dismiss. So this has led to an increased degree of public concern about it.

And also, because Ferguson was such a high-profile thing, it’s also had a ripple effect in lots of other places.

Speaking of Ferguson, when you go down the list — Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, it goes on and on. When you look at cases like this, are they more the result of how policing works in America, or does it have more to do with our ongoing struggles around race in this country?

I think that it’s both. One of the things that we don’t talk about is that there are a substantial number of white people who are shot by police each year. It’s far more disproportionate among African-Americans, but even if we were just counting the number of whites who are shot by police in the United States, you would see that it’s still staggering in comparison to other Western democracies.

So on some level there’s a racial element to it, but on an another level, there’s a bigger culture around how we police, which is also kind of related to how many guns there are in the public, and so on. It’s a thing that you can go down the rabbit hole with and find it touching on lots of other issues. But to think of this as solely a matter of race as opposed to one that is most visible as it’s involved people of color would be wrong.

In communities like Newark where we see distrust between the police and the local community, what’s the disconnect? What are officers failing to understand about the communities they’re there to serve, and what don’t those communities get about their police forces?

So one thing that’s interesting is this: After Los Angeles, if you read the reports that came out of the Los Angeles riots, in 1992, they basically concluded that there was excessive force used by LAPD officers, but that it was confined to a small number of people and a small number of problem officers — people referred to them as “million-dollar officers,” because you wind up with some of these legal settlements relating to one person that wind up costing the city a million dollars just dealing with that individual. That was an idea that some people agreed with, some people didn’t. But the bigger problem was that if you had this small number of bad cops, they were abetted and protected by a climate which enabled them to continue to behave that way for long periods of time.

Similarly when we go into communities, even the poorest, most crime-ridden communities, the majority of people in those communities are not criminal. There’s a small number of people who are violent — violent criminals who account for a disproportionate amount of the violence in those communities.

And so we’re looking at this as a situation of dueling one percents — one percent of this community is really problematic, and one percent of the police force that’s charged with policing it is really problematic. The contextual environment in which that one percent exists are the real areas that you have to address and change.

There’s a poignant moment in the film where you’re standing with a group of officers and you ask them whether there is a way to police a community in a way that still respects people’s rights. How would you answer that question?

When I thought about that, it was interesting that it changed, because I had kind of miscalculated. I expected the officers to say, “Well no, if you’re going to keep a community safe, you’re going to have to bend the rules some.” Or maybe that’s what they really think, but they won’t say it.

Then afterwards when the police did believe that it’s possible to protect the community while protecting people’s rights, it occurred to me that their conception of people’s rights is so narrow — that they believe that unless they have dragged you down the street pummeling you in public and left you paralyzed, they probably haven’t violated your rights.

In that same conversation, the person said that they can point a gun at an unarmed civilian, and after they’ve made sure that the person doesn’t have a weapon themselves, they can have a normal interaction. And I think I was like, can you have a normal interaction where someone just pulled a gun on you? And so that idea of what people’s actual rights are is already so constricted that I think that we were talking past each other in some kind of way.

What do you think the perception is among officers of what a normal individual’s rights are?

I think there’s a kind of general understanding, you know, someone has the right to remain silent, a person has the right to have a lawyer, those kinds of things. But on the use of force and the basis upon which someone makes a stop and things like that that are discretionary, those are understood in the most narrowly constructed ways possible. I’m not sure people who, outside of the police force, think of these things in the same way they do.

I think the same thing for the use of force. One of the things I saw with the police was a kind of after-the-fact justification reflex that was very well-tuned. So if someone was walking and the police jumped out on them, which is how the gang unit operated, and they moved back or ran away, they got tackled.

In one instance, I said to the officers, I said: “Look, these are all unmarked cars and we’re in a city with a problem of crime. If all these cars pulled up on me late at night, I’d run too.” But I don’t think that the idea of being able put yourself in the other person’s shoes, I don’t think that really worked that well with them, because there was a presumption that unless you’re guilty, you’re not going to run or resist in any kind of way. And that did not square with what I think how many reasonable people would react to the situation.

And that certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue or mindset that’s isolated to Newark, right?

Yeah I think so. I want to say that there are officers who I interacted with who are very much committed to their community, and were trying to do the best they could to make the community safer, and really did seem to have a sense of the people in those communities as actual human beings.

But one of the things that I saw that was also disturbing was the certainty that they had about their hunches. If they stopped someone and didn’t find a gun, or they didn’t find drugs, their conclusion was, rather than conclude it was a bad stop [on their part], their conclusion would be they must have ditched it before we pulled up, or they saw us and threw it in the bushes, or we didn’t find it on them, as opposed to maybe we were actually wrong. And I think that kind of certainty becomes corrosive for any institution — in which presumptions are either right or foiled, and leads to problems down the line.

You’ve known Newark Mayor Ras Baraka since college. Knowing what you know about him and having seen what you saw in Newark, how would you gauge the chances for improvement? What does a department need to do to get this issue right?

I think that they are trying to figure that out. For one, there has been such a long period of time in which the police were thought of as adversaries, and in many of these instances, with good reason. But the mayor has this idea, which he has some support in, in saying that the frustration that people have is not because they are anti-police or anti-policing. The frustration he hears from most of his constituents is that they live in communities that have to rely heavily upon police, and they want better policing, not less.

And so I thought if that was actually the case, maybe there was an opportunity there, maybe there’s a possibility that there’s an environment that’s receptive to creating a different kind of standard for policing there. I don’t have any illusions that that’s going to be easy, and I don’t have any illusions that that’s going to be quick, but I have some vague idea that it could actually be possible.

What makes you feel that way?

Because I think that the kind of gulf between the police and the community is probably not as wide as many people presume it to be. It’s not that people hate the police. It’s more like people are frustrated with particular protocols of policing.

Within the department, it wasn’t a complete lost cause. There were people we talked to who seemed to get it — that the approaches that they were taking to policing weren’t right. These were officers who were black and white, different backgrounds who understood it. They just exist in a context in which there are a lot of other officers who don’t think there is a problem at all. And I think that’s the sticking point, but I guess if you were saying what makes me optimistic, I’d say there are people on both sides of this who seem to be able to see clearly the need and maybe some possible routes to doing a different type of policing in Newark.

Beyond Newark, given the state of race relations in the U.S., how hopeful are you about the chances that we can address the problem of discriminatory policing more generally?

I am a congenital optimist — even though it’s kind of a realistic optimism. I think that these things can change. I think that this is going to take a long time, and just like any other kind of meaningful institutional change that we’ve seen in this country. Like at one point it was nothing for someone to get drunk and get behind the wheel of the car, but those things have just plummeted. We think of these things much differently. We think about violence towards women much differently than we used to. And none of those things were easy to change, but I think that our relationship with police could possibly change. It’s a matter of diligence and consistency and people who are committed to making it happen over the very long haul.

Interestingly we had this conversation with the mayor, with Ras, about this, because we were kind of stacking up the obstacles to change and reasons why it wouldn’t change. And he said if you really truly believe that, then why would you even bother getting out of bed in the morning. And so I think that it’s the optimism of necessity in a lot of ways — like this is what we have to do and what we have to believe. Like the thing James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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