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What’s the state of relations between the police and communities of color?

In the wake of police-involved shootings in Ferguson and Cleveland, the death of Eric Garner in New York, and the subsequent protests that followed those events, NewsHour Weekend examines the state of relations between the police and communities of color in 2015. President of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP L. Joy Williams and retired New York City police lieutenant Julian Harper join Hari Sreenivasan in New York.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As we already reported, thousands of police officers turned out today for the funeral of slain New York City policeman Wenjian Liu. The murder of officer Liu and officer Rafael Ramos came after weeks of nationwide protests against police.

    Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said those demonstrators created an anti-police environment.

    RUDY GIULIANI (R), Former Mayor of New York: I don't think it goes too far to say that the mayor did not properly police the protests. He allowed the protesters to take over the streets. He allowed them to hurt police officers, to commit crimes, and he didn't arrest them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The psychologically troubled gunman who murdered the two New York City officers had mentioned the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in a social media posting before he ambushed and killed Liu and Ramos.

    Here to take a deeper look at relations between police and minority communities are L. Joy Williams, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP, and Julian Harper. He's a retired New York City police lieutenant and with the organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.

    So, throughout this, we saw demonstrations, not just in New York City, but around the nation. And you saw protesters holding up the sign that said "Black Lives Matter."

    Why do you think that is?

  • L. JOY WILLIAMS, President, NAACP Brooklyn Chapter:

    The "black lives matter" focus and the young people that are doing that are trying to raise attention that this is happening to us more frequently than anyone, any other communities, and then why is it that, in other communities, they can have policing that does not result in the killing of unarmed people?

    Let me say also, in — you know — I know, from general perspective, everyone is making the connection between the protests and the tragic deaths of the police officers, but there is no direct connection, right, that it is not protesters that went out and sort of committed this crime. We already know who committed the crime.

    And we certainly want to mourn all death. And that's certainly what we're doing, both from the officers and from the unarmed men who are being killed by police officers.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, the NYPD will say, listen, we have one of the most diverse police departments in the country in one of the most diverse cities on the planet.

    Is it different for African-American police officers and how they treat young black man, or, regardless of whether you're white, black, brown, you become blue once you put the uniform on?

  • JULIAN HARPER, Former New York City Police Lieutenant:

    Well, I think it depends on the individual, because there are many officers that are of color that still have that same mind-set of us against them.

    So, when they respond to certain jobs, when they respond in certain communities, they still have this very heavy-handed way of enforcing. So, when you start trying to determine whether it's an officer that is white or an officer that is black or Hispanic, sometimes, that is not the problem.

    The problem is that there's a mind-set, and that's why these problems occur.

  • L. JOY WILLIAMS:

    We know that communities of color are overpoliced. We know that men of color are overarrested, overcharged. We know all of these things to be true.

    And so it's going to take a long road and a lot of policy changes and a lot of mind-set changes. And that's really the hard work, is changing people's mind-set. And I have no doubt that the majority of officers who are going to their job every day are going — they have a commitment to the community, to the city, to their job, and to their uniform, and they want to go and do the best job and make it home safely to their families.

    I have no doubt that that is the truth. However, these small biases, these small prejudices, the things that people believe, actually has an impact on how they serve the community.

    And so what we're saying is that we want the police department to be able to police all communities, including communities of color, with the same level of respect, with the same even hand that they do every — other communities. And that's not anti-police.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what you might call overpolicing, the NYPD would say is effective policing. They will pull out the crime statistics and say, look, we are getting safer and safer as a city, and isn't that actually better for communities of color who might be disproportionately affected by these same crime numbers?

  • L. JOY WILLIAMS:

    Definitely we have seen a decline in murders.

    But to be an effective law enforcement, you have to have the trust and the commitment and cooperation of a community. And so, if you can't do that effectively, if the community does not have trust in you — listen, I have had instances, just in this past year, where I have had a grandmother call a NAACP office with her young grandson that she takes care of at 14 years old, and that a local gang is making him keep guns in her house.

    She does not feel comfortable calling the police department, because she doesn't trust them. And she's also afraid of the gangs that are in the street. What kind of predicament does that put her in to be able to not only save her grandson, but also protect her life?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, this bring up the conversation, right? What was very interesting, the day that the grand jury refused to press charges against the officer who had the chokehold on Eric Garner was a part of the press conference that the mayor had, and where he basically mentioned a conversation that he had at some point with his biracial son.

    BILL DE BLASIO (D), Mayor of New York: We have had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers, who are there to protect him.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When you were a police officer even now, did you have to have that conversation in your family?

  • JULIAN HARPER:

    Yes, absolutely.

    After the Eric Garner incident, my son calls me and he says, "Dad," he says, "I'm afraid." He said, "It's against the law to be a large black man." And my son is a rather large man.

    And, I mean, that really, really bothered me. I mean, I have to be concerned about my son's safety, and I have to be concerned about his perception of him being a large black man. And we have to have these conversations.

    Now I have a younger son who is 13 years old that is a pretty big 13-year-old. And he's a very innocent child. So, he wouldn't even understand an interaction between him and the police. He understands that his father was a policeman. He understands that he's taken photos as a child in his father's uniform and he was proud of that.

    But, unfortunately, the way that police respond and interact with our young black youth is problematic. Our children are afraid. And it's totally against anything relative to policing that our youth should be afraid of law enforcement.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You realize someone is going to watch the program and say, how is it that a police officer has to have a conversation with his son warning that son about interactions with his fellow police officers?

  • JULIAN HARPER:

    Because those police officers, including myself, we see how the interactions go between the community, young black males, and the police department.

    I mean, I remember me recently going to a police officer. I wanted to ask him a question. And this guy gave me a look that was so stern. Like, I mean, he gave me a real strong, hard look. And I had to identify myself. Before anything goes wrong, the first thing I do is, listen, I'm a retired lieutenant from the job. This is what is happening. This is what I wanted to tell you.

    And then he still was a listen distant, but it came down a little bit. He felt a little bit bad, because I had to explain to him, listen, I'm a part of the community. I'm coming to you for help.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, L. Joy, I mean, we have about these conversations that mothers have with their teens, even post-Ferguson, post-Garner.

    What was different about this? Was there an added legitimacy because it was a white mayor standing at a podium saying that he had to have this conversation…

  • L. JOY WILLIAMS:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    … whereas African-American families said, well, that's not news to us?

  • L. JOY WILLIAMS:

    Yes, absolutely, definitely.

    This conversation that we have is not new. But the difference here was, there is a white man who is standing behind all of the power that comes with being mayor and saying that he had this same conversation. And so it somehow legitimizes to certain communities and to certain people that this happens or at least brings it to the forefront that something like this has to be addressed.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, L. Joy Williams and Julian Harper, thanks so much for your time.

  • JULIAN HARPER:

    Thank you.

  • L. JOY WILLIAMS:

    Thank you.

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