‘Truth, trust and transparency’: What Black Americans want from policing

August 18, 2020 12:01 am

A police car in Richmond, Va. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Two recent findings on the attitudes of Black Americans toward police — taken amid the national uproar following the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis — may sound diametrically opposed.

They’re not. The surveys do, however, provide insights into the way Black motorists and pedestrians, usually with dread, approach encounters with officers.

Understanding African-Americans’ love-hate relationship with the men and women in blue should help state lawmakers craft smart legislation as they reconvene for a special session this week. Possible changes to the way officers do their jobs will be among the topics in Richmond.

Consider this column my gift to legislators in the General Assembly — in case they were unaware of these new surveys.

The Gallup organization conducted both polls and released their results this month. In the first, a whopping 81 percent of Black Americans want police to spend the same amount or even more time in their neighborhoods (emphasis mine). That figure compares to 88 percent among White Americans and 83 percent among Hispanic Americans.

Results of the first poll are based on a Gallup Panel web study completed by nearly 36,500 adults from June 23 to July 6. It was done as part of the Gallup Center on Black Voices, a research initiative studying the experiences of more than 40 million Black Americans.

The findings may shock many folks – but not me. People, regardless of race, want crooks, drug dealers and other knuckleheads hauled out of their communities. They hope police will be proactive, patrol frequently and keep residents safe.

That’s true no matter who lives in a particular neighborhood. These are quality-of-life issues in which residents depend on police officers and other city employees to do their part.

Then there’s the flip side.

Some 56 percent of White adults say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police. Only 19 percent of Black adults feel the same way.

“This 37-percentage-point racial gap is the largest found for any of 16 major U.S. institutions rated in Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll,” the company said. The June 8 – July 24 poll of 1,226 U.S. adults included an oversample of Black Americans.

“Gallup has found persistent, wide racial differences in Americans’ confidence in the police since adding it to the roster of institutions measured in 1993,” the report said. That means African-Americans didn’t just wake up this year bristling at the way they’re treated by officers.

Here’s the crux of the matter for many African-Americans:

Can you patrol us without executing us? Why are Black Americans disproportionately the victims in police slayings?

And why do so many Black Americans die at the hands of law enforcement for such trivial, underlying infractions that led to officers coming to the scene?

I know, I know: People shouldn’t resist arrest, and they should follow officers’ instructions. Suspects won’t find justice on the streets during such police encounters; save gripes for internal affairs investigations or civil lawsuits.

But in recent years too many Black people, including children, have been killed by police for minor crimes – or no crimes at all.

You probably know many of the names. Besides Floyd, there’s Eric Garner (loose cigarettes, “I can’t breathe”); Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old boy playing with a airsoft-style pellet gun); John Crawford (holding an unwrapped pellet gun he planned to buy in a Walmart); and Breonna Taylor (killed in her home during a late-night police raid using a so-called “no knock” warrant).

Others have received less publicity nationwide. They include George Robinson in Jackson, Ms. (three officers were indicted a few days ago in his 2019 fatal beating) and Akai Gurley (an unarmed man who was walking in a Brooklyn apartment stairwell when an officer’s gun discharged).

This doesn’t mean White Americans aren’t killed by police, sometimes also under outrageous circumstances. But the disproportionate killings of Blacks, however, have rightfully led to scrutiny, protests and demands for change.

There probably isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, either, to potential modifications. Gallup said in previous findings this summer that only 22 percent of Black Americans favor abolishing police departments — which in some corners turned into the “defund the police” mantra.

Sharma Lewis is resident bishop of the United Methodist Church/Virginia Conference. She participated in an online gathering last week on police reform in the commonwealth, and said residents want “truth, trust and transparency” from police.

In response to my questions, Lewis told me by email that she doesn’t believe funding for police in Virginia should be reduced. She favors a thorough review of police budgets to make sure agency programs work.

“I believe monies should be allocated to improve and standardize police training in the 21st century,” the bishop added, “to require the use of body-worn cameras by all law enforcement officers, and to establish a stronger database of law enforcement discipline, termination and decertification.”

It’s a lot for lawmakers to digest this week. However, they should have as much info as possible about what residents think, and what needs to be done do to bolster ties between police and Black citizens.

The strain on that relationship is real.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]