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How do we change broken police relations in America?

Gwen Ifill talks to Laurie Robinson of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, and Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University about the forces driving Baltimore’s upheaval and what’s needed to improve relations between community and police.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We return to the upheaval in Baltimore and the forces driving it with Ta-Nehisi Coates national correspondent for The Atlantic, Lester Spence, professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Laurie Robinson, the co-chair of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing and professor of criminology at George Mason University.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates, you wrote this interesting piece for The Atlantic in which you talked about growing up in Baltimore, the fact that your mother was raised in the public housing projects where Freddie Gray was actually killed.

    And I wonder whether you think that things have changed now in the time since you were growing up, your attitude towards the police then and now.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic:

    I’m not sure what the attitude towards the police has changed much.

    The general situation in terms of African-Americans has certainly changed around the edges. Certainly, the achievement possibilities for individual African-Americans are, you know, much greater than they were during my mother’s time, as evidenced by the president of the United States.

    But this feeling African-Americans have, this skepticism towards the police and the skepticism that the police show towards African-Americans is actually quite old. And it may be one of the most durable aspects of the relationship between black people and their country really in our history.

    It goes back to slavery, has endured through slavery, and here we are today, in 2015, pretty much dealing with the same thing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Lester Spence, what is the appropriate response? First of all, do you agree with Ta-Nehisi on this, and what is the appropriate response to this?

  • LESTER SPENCE, Johns Hopkins University:

    Yes, I agree.

    So, here’s one way to think about it. I don’t think I would be a professor at Johns Hopkins University where Ta-Nehisi’s mom was living in the public housing projects. But yet, at the same time, you’re talking about a dynamic where Freddie Gray wasn’t the first person to have his spine basically broken by police.

    You have had approximately 110 Baltimoreans killed in police custody, I think the vast majority of them being African-American. There has been a sense among black Baltimoreans in general that the police are basically illegitimate, and they have reason to think that way.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But what should the response be? We have seen silent, peaceful protests. We have seen violent protests.

  • LESTER SPENCE:

    Oh, yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What should it be?

  • LESTER SPENCE:

    Yes.

    Well, it’s important to know that people have been organizing to make police be more humane in Baltimore for — since I have been here, so approximately 10 years. And there have been a lot of push to make police in Baltimore and in the state in general, in the state of Maryland, be responsive and be more accountable to their citizens.

    So I’m hoping that, given that what’s happened, there will be a lot more support for that type of legislation. But as far as the economic violence, and that’s an important piece to consider, there’s also been people organizing about that issue. So, hopefully, we will get more traction for people who are working on that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Laurie Robinson, you recently gave the president a report on these issues post-Ferguson, post-everything else, and in which you gave him almost 60 recommendations about what — how the nation, nationally, should be responding to things like this.

    Loretta Lynch, the new attorney general, said today, you know, Baltimore is not just a symbol. It’s all — it’s just a city. It’s more than that.

    First of all, is that the approach? Is that the proper reaction, to look at this as a national issue, or is this Baltimore-specific?

  • LAURIE ROBINSON, President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing:

    No, our report has a set of 59 recommendations.

    And we believe that there are a number of things that individual police departments should be doing, for example, adopting a culture of fair, impartial, and respectful policing, adopting what we call a mind-set of a guardian mind-set, not a warrior mind-set, where you’re going in and effectively appearing to occupy communities.

    We also think there should be a culture of transparency, so that the policies of the department are very clear and that departments are working with communities to co-produce public safety, that they’re really collaborating with the communities that they’re working for.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    These all seem to be commonsense recommendations.

  • LAURIE ROBINSON:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But they also don’t seem to be happening everywhere.

  • LAURIE ROBINSON:

    They are happening in some communities, but not in very many communities.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Ta-Nehisi Coates, you wrote that calls for nonviolence are the right answer to the wrong question.

    Tell me what you meant by that.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Well, I think, like, the way we often approach this is like, what would we like to see? And we all would like to see a protest that is nonviolent. I think everybody can agree with that.

