The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO is troubling to me for two reasons: 1) I am an African American, and 2) I am a former police officer. Both play a vital role in shaping my view of the Ferguson incident and other incidents similar to Ferguson around the country in which young African-American males are dying at the hands of white police officers.
The problem is that each part of me creates a different perspective. Communities like Ferguson run into problems when they cannot understand how each group of people (police officers and African-Americans) see events like this differently.
While racism does exist among police officers, I don’t think it’s the driving force behind these tragic shootings. The driving force behind these incidents is not racism— it’s perspective! The varying perspectives at the heart of this tragedy are based, in large part, on false perceptions.
Too many encounters between young African-American males and white law enforcement officers are rooted in false perceptions that have created an unhealthy perspective on both sides. I believe that much of this is due to conversations that were meant to serve as solutions being centered on the wrong focal point: race.
Race is important because of the role it has played in shaping how we perceive others and ourselves. However, until we’re able to move beyond race and talk openly and honestly about perspective, our conversation will go nowhere. What the African American community really wants from law enforcement is respect and protection. Conversely, what law enforcement wants from the African-American community is respect and appreciation.
This can only be attained when representatives from both sides are confident that there are no hidden agendas or motives. I saw this understanding in action at the agency in which I once served, and it led to the adoption of a policing philosophy called Community Oriented Policing (C.O.P.).
The police department worked in concert with various communities to accomplish specific goals such as identifying and solving problems. Although this was a great initiative, it was not initially successful within the African-American community because the conversation revolved around the issue of race. Once we were able to set aside the race issue, we entered into a dialogue that changed the perspective of the African-American community and the police department. This didn’t happen until both entities were willing to be “offended” without taking the offense personally. This led to a dialogue that was not based on the divisive issue of race, but on the commonality of being human in various contexts.
An atmosphere was created in which both African-Americans and police officers were willing to listen to and learn from one another. In this environment, both African-Americans and police officers were able to be open and honest about how they wrongly viewed each other. This led us to conclude that both sides were guilty of creating an unhealthy perspective of the other, and the blame was shared.
Unless both African-Americans and police officers acknowledge that they both share the blame in the wrong perspectives that has been created, we are destined to have tragic results. It is not the responsibility of law enforcement to change the way African-Americans view police officers. This is a job for the African-American community.
Similarly, the African-American community won’t change the way white police officers view African-American males. Police departments have to do that. Until both are willing to share some of the blame, they won’t be willing to share the necessary responsibility to bring about necessary change.
Forging this kind of relationship created such a sense of trust that when the white police officer who trained me killed a young African-American male in an incident that was ruled to be a justifiable shooting in the mid 90s, there was no finger-pointing between the African-American community and the police department.
Rather, a meeting in which representatives from both sides came together to discuss where we had failed and how we could stop this from happening again. When we met, race never entered the conversation. We were able to have a truth-centered conversation where both entities bore the blame for the perception and the responsibility for changing it.
Until both the law enforcement and African-American communities are willing to own their mutual share of the blame that has created the problem, there won’t be a shared responsibility that will lead to the solution.