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Top Cops’ Rhetorical Efforts on Policing & Race Fall Short

Two big speeches on race from two top cops in the course of a single month is a lot. But then, it’s Black History Month. And it may also be time, from the viewpoint of the powerful, to put certain unfortunate events (Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, etc.) into “proper perspective.”

The top cops I refer to are FBI Director James Comey, who spoke at length at Georgetown University on February 12, and NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton, who spoke on February 24 to a largely Black audience at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral in Queens.

The speeches differ slightly. Commissioner Bratton’s was more direct on the interwoven history of policing and racial oppression in U.S. history. Bratton cited chattel slavery as America’s “original sin” and noted correctly that the entire system of slavery rested upon the foundation of a form of policing known as slave-catching. The farthest that Director Comey would go down memory lane was to say that “at many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo: a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

Too Defensive, Sometimes Evasive

Both speeches were ultimately defensive and thus reflected an ongoing problem with apologias from powerful white men who want us to think they get it when they don’t.

Bratton, for example, set his remark about racial oppression resting on policing against a stronger comment to the effect that our treasured American freedoms also rest on the foundation of public safety provided by the police. Without referring directly to his Broken Windows/zero tolerance approach to policing, Bratton claimed that 20 years ago “we (meaning he) started a new chapter” in crime reduction, “taking back our city block by block.” Bratton asserted, as he has in other speeches, that people of color in the poorest neighborhoods need police services more than anyone else, lamenting how (and almost pleading to know why) public approval of the police is consistently lowest in neighborhoods that are plagued by violent crime. And Bratton definitely soft-pedaled the problematic police behavior that often causes community residents to form negative views of the cops who roll up on them: “We are often abrupt, sometimes rude.”

FBI Director Comey, who hails from a family of police officers, tried to strike a more philosophical tone than Bratton, remarking that racial bias represents “that very human part of us all” and later reiterated the view that we are dealing with “biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition.”

Comey argued that focusing so much attention on police misconduct “has become an excuse, at times, to avoid doing something harder.” He then identified the harder thing as facing up to social and cultural dysfunction in urban areas where young black males are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be neither working nor enrolled in school. Citing these supposedly determinative factors, the Director concluded that “law enforcement is not the cause of problems in our hardest-hit neighborhoods.” Comey also noted, without irony, that the extra scrutiny the police give to young black males represents a mental shortcut “that becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights” on account of the fact that black men are arrested at much higher rates than white men.

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Comey ended his Georgetown speech by lamenting that there is no good data on nationwide police-use-of-force incidents against people of color because that data is not centrally collected. It was almost as though he were saying that we do not have enough information to know how seriously to take the problem of anti-black bias among the police, in which case one might well ask why the Director felt impelled to give a major speech on this very topic.

When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

What the speeches most represented was the standard white perspective that we have problems due to the “legacy” of slavery rather than due to what anti-racism activist Frank Joyce more accurately describes as a “living, breathing organism of the present.” 

What interests me about the two speeches is how seriously they were taken and how prominently they were reported by mainstream media, as though they represented a real breakthrough. I do realize that everything is relative, but to me what the speeches most represented was the standard white perspective that we have problems due to the “legacy” of slavery rather than due to what anti-racism activist Frank Joyce more accurately describes as a “living, breathing organism of the present.” Joyce notes that whites find it easier to speak about “racial tensions” and a deplorable “racial divide” but are much less likely to acknowledge active and toxic racism. Comey took a slightly different evasive tack by referring twice to “inescapable” racial biases that are hardwired into the human psyche—biases that are not unique to white people, obviously. This “all have sinned” kind of framing conveniently ignores the unique and highly specific 500-year history that forged an all-enveloping system white domination.

The second noteworthy dimension of the speeches, in my view, is that both boiled down to a plea to value and appreciate the good work that the police are doing under difficult circumstances. In this way “candid talk about race” ends up as an implied demand for respect for the badge.

And the third thing that strikes me about the speeches is how much easier talking about race is than actually facing facts and changing behavior. In Bratton’s case, we do know certain facts. Between 2001 and 2013, fully 81% of the seven million summonses written by NYPD officers for petty quality-of-life infractions were handed out to people of color. At the end of January, less than a month before his big speech in Queens, Bratton was calling for the creation of a special squad of machine-gun-wielding NYPD officers that would help the department deal with overheated public protests (he referred specifically to the Eric Garner protests) along with possible new terrorist threats. Early in February, Bratton called upon the legislature to make resisting arrest a felony offense in New York State, even though Bratton and every other cop in America knows that “resisting arrest” is a cop’s favorite charge when he or she’s got nothing else to charge—and that it’s a charge often made after the alleged “resister” has been thoroughly roughed up by the self-same arresting officer.

In sum, I appreciate the effort that these ultra-high-ranking law enforcement officials made to put race at the center of the conversation. That’s rare, and it’s important. But they need to try a little harder to hear and honor the voices of people who experience abusive policing as part of an overall pattern of racial subjugation: people who, in fact, experience the heavy hand of law enforcement as the bluntest instrument of that subjugation.

I am quite willing to treat this month’s speeches as baby steps in the right direction. But I would also ask us to recall that while we applaud a child’s wobbly baby steps, we also expect the child to get up and walk properly at some point—and then to put away childish things.

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Rev. Peter Laarman
Justice Not Jails