Recently, the COPS Office hosted a roundtable bringing together prominent researchers, community leaders, and police chiefs from across the nation to discuss the concepts of “racial reconciliation” and “police legitimacy” within their communities. In the United States, many of the communities affected by high levels of crime and violence are those which are predominantly poor communities of color. These communities experience a persistent divide between their members and law enforcement, a relationship resulting from a long history of racial polarization and legal oppression, in which law enforcement has played a central role. In order to bridge this gap, there is a need for “Racial Reconciliation and Truth Telling.” This terminology is simply shorthand for describing the ‘process of airing grievances between minority communities affected by violence and overt drug markets and the law enforcement agencies that serve these communities.’1
It was during the forum that I learned about this old (yet new) concept of truth telling. At the forum, “truth telling” was defined as a “transformative, process-oriented, problem-solving tool that provides parties in conflict with an avenue to reconstruct their personal life narratives.” Here, the speakers used this concept to focus explicitly on the historical relationship between law enforcement officers and the African-American citizens they serve.
Another theme discussed at the forum were the “dueling narratives” that exist between affected communities and the law enforcement agencies that serve them. For instance, these communities tend to view the police and their actions through the lens of the negative history they’ve experienced, creating a narrative in which they truly believe that law enforcement has consistently conspired to find new tools to oppress African-American communities. At the same time, law enforcement agencies may have a very different understanding of the work that they do. For example, in policing, an arrest is a good thing. Often, this leads to high levels of arrests occurring in troubled communities. Such strategies, when read by the community through the lens of its own racial narrative appears to be further evidence that police exist in order to arrest and incarcerate members of the African-American communities, rather than solving the problems of the community.2
There is often very little desire to discuss these inconsistent narratives between the groups. However, not talking about it often ignites feelings of anger, hurt, disappointment, and guilt. Sometimes these feelings even manifest into incidences of violence. When these conversations do take place it is not unusual for both parties to become steadfast in the justification of their own story, resulting in further widening of the gap.
At the forum, COPS Office Director Bernard Melekian opened the very complex discussion by expressing his gratitude for so many distinguished professionals to take the time to address this very serious issue in modern policing. Garry McCarthy, Superintendent of Chicago Police Department, then got the highly anticipated and controversial discussion off to a great start by exploring with the attendees why speaking directly to race matters.
Reverend Curtis May, director of the Office of Reconciliation Ministries (ORM) and a Ministry Development Trainer based in Glendora, California, was the lunch presenter for the Forum and provided an interactive conversation encompassing the mission of his organization: Removing walls, building bridges, and becoming one as a community. He has established 28 chapters in five countries: the United States, Canada, Scotland, England, and Southern Ireland. He is co-author of the book Mending Broken Relationships: Faith-Based Counseling for the 21st Century. Reverend May and Director Melekian became partners when the director was the chief of police in Pasadena, California, where he made a decision to apologize to the African-American community for the historical racial injustices that have plagued them over the years. Director Melekian spoke of that day in a way that seemed to resonate with the audience as a testament to the power of an apology and an explanation. He said, “What was interesting is that there were people in this room who I knew were my friends, who sat quietly and said nothing, and I did not understand. What I came to learn later was this day, which I viewed as the lowest point in my career, the African-American community viewed as the first day I showed up on the job. Because, [in the face of criticism from the community] I did not get up and leave the room, or erupt in backlash.”
This story embodied one of the key themes discussed at the two-day forum. That, in order for real change to happen and in order to begin to build a relationship of trust between police and these communities, the first step is recognition. Other themes that were reiterated throughout the discussion included the fact that we must recognize that everyone has their own story. From there, an open and honest dialogue will need to take place between the community and law enforcement, with each actively listening to each other’s stories to begin to reinvent the personal narratives between the two groups. And lastly, these new narratives must be translated into the organizations and institutions themselves so that they cannot be easily dismantled. You cannot have external legitimacy if you do not have internal legitimacy.
The forum provided an excellent avenue for police chiefs, community leaders, and researchers from around the country to re-examine the idea of racial reconciliation and police legitimacy while sharing personal stories of triumph and struggles they have faced while attempting to make changes within the communities they serve. As attendees shared their own racial reconciliation experiences from their communities, it became apparent that meaningful dialogue led to improved relationships between the police officers, improved quality of life, reduced crime and disorder problems, and helped to foster a greater understanding and respect for the legitimacy of local law enforcement. A tremendous amount of valuable information was imparted throughout these discussions. This issue must be reconciled through sustained conflict resolution and problem-solving community policing practices. Interracial trust is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones for successful community policing within high crime neighborhoods.
COPS Staff Lashon Hilliard and Tawana Waugh with Rev. Curtis May
-Linda R. Gist
Supervisory Senior Policy Analyst
The COPS Office
1Crandall, Vaugh and David Kennedy. Practice Brief: Truth-Telling and Racial Reconciliation Between Law Enforcement and Affected Communities. http://www.nnscommunities.org/RACE_AND_RECONCILIATION_FINAL.pdf