When Body Cameras Are Not Enough

(Photo: AP/Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer)

A protesters holds his hands up as he faces Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 25.

When a Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer pumped ten bullets three years ago into Jonathan Ferrell, a black man who had been seeking help after a car accident, the city responded with a push for better training of police in tactics and racial attitudes. On went the body cameras, and in came Kerr Putney, a black police chief unafraid to talk about his profession’s racist history.

Good intentions had turned into action. Would action translate into results?

On September 20 of this year, Charlotte’s police force got its answer when it seemed to land right back where it started. An officer in that same department, already trained in de-escalation tactics, shot yet another black man, Keith Lamont Scott, under disputed circumstances. Now the city has entered a new and even more intense spasm of anger and frustration, with protesters demanding that Putney be fired.

It’s an all-too-familiar pattern in cities around the country, where racially tinged police shootings continue their relentless march toward a national crisis. From Baltimore to Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and Tulsa, police departments led by pro-reform chiefs have embraced new training approaches, only to find themselves just as susceptible to police abuses and racial strife as arguably more blatantly racist and brutal enclaves.

So, what gives? Do we need different fixes, or simply more patience?

Both, says one leading expert. “People on all sides recognize that the mistrust and the anger is not about that individual case,” says Amy Crawford, project director for the U.S. Justice Department’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. “We always knew that even though we’re doing these trainings and they’re very important, it has to be part of a larger and bigger picture. It can’t be, ‘We’re gonna check the box on this thing.’ It’s going to be, ‘How is this all connected?’”

Providing those connections—between the community’s faith in fair policing and the ultimate goal of greater public safety at less human cost—is the National Initiative’s mission as it tests new strategies at half a dozen test sites. Similar efforts include:

  • The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which called for a shift in policing from “warrior” to “guardian” and an investment in nationally consistent training protocols,
  • The Police Executive Research Forum’s guidelines on the use of force, promoting a new mindset to avoid “lawful but awful” shootings by rethinking old methods that value cops’ self-preservation at any cost, and
  • The Center for Policing Equity’s “Contract for Policing Justice,” which advocates training the bias out of cops in a deliberate strategy to improve public safety through better community relations.

In Charlotte, the controversy over the Jonathan Ferrell shooting in 2013 led to new training requirements, including a year-long “cultural competency” course for managers, as well as shorter courses for other officers in de-escalating tense confrontations and recognizing implicit racial or gender bias. The city invested in body cameras and spent months hashing out the training plan. But the Scott shooting almost exactly three years later—as it happens, by a black officer—served as a reminder that major gaps remain in how police respond to such incidents, including the spotty use of body cameras and the training’s slow rollout.

Besides the police department’s internal problems, another notable obstacle to progress is the state’s Republican-led legislature, which last summer passed legislation that keeps most police videos under wraps—a significant factor now in protesters’ rage in the wake of Scott’s shooting. Police have recently released some of the video, but public anger remains high.

This sort of pushback from conservatives is hardly exclusive to North Carolina. Campaigns with such slogans as “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” may resonate with whites immune to the racial profiling that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Likewise the accolades showered on the Baltimore cops who escaped criminal sanction in the Freddie Gray case. Not to mention the enthusiastic responses when Donald Trump issues coded messages about “law and order,” and calls—as he did in the first presidential debate—for widespread use of stop-and-frisk policing. Police executives have flocked to pro-reform groups like Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration and Major Cities Chiefs Association, but at the same time many police unions and rank-and-file officers have voiced reliably reactionary support for tough-on-crime policies.

After shootings like Scott’s in Charlotte, the public discussion typically gravitates to instant replays of the few seconds that immediately precede the pulling of the trigger. While Scott’s family and police tussle over whether he flashed a gun, there’s no dispute that police swooped down aggressively on a man who, at the very least, wasn’t causing serious trouble or presenting an imminent danger. In many more shootings, the contrast between citizen behavior and police reaction is even more self-evident.

That is why real police reforms need to go far beyond questions around the legal justifications for each shooting, and even beyond asking how police might have kept an incident from spinning out of control to the point that it led to a shoot/don’t-shoot moment. To be effective, those reforms need a sturdier foundation: namely, a restored faith in the system’s fundamental fairness.

“Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community,” the Task Force on 21st Century Policing wrote in its final report. “Decades of research and practice support the premise that people are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do. But the public confers legitimacy only on those they believe are acting in procedurally just ways.”

Translation: Unjustified police shootings shatter trust, to the point where people won’t even call the police for help, much less provide evidence to aid in arrests and prosecutions. In short, we can’t have public safety without community trust.

The link between policing reform and preventing violence is another aspect of what Crawford, of the National Initiative, means when she talks about making connections. “This all fits together,” Crawford told the Prospect, speaking by phone during a break in implicit-bias training in Minneapolis, a city that has seen its own violence-pocked protests since this time last year. “The communities that have the lowest levels of [trust in police] legitimacy or the highest legal cynicism are generally those places that need law enforcement the most.”

Crawford has called for “holistic” approaches that combine better training, a public dialog leading to racial reconciliation, and developing violence-prevention approaches that target the small number of truly dangerous people, without indiscriminately branding entire neighborhoods as lawless. In the hardest-hit communities, Crawford says, “we need to find a way to give them the kind of law enforcement engagement that they can respect.”

It’s hard work, and making even incremental progress toward these goals will be a complex and long slog. But it beats arguing over videotapes that show the seconds that precede each shooting. If we don’t move the focus much earlier on the timeline of police-community relations, we’re going to find ourselves stuck, like the Charlotte police force, in a scene that keeps repeating itself.

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