Midwest Voices

Liz Cook: Protests over the slayings of black males expose a police image problem

Hundreds gathered at the J.C. Nichols Fountain in August for a rally for peace after the violence in Ferguson, Mo., where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer.
Hundreds gathered at the J.C. Nichols Fountain in August for a rally for peace after the violence in Ferguson, Mo., where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. The Kansas City Star

Nationwide protests have made one thing abundantly clear: police departments have an image problem.

Tempers that first flared in Ferguson, Mo., last year have only grown, compounded by historically fraught relationships between police and minority communities and the recent deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice at the hands of police officers. Recently, the New York Police Department responded with a protest of its own with some police officers turning their backs on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio when he spoke at an officer’s funeral.

Chief among de Blasio’s crimes? A confession that he advised his biracial son to take “special care” in encounters with the police. Reactions from police unions have been heated and often hyperbolic with one spokesman going so far as to attribute the recent murders of two New York police officers to both protesters’ and de Blasio’s lack of trust.

That’s not going to solve law enforcement’s image problem. And it’s certainly not going to make officers any safer. Restoring trust between peace officers and the communities they serve means leaving that with-us-or-against-us mentality at the door. It means listening to critics and would-be reformers rather than treating them as enemies in a polemical tug-of-war.

It also means taking a more nuanced view of critics, one that doesn’t truncate “anti-police-corruption” to “anti-police.” There’s an awful lot of ground between “increase police oversight and internal review” and “kill the pigs,” but the two seem continually conflated in our popular imagination.

I suspect this is because police work, much like military service, has a protected reverence, an exposure to risk that makes dissent seem dangerous. The stakes for officers are simply too high. They put their lives on the line every day.

But so do fishers, farmers and garbage collectors, all of whom have higher fatality rates on the job according to a 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Law enforcement officers didn’t crack the top 10.

The goal here isn’t to minimize the deaths of peace officers but to reduce the climate of fear that continues to escalate tensions between the public and police. When we promote fear, we promote fight-or-flight responses and violent escalation, tactics that endanger officers and civilians in kind.

We’ve done a better job at finding common ground in Kansas City, although we haven’t been tested as thoroughly as other communities. At a protest on the Country Club Plaza after the Ferguson shooting, mounted officers kept a respectful distance, greeting protesters cheerfully and even allowing a few curious civilians to approach and pet their horses.

Solidarity protests for incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York have been peaceful and successful thus far. And Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté has shown great leadership through it all, slowly restoring ties and trust within different community groups in a year of falling violent crime.

We’re doing a lot of things right. But we need to continue to invite conversation between officers and civilians to foster an environment in which all parties feel heard, feel respected and feel safe.

In recent weeks, I’ve heard a lot of frustration from people eager to put Ferguson behind them. Picking at the scars of racial tension won’t help us heal, some suggest. Dwelling on these issues will only divide us further.

But let’s not mistake silence for harmony. Positions become more entrenched the longer we hold them without question. Disagreements become more heated the longer they fester without air.

We need to disagree — and we need to learn how to do so with respect and humility once more. 2014 sparked a host of uneasy conversations.

May 2015 keep them going in a context of increasing empathy and grace.

Liz Cook lives in Kansas City, where she is a freelance writer and economic research editor. Reach her at oped@kcstar.com.