(Republished from 2014)
In the devastating days that have followed the atrocious murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, many have called for diversity in the police force. Tear gas, rubber bullets, militarized tanks, automated guns pointed as civilians, all perpetuated by local police agitation. The nucleus of the incident, the murder itself, was perpetuated by a police officer. And yet in the aftermath, the morally outraged are calling for a solution by the recruitment of more officers of color. As if everyone who is our skin folk is our kin folk?
In New York City alone, 47% of the uniformed police force are people of color. In leadership roles, that number begins to shrink, but the NYPD continues to be one of the most diverse police forces in the country. With all this diversity however, we continue to have historical incidences of police brutality and murders by the NYPD of black and brown unarmed civilians. The idea that more Black and Brown officers will reduce the occurrences is not a complete solution.
The outcry for diversity is a simplistic one deeply rooted in a search for solutions that beg a more intense and complex journey into cultural understanding. We should not continue to search for additional officers of color, who may still see Black and Brown bodies as hostile, without making an intense and systematic effort at tackling the cultural incompetence that permeates the very fabric of many of our institutions.
When I look up from headlines that leave my heart broken, mind bruised, and body stiff, I am proud of the people of Ferguson who have taken to the streets to announce their discontent. This discontent with the forced notion that they should be adjusted to slain bodies. I am awe of their bravery and by their resiliency to be stable amidst a sea of heavily armed policemen of all colors who are carrying out escalation tactics, intimidation, and terrorism.
The excessive use of force at the hands of state-sanctioned and tax payer police has a direct correlation to cultural incompetence. It was an African American police officer who started the assail of 50 bullets into the car of Sean Bell. Howard Morgan, a Black Chicago police officer was shot 28 times by fellow white officers who pulled him over for a driving the wrong way down a one way street. The death of unarmed Black and Brown men in New York City alone has reached genocidal levels by officers of all colors. It has been noted in several studies, that officers of any socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic/racial groups, continue to target people of color at unprecedented rates whether or not they perceive them to be armed or not. Such studies have found that officers continue to make deadly and bias decisions with victims of color.
Hiring more police officers of color solves no more of a problem than hiring more teachers of color. Just as we hear teachers of color complaining about Black pathology, sucked into the never ending trap that poverty raised, people of color have somehow caused this level of strain, miseducation, and violence upon themselves, so have police of color. I am less concerned about the color of the police officers, than I am about the bureaucracy and institutional policies that have allowed cultural incompetence and racial profiling to persist in the police force. The police force is indicative of our larger country-wide problems, only they legally carry guns that are supposed to unquestionably warrant our respect.
If we begin to call for a more culturally competent police force, one that values Black lives and see us as human beings worthy of love, respect, and a second chance, we will reduce the number of fatalities. If we begin to call for officers who as less interested in calling for Black folk to be still, to be peaceful, to be meek, to ‘think’ and more understanding of the immediate need to release feelings of tragedy through their footseps, we will begin to reduce the number of tear gases thrown into the eyes of innocent children of color. If we call for both Black and White officers to understand intimately the communities they serve, the historical reasons these neighborhoods exist and the very institutional conditions for their despair, then we wouldn’t have to deal with Black police officers carrying out the very same excessive use of force as their White counterparts. If we had everyday Black folks, the ones who are calling for a refocus on Black on Black crime, understand the magnitude of the need for gun reform, then we wouldn’t be dealing with as many assumptions of Black criminality. If we had less people calling for poor, marginalized, people of color to exercise restraint and social maturity, and more people understanding that an outcry, a shared community aggression, to go out of ones mind, is an act of social pain worthy of political theater. If more police officers who lined our streets understood that people are wounded, moved in ways that their mind cannot fully comprehend, then perhaps I would feel more safe talking to a police officer. If there were more police officers whose hearts dropped as many other conscious Americans did at the news of Michael Brown’s death, then we would be moving in the right direction.
I want police offers who ache for those people. For their people. Officers who understand resiliency, pain, and the intersectionalities of race, class, and rage. Officers who understand that riots are the temporary residue of rebels’ reaction to pain. Officers who know that whenever people march, it is a visible sign that they are doing their jobs poorly.
We need to call for a better police service. An understanding at the highest levels that in order to decrease the epidemic of police sanctioned violence, we need to move beyond just the hiring of Black and Brown soldiers carrying out culturally incompetent polices. We need diverse leadership who carry with them diverse ideas that recognize the historical inequities, provide extensive trainings to address the disparities in the treatment of marginalized people, and swiftly get rid of the structural drivers that allow police officers who exhibit, test, and act out aggressions against people of color. We need to call for the full implementation of Inspector General offices to consistently investigate police departments and vet incoming officers extensively on their attitudes toward people of color prior to joining the force.
It is my hope that while we call for ceremonial and meaningful policies that include a more diverse police force, we think of diversity not just in color but also in the progression of racial thought. It is my hope that as we increase the recruitment of officers of color, we are less inclined to think of Clarence Thomas as a quality choice just because of the color of his skin. I hope that we are more inclined to test officers through simulation on their reaction upon seeing a person of color in the fog of the night reaching for a wallet. I would like to call for an increase in age, an increase in educational attainment, an increase in cultural worldview of every police officer. Every victim of a police tragedy deserved more and every forthcoming victim would surely need one to take a second look before shooting.