Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cops who want the guys on the corner to speak up should go first

Time for the police to step up

Last week, I went to a neighborhood meeting called in response to four separate shooting incidents in or near Taft, the neighborhood park at 18th and Newton NE. No one was hurt, but the gunfire aroused understandable concern in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Apparently other somewhat less ominous incidents had prompted a similar meeting just a couple of weeks before.

In any case, meeting attendees included all sorts of officials from the Parks Department and from the city agency that manages construction projects, from Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie's office, and three police officers, one of them the actual Fifth District commander. There were neighborhood residents of all ages, with varying lengths of residency in the 'hood--the established residents mostly black, the newcomers, mostly white.

There was also a group of probably a dozen young black men, most of them with roots in the neighborhood that go back a generation, or more. A neighborhood advisory board member had managed to persuade the young men to come to the meeting, but they sat separately from the other attendees, some wearing an expression of glowering disapproval.

At the invitation of the meeting's chair, the police commander and Councilmember McDuffie's representative kicked off the discussion acknowledging the crime problems and the real fear for safety in the neighborhood. Both speakers declared themselves willing to work closely with residents in order to develop a truly strategic plan for building neighborhood solidarity and improving safety.

But the young men, who seemed to be loosely led by a man named Fats, were not inclined to dance to the conciliatory tune called out by the district commander. Several of them spoke in a challenging even angry tone. Collectively, their message went something like this:

Yes, we hang out in the park, but we respect the rules and respect the community. We don't drink in the park and we let other people know, from in and out of the neighborhood, that there will be no messing around with neighborhood residents. But that doesn't appear to make any difference to you folks. When something happens, we get the blame for it. We say hello to some of you and you ignore us. And the thing is, we've lived here all of our lives. Some of you just got here, but you act like we're the ones who don't belong.

In response, one homeowner, indeed a newcomer, stood up to declare himself free of any such attitude, and to assert his emphatic concern for the safety of his young family. We use the park, he said, but I don't make trouble for anyone. I just served two tours in Iraq, he added, and I expect that my wife and child and myself will be safe here. What I want, he said, is to hear what others think will make us safer, I don't want to go over this other stuff, I want to move on.

Following, as he did, immediately on the heels of the declarations of indignation and wounded pride laid out by the young men who had just spoken, his apparent lack of interest in acknowledging their concerns led to immediate blowback. The young men muttered and cussed under their breath, and stood up to grab the floor without being recognized by the chair. A couple of them repeated their earlier positions and pointed out that the previous speaker was a good example of newcomers to the neighborhood who blame them for the problem.

It was a perfect, we-say-they-say sort of set up and promised to pretty much blow the meeting apart if the character of the discussion didn't change quickly. But one fellow stood up and, out of order himself, pretty much claimed the floor. I agree, he said, that the goal of this meeting ought to be about how we can work together to make everybody safer, but if we want to move on in that direction, I think we should begin by acknowledging how important and valuable it is that these young men showed up to speak for themselves. His statement provoked universal applause and reduced the gathering heat. But it didn't put the meeting on a productive path and things wound down without any real clarity about how to get to an effective strategy that would serve our collective concerns.

I didn't even stay for the end, but on the way home I stopped off at the park to see what might be happening. Not much, it turned out. The park itself is mostly closed at this time for resodding the big field, and for restoring the basketball courts. And, perhaps because they were at the meeting or otherwise engaged, there weren't any young men hanging out. But there were two cops, one in a car idling nearby and one sitting on a picnic table.

I told the cop at the table, Officer Smith, as it happens, about the meeting and told him what the young men had said. He heard me out, but challenged a bit of what apparently seemed like a sanitized story to him. Well, they may say they don't drink and smoke, and there might be some truth to that, he said, but there's an awful lot of times when there's empty liquor and beer bottles lying around, so we have to tell them sometimes to cleanup. But they usually do and it's only some of them making a mess.

He also observed that they might be innocent of some of the things that they get accused of doing, and they may not be doing the shootings, but somebody is coming by here to shoot at somebody else for a reason, and they all say they don't know anything, which, he added, is hard to believe. What he said made sense, but it didn't invalidate the story the young men at the meeting told.

Mindful that some of these young men are not much different from others around the country that have been wrongly detained and arrested, and sometimes beaten and shot by police officers themselves not discernibly different than the officer to whom I was speaking, I simply observed that police in big cities like DC have a responsibility to figure out how to keep everybody safe. I said I sympathized with the stress that the Metropolitan Police must experience at times, but there must be some cops who don't relate to these young men with the same understanding that he appeared to bring to his job.

Then I told him how two days in a row I had seen a cop, the same cop both times, following kids walking from the Brookland Metro stop to the high school nearby. In neither instance did I see those kids doing anything except acting like school kids engaging each other. The situation looked like bad policing to me, like a white cop sending a nonverbal but clear message to black children that they needed to be watched by someone in authority.

The second time it happened, I walked quickly around the block to get to the kids before they got to school and to ask them if the same cop had ever followed them before. No, they said. I asked if they knew why he was following them. No, they said, we weren't doing anything.

As my conversation with the kids concluded, the cop stopped up the street, about half a block away. But when I walked toward him to tell him that I'd seen him doing the exact same thing the day before and to ask him why, he drove away.

Officer Smith's reaction to the story was to vaguely acknowledge that what I was describing probably wasn't right, but we hardly knew all the facts. Yeah, maybe, I responded, but I'd seen enough two days in a row to provoke concern on my part.

Still, I wished Officer Smith well and moved on. But here's the thing. The young men at the neighborhood meeting probably did know the names of some of the people who had driven by the park and started shooting. But they hadn't shared any information with the police--a choice that the district commander said was extremely frustrating.

But consider, also, the white police officer following black children to school for no obvious reason. In itself, perhaps, not a meaningful indication of a problem. But in every big city, there are, indeed, police officers who their fellow officers know to be brutal. Police officers who police differently in black neighborhoods than they do in white neighborhoods, and treat black suspects differently than white ones.

Odds are that Officer Smith himself knows the names of a couple of cops who have mishandled incidents and roughed people up. But neither Officer Smith, or his fellow officers, are inclined to go public with such information. Neither are they likely to raise a concern internally.

This, I think, brings us full circle to the young men who might know full well who the perpetrators were in the recent shooting incidents. They ain't talkin', even though sharing what they know might make the neighborhood just a little bit safer.

But should we be surprised when young men prove unwilling to share what they know about bad guys in the 'hood with cops who have proven themselves equally unwilling to share what they know about bad guys with guns and badges?

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