The recent shooting deaths of police officers and the black men they confronted in Tampa, Miami and St. Petersburg are tragedies that should remind us of the divide between law enforcement and black communities nationwide.
Journalists covering these incidents heard black people cursing and threatening the police, even those officers who were there to protect bystanders. I was at the scene Monday in St. Petersburg, where two police officers were fatally wounded and a deputy federal marshal was wounded. From long experience, I knew what to expect.
If we were brutally honest, we would conclude that the police and large numbers of black Americans in many cities are enemies. This separation has a long and ugly history in the United States, and denying or ignoring history only deepens and prolongs the problem. For generations, depending on the political climate and police leadership of the times, law enforcement in most black communities has too often been racially motivated, aggressive and violent. Sometimes, benign neglect was practiced.
Over the years, summits, seminars and forums have been conducted, with negligible success, to find ways to close the gap between the police and African-American communities. Most studies of the problem focus on the responsibilities of the police to improve relations between the two groups. These studies are inadequate because in trying to avoid blaming the victim, they fail to hold the black community responsible for its role in the polarized relationship with law enforcement and its duty in seriously working to establish a viable relationship.
I lived most of my childhood and early adult years in black communities in several parts of the nation. Cops were our enemies; their race or ethnicity did not matter. I was part of the self-defeating cop-hating culture. We grudgingly contacted law enforcement at the worst of times: after someone had been badly injured or killed or after our valued personal property had been stolen. It was always "after." Even then, we rarely identified the perpetrators. We would not snitch.
We hated the sight of a police car, and we would stop whatever we were doing to make sure the cops saw or heard a sign of our contempt. Because we viewed ourselves as victims, we did not realize that we were perpetuating a bad relationship.
Not much has changed through the years.
"Oftentimes, when police encounter members of the black community, they are subjected to verbal abuse rooted on the perceptions of injustice from a volatile history of police presence in black communities," writes Warren Dukes, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Saint Augustine College in North Carolina. "Though police agencies have transitioned to positive engagements within these communities in hopes of bridging this historical divide, many of the citizens have not extended similar efforts to meet police in a unified effort in strengthening and empowering community members to take responsibility for their living environment. … Consequently, police were forced to apply whatever effective policing method was required in targeting crime and extinguishing criminal elements that prey on others."
The professor further argues that because black communities refuse to assist the police in eliminating the sources of crime and catching the bad guys, they are perceived as lacking "a community culture with established community belief systems and enforcements," isolated places with a greater tolerance for the decay of property and crime.
Everyone loses in this toxic relationship. But blacks are the biggest losers. When crime and abuse of property continue unabated in black communities, businesses will not locate there, and effective schools will not thrive in sufficient numbers. For quality of life to improve, blacks must assume responsibility for their role in forging positive relations between their communities and the police. Frankly, I cannot think of a more important collaboration.
Black leaders from all sectors, especially pastors with large captive audiences, need a new message: Improving the relationship between black people and the police is a shared responsibility.