    I think everybody can say that when they see a CVS burning down or any sort of violent response, none of us are joyous about that. But the response of people on the street is not an independent variable. It doesn’t exist independently of the actions of other forces.

    The fact of the matter is, the violence in Baltimore didn’t begin with the protesters on Tuesday. The actions, as Lester just outlined, in terms of people trying to get some attention, pay attention to the actions of the police in Baltimore, didn’t begin with the protest. The violence started with the actual police.

    Freddie Gray wasn’t the first person. It’s just that the cameras suddenly arrived when the CVS starts burning down. And that’s where we begin the narrative. And what I’m trying to say is that, you know, we have to adopt a longer view of history. We have to get beyond just these sort of blanket condemnations of people in the street and say, well, why is this happening?

    How can it be that we’re almost two weeks after Freddie Gray was taken into custody, and we still don’t know how he died? How can that be? That is just unconscionable.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let me ask you about that, Lester Spence, because you just heard Laurie Robinson talk about the way it ought to be. You heard Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about the way it is. Where is the action, and where is the reaction? Where is the appropriate place?

  • LESTER SPENCE:

    So, there are people organizing right now to get the Maryland State Assembly to pass legislation to kind of roll back some of the — like, the police officers have kind of like a bill of rights.

    We’re working on peeling that back, and I think that’s a great place to start. It didn’t have a lot of movement in the Maryland State Assembly this past session, but we think that this is the perfect moment to generate support for it the next session.

    And, again, this is not just about police violence. This is about economic violence, right? So that census tract that Freddie Gray lived in spent $47 million incarcerating its residents. That money is basically — that money could have been spent in so many different ways and generate a condition in which his census tract is basically like a police state. I mean, nobody should want that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Laurie Robinson, is it policy that’s lacking here, or is it policing that’s lacking? Which is — or are they related?

  • LAURIE ROBINSON:

    One of our overarching recommendations in the report, Gwen, was that the administration needs to look beyond policing, certainly needs to look at policing, but also needs to look at economic policy, at health and education, and very pointedly at poverty.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But you heard the president say yesterday, I’m proposing these things, and I don’t — he didn’t sound very optimistic that any of it is happening.

  • LAURIE ROBINSON:

    Well, what we said is that the criminal justice system alone, policing alone, changes in policing, cannot solve these problems.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What do you think, Ta-Nehisi Coates? Where is — what is at the root of this? It’s one thing for to us say we have identified the problems. It’s another to say that we have identified the solutions.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Well, I think there are two factors.

    I think the sad fact is, there’s a long history in this country at looking at African-American as subhuman. And I think that’s reflected in the fact that, when we have problems that really are problems of employment, that are really problems of mental health, that are really problems of drugs, our answer is the police. Our answer is the criminal justice system, where, if it were another community, that might not be the answer that we would give.

    And so I think it is true, in fact, that those two things are related. It’s not just a matter of, you know, criminal justice solutions. But the very reason why we default to criminal justice systems have to do with who we are and how we view African-Americans. It’s a very, very sad truth.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Lester Spence, one of the things that people have been arguing this week is that this is less of a race issue and more of a class issue. What do you think?

  • LESTER SPENCE:

    Well, it’s interacting. Right?

    So, for example, me, as a professor in Baltimore, 46 years old, I don’t have problems with the police, right? And that’s in part because of my class background. But the reality is, is that if you take the poor black neighborhoods that Freddie Gray lived in and a lot of African-Americans live in, and you compare them to the poor white neighborhoods in places like Dundalk and Essex here in Baltimore, the black people in those neighborhoods likely experience harsher policing, they’re likely poorer, and they’re likely sicker.

    So, class is operating, but it’s hard to imagine a black kid — a white kid having his spine broken and it be like a week or two later and we still don’t really know what happened.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University, Laurie Robinson, the co-chair of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and Ta-Nehisi Coates of “The Atlantic,” thank you all so much.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES:

    Thank you.

  • LAURIE ROBINSON:

    Thank you.

  • LESTER SPENCE:

    Thank you.

     

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