Last Friday I attended a Law Enforcement Summit in Perris hosted by state Senator Richard Roth. The panel featured local law enforcement leaders: Chief Deputy Shelley Kennedy-Smith of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, CHP Commander Amanda Snowden, Perris Police Chief Michael Judge, and Riverside DA Mike Hestrin. All are respected law enforcement professionals, all see public safety as a “quality of life” issue, and all touted strong community outreach as the key to good community and law enforcement relations. The panel was moderated by Perris Mayor Pro Tem Rita Rogers.
Of the many questions asked that morning, there was one that nagged at me for the rest of the day. Probably because I had just listened to Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz address the same issue earlier that morning in another setting…”what is being done to improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the Black community?”
The recent incidents of police conflict with the Black community in Ferguson and other cities throughout the country have shined a much needed spotlight on a problem that plagues many law enforcement agencies — a lack of diversity and a clear divide and dynamic that pits “us” against “them”. At the summit someone asked the panelists what is being done to improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the Black community here in Riverside County. Chief Deputy Kennedy-Smith expressed the need for a grassroots approach to outreach and stressed the importance of hiring a more diverse force. I had heard the same sentiment from Chief Diaz that morning as well as in various community meetings over the past few months.
The challenge when it comes to recruiting Black candidates for law enforcement positions is that by the time our young men and women are ready to seek employment they already have such an overwhelmingly negative view of police officers that becoming one of them is antithetical to their very existence.
I present my own son Alexander as an example. He is 22 years old and has never been in trouble with the law. He’s lived in an affluent neighborhood since he turned 13. He is enrolled in college and actively looking for a job. When I asked him if he’d ever consider a career in law enforcement, his response was an adamant “Never.” He has no personal reasons to dislike law enforcement, or so I thought.
Later that night, I asked him how many times he has been stopped by the police. “A lot,” was his initial reply. And then, “since I started driving, at least ten times.” I stopped him. I must admit I was a bit shocked. Since he started driving three years ago I had heard murmurs as he chatted with friends in our kitchen…half formed sentences about something that might have happened the night before, or days before. There was never a declarative sentence uttered about a traffic stop. And he never received a ticket for a moving violation. Ten stops. No tickets.
You might be thinking, “what is she complaining about, they let him go with a warning in some cases and even a smile in others.” (he would say it was a smirk.) Alexander assured me that he was always super polite and articulate when he addressed the officers, “excuse me officer, why did you stop me?” or “yes sir, here is my license and registration.” I believed him. He can be charming.
“It’s just what they do,” he exclaimed.
Before he received his license to drive, he admitted to being stopped at least seven times while walking home. One time he said he was handcuffed and told to sit on the curb until the officer checked his identification. That was difficult to hear, at 22 he’s still my baby boy. I still have the impulse to protect him. I still want to keep him safe. But why should I have to worry about keeping him safe from those charged with ‘protecting’ him.
When I asked him if he ever remembers a positive experience with the police…”Never,” he said adamantly, “not one…never had a positive experience.” At 22 he had experienced at least 17 negative touches by the police. Most stops, it seems, were just exploratory in nature. He looked like someone else. He looked suspicious. Maybe he just looked Black.
Then I returned to the question that started this line of inquiry. It is hard to change ingrained perceptions that are reinforced daily. Every negative touch by police widens the chasm separating “us” from “them.” So perhaps we need to begin there. It is not a violation to drive — or walk — while Black, young and male. Stop treating them like their very existence is a capital offense. I know in some places it’s such a horrendous crime that it warrants the death penalty.
If we want to improve the relationship between the police and the Black community, if we want a more ethnically diverse police force, and if we want to minimize the potential for conflict here in our region, let’s begin with what all local enforcement officers have identified as one of the problems…the lack of diversity. But the only way to have that happen is to increase the number of “diverse” individuals willing to go into the profession, and it seems like one way of making that happen is by treating them better during their ‘formative’ years…maybe include young men like Alexander and his friends on law enforcement panels with law enforcement professionals in the audience, so that their only experience with the law won’t just be a negative one.