A few weeks ago, right after the shooting of Philando Castile and the Dallas police officers, I went to a small event in north Minneapolis to remember Birdell Beeks, a beloved community member whose killer has still not been found. Over the years such vigils have been a rare place for community and police to share the common goal of protecting the peace.
My experience, both as a mayor and a crime reporter, has taught me that as violence has risen in north Minneapolis, the only way to restore the peace is when the police are in a close partnership with the people they are expected to protect and serve. But at last month’s gathering, as barbecue smoke rose over the crowd, it wasn’t lost on anyone that finding common ground between police and community is becoming harder each day. The shock of one videotaped police shooting after the other — and now the shootings of police themselves — has us at what appears to be almost a point of no return.
I do not believe we are too late. I do, however, believe there must be a change in the way both community and police approach partnership. It must include those of us who do not live in these high-crime neighborhoods, who have too often put police in the position of trying to manage the peace in parts of our cities where we have all failed to solve deeper issues.
Step one has to be a different kind of conversation, where we stop pretending we are navigating between groups that come to the table in the same situation. White people and black people, police and community, come to this conversation in very different circumstances. Those of us who are white have to finally recognize what black people have known for a long, long time: We are often treated very differently by the police.
Measure this disparity any way you wish:
• The overwhelming disproportion of people of color arrested for minor offenses rarely enforced on white residents.
• The shockingly high number of young African-American men with criminal records that limit their options before they start their careers.
• The undeniable, overwhelming evidence we now have from one video after the other that police in America are far more likely to shoot a black man than a white man.
We can argue about the circumstances in specific incidents, but the fact that so many black Americans have said this for so long and white America did not fully believe it until given the video proof makes this realization about all of us even more damning.
That doesn’t mean that all police are racists, by any stretch. I have seen scores of inspiring examples of officers building truly authentic relationships across race and culture.
Still, the facts remain. Acknowledging that black lives matter doesn’t say white ones don’t; saying it means we understand that for our country’s history, and today, there are still far too many examples when it seems that black lives don’t.
We also have to get honest about the sometimes untenable position we have put police in and what it does to a person to be immersed in crime every day.
Let me take you back to a hot August night in 2002, when then-Police Chief Robert Olson and I walked down the grand staircase in Minneapolis City Hall to announce that Officer Melissa Schmidt was dead. Lights were off in the cavernous atrium, but we could see shadows silently moving. As we got closer to the ground floor, it became clear the shadows were police officers, some in uniform, some not, who had come in the middle of the night from around the city. Speaking in whispers, they showed none of the swagger you often see when big groups of police came together. There was only the fear in their eyes as they felt the loss, and the reality of the danger of their job.
Over the following few days, as police from around the country came to honor Schmidt, I saw the rare, chilling sight of people who perform hazardous work every day dropping their masks of invincibility.
Those vulnerable expressions have come back to me as we’ve watched the horrible scenes from recent police shootings. They give us insight into the complex police culture now rightfully under the microscope as we watch in horror as one black man after the other is shot by officers.
I learned in those days after the loss of Melissa Schmidt that an officer’s shooting has extraordinary significance within law enforcement. Departments around the country send representatives; there are rituals during and after the service, and the family members of the lost officer are assured their loved one is now part of a small, revered group who gave up their lives in the call of duty.
Watching it, the only word I could think of was “fraternity,” a protective brotherhood and sisterhood that stands with you no matter what, or who, threatens.
I saw in that moment that when someone dies who does what you do, on what was an otherwise normal day at work, a protective fraternity is what’s needed. Who but another officer could really understand what it’s like to willingly go in harm’s way every day, putting your life on the line so the rest of society has the privilege to move freely about without thinking about safety? Who but another officer’s family could really understand what it’s like to send someone you love off to work every day knowing he or she might not come back?
Fraternity matters. It creates walls to protect. But it also builds walls that separate. On the inside are those like you; on the outside are those who aren’t. The longer those walls stand, the more complete the separation, and the harder it gets to break through.
I also saw the underside of this fraternity. Officers worn down by years of seeing tough crimes night after night, or who live far from the neighborhoods they serve, who may have no other experience with the cultures and races there, retreat into the fraternity and reinforce an us-vs.-them police culture.
You see it in small ways. The officer who never leaves his car and sees neighborhoods only through a windshield, the group of officers on patrol talking only among themselves while crowds circle around them.
You also see fraternity in larger ways that have far more consequence, as we have seen acted out in one hideous video after the other.
Not every officer I met is walled off from the community. Far from it. I only wish I’d had a video with me while witnessing hundreds of examples of police building bridges. The challenge is that too often the bridge-building happens in isolation. An internal police department culture does not reinforce that each action of community policing needs to be met with scores more until we break through the walls of fraternity, within both police departments and suspicious communities.
It hasn’t helped that many police departments have chosen their most extreme voices to lead their unions. That is absolutely the case in Minneapolis, where a force I know to include many moderate, community-oriented officers inexplicably elected the most bombastic federation president, who only throws gasoline on the fire. Imagine how much more progress could be made if the community could hear rational explications of the complex choices facing police from a spokesperson who could come on the news and explain why a tough call needed to be made, who could go into schools and the community and represent the very best?
Building relationships beyond the fraternity has also been a special challenge in these years after 9/11, a seminal event that had profound impacts on policing we are only beginning to understand. That tragedy in New York put a terrifyingly large new responsibility onto local police departments. Almost immediately came military weapons, turtle suits, surveillance gear and other weapons of war — paid for, in part, by slashing any federal help local police were getting to fund community policing and efforts like Clinton Cops that put more police on the street for proactive policing.
Meanwhile, cash-starved state and local governments cut officers, especially those in community-outreach efforts. I saw this firsthand when a smaller city budget, massive state cuts and cuts in federal aid all meant we had significantly less for community-outreach efforts while there was a seemingly unending ability to buy military-style equipment.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can look at each of those decisions and see that, largely unintentionally, we spent a decade reshaping and militarizing local police departments. Is it any surprise we see some of the gaps we see today?
We have come to a desperate place. An African-American woman holds her baby boy and wonders what extraordinary steps she must take to simply have him live to be an adult. The child of a police officer says goodbye to Dad as he heads out on a night shift, neither of them sure he will come back. This simply cannot go on. No just or safe community can survive the gaps that divide us.
We are desperate, but not hopeless. There may not be a single action we can take to bridge these divides, but we can start with what we know works: Re-funding community-policing efforts and dramatically rethinking training programs to de-emphasize military precision while experienced community officers teach recruits how to start their career-building partnerships in neighborhoods. Honestly addressing race, including testing for racial bias, training in cultural understanding and training in cross-racial recognition so a single African-American suspect doesn’t make every African-American a suspect. De-escalation training for both racial incidents and mental illness. Upstream community/police partnerships like the Youth Violence Prevention initiative that led to dramatically lower crime rates here in Minneapolis.
There is so much more that can be done, and such a desperate need to start right now. At the core of the work is a simple premise: We need a new fraternity that encircles both those who protect and those who are served, so that all know that the officer in the car next to them, and every community member they meet, are in this tough fight together.
R.T. Rybak is CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation and author of “Pothole Confidential: My life as Mayor of Minneapolis.”