Op-Ed: Community Safety Belongs to All of Us

 Written April 15, 2021

Community Safety Belongs to All of Us

As I write, the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolds.  This Minnesota police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man whose only crime was paying for some items at a convenience store with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill.  For this nonviolent offense, Mr. Floyd was pinned to the ground with Officer Chauvin’s knee on his neck.  Video footage of the nine minutes and thirty seconds that proved to be Mr. Floyd’s final moments captured him struggling for air and gasping the words, “I can’t breathe.”  Even so, this officer of the law remained unmoved and Mr. Floyd died (Chappell, 2021).  The video itself became a tragic viral phenomenon capturing the cruel final moments of Mr. Floyd’s life.  

The harsh and heartbreaking reality is that stories like this are only too common in the United States.  As “Policing in America,” a recent episode of the NPR podcast Throughline, thoroughly explores, the very nature of policing in this country began as a means of rounding up escaped slaves in the Antebellum South (Abdelfatah, 2021). With that as the origin story of all law enforcement systems, the racial divide and violent mistrust has never disappeared.  

While the troubling history of policing remains fuzzily out of focus for many people, the privilege of believing that law enforcement officers are truly in place to “serve and protect” is one enjoyed mostly by white people.  Black and Brown people, no matter their social stature, are statistically not as likely to know such luxury.  For people of color, the police symbolize community violence.  Too many lives have been wrongly taken or negatively altered as a result of the wholly biased system of criminal justice in this country (Armstrong 2020; Obasogie and Newman, 2019; Weier, 2014).

Here in Cleveland, we are all too familiar with the 2014 murder-by-police of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice.  Tamir was playing outside a rec center, pointing a toy gun at passers-by.  A witness decided to call 9-1-1.  Even though this caller noted the gun was likely fake and identified Tamir as a youth, the information got muddled by the time it made its way to responding officers, who rushed on the scene with guns drawn.  Officer Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir when he thought the child was reaching for a weapon (Dewan and Oppel, 2015).  

This tragedy was avoidable.  But as it is, Tamir Rice lost his life and Officer Loehmann’s actions were deemed “reasonable” by a review board.  Even with the national and international attention Tamir’s murder-by-police brought on not only the Cleveland Police Department but policing standards nationwide, very little changed as a result (Graham, 2015).  Year after year, Black and Brown people, especially, are unnecessarily brutalized and murdered by agents of the system allegedly in place to ensure public safety (Thomson-DeVeaux et al., 2020).

It was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that the pandemic of racial injustice achieved its long overdue prominence. Summer 2020 was dominated by Black Lives Matter protests filling streets across the globe after the murder-by-police of Mr. Floyd and others.  The time for reckoning had finally come.  

Some communities began to take action as a result. Here in the Greater Cleveland area, Cleveland-proper declared racism a public health crisis while inner-ring suburbs Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights immediately looked to make changes in their policing practices (Higgs, 2020; Cleveland State University Diversity Institute, 2020; Weiss et al., 2020).  After listening sessions with community residents, Cleveland Heights partnered with Cleveland State to develop required additional racial equity training for all “peace officers” (as the State of Ohio terms its law enforcement agents).  Shaker Heights went in a slightly different direction to develop a pilot program similar to the CAHOOTS model seen in Eugene, Oregon: here, mental health professionals and EMTs are paired up to respond to non-violent 9-1-1 calls (Vermeer et al., 2020; Weiss et al., 2020).  Additionally, Shaker Heights “peace officers” are to take part in crisis intervention training to provide them with stronger backgrounds on mental health factors that may come into play when responding to calls.  Both the Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights plans should be commended for the care in which they sought community input and both plans demonstrate a desire to “do better” going forward.

The glaring omission from both plans, as well as most plans nationwide, is the role of the community-at-large.  The police are merely one aspect of public safety.  And while it is critical to address gaps in training or re-allocate responsibilities that go beyond their job descriptions, there is still a vast world of exploration left untapped.  How can community members themselves become part of the solution?  It turns out, there are many ways to make that happen.

If we look at the example of Tamir Rice, it is worthwhile to consider the actions taken even before the police were called to the scene.  What if the witness who saw Tamir playing with what even they admitted looked like a toy gun had simply spoken to the child?   What if funding hadn’t been cut from a program that placed mini-police stations in places like the rec center where Tamir was playing -- as a regular basketball player at the gym, certainly the officer on duty would have known Tamir (Graham, 2015).  In any of these situations, the likely outcome is that the child would have been pulled aside, asked about his toy or manner of play, and that would have been it.  Because of an over-reliance on dialing 9-1-1 and a lack of urgency to get to know the people we live near, a child named Tamir Rice was shot dead while playing.  

That is a community problem perhaps even more so than a policing problem.  9-1-1 never needed to be dialed.  Simple human-to-human interaction would have resolved any perceived conflict easily and peacefully.   But the truth is that folks in urban settings, especially, are going to be less likely to know their neighbors and would prefer not to get involved.  Combine that with biases that are programmed into our daily lives, and the likelihood of assuming danger and mal-intention goes up.  As a student at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), for instance, we are not-so-subtly “warned” about staying out of the (predominantly Black) neighborhoods surrounding campus.  Residents of those neighborhoods, too, have clear signals that the campus is not “for them.”  Once, City Council Member Kevin Conwell was detained right outside the Jack, Joseph and Morton School of Applied Social Sciences building, home to a nationally ranked social work program.  His crime?  “Walking-While-Being-Black” (Higgs, 2019).  With the institutional leaders employing the CWRU police force broadcasting racially biased messaging to staff and students alike, it’s not hard to understand why the CWRU police target Black individuals.  If we want to see real change in the way public safety is administered where we live, we must change those harmful perceptions from the top down, from the bottom up, and everywhere in between.  Dialing 9-1-1 should be the absolute last resort, reserved only for true emergencies -- not for a Black man trying to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill.

Communities should have increased awareness about mediation services in their area to settle disputes outside of the criminal justice system.  More racial bias education and conflict resolution skill training is needed for everyone from institutional/government leadership down through school-aged children.  “Reforming the police” is certainly a key aspect of making our communities safer, but it is far from the only thing -- and may not even be the most important thing.  Imagine the difference in a world of familiarity where neighbors can come together to work through challenges instead of our current world of fear or apathy -- or simple lack of awareness.  The potential to heal these community traumas before they even occur is there.  We only have to be brave enough to step forward and say, “I’m ready to begin.”



References

Abdelfatah, R., Arablouei, R., York, J., Caine, J., Kaplan-Levenson, L., Wu, L., and Shah, P. (2019-2021). Policing in America. Audio podcast. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/07/985039407/policing-in-america

Armstrong, D. (2020). The startling research and disparate impact of Cleveland Clinic’s private police force. ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/article/what-trump-and-biden-should-debate-at-the-cleveland-clinic-why-the-hospitals-private-police-mostly-arrest-black-people

Chappel, B. (2021). Cashier Says He Offered To Pay After Realizing Floyd's $20 Bill Was Fake. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/trial-over-killing-of-george-floyd/2021/03/31/983089623/watch-live-cashier-says-he-offered-to-pay-after-realizing-floyds-20-bill-was-fak

Cleveland State University Diversity Institute (2020). Memorandum: Training, Policy Analysis, Data Collection and Community Engagement Proposal for the Cleveland Heights Police Department. https://www.clevelandheights.com/DocumentCenter/View/8540/080320-CH-Police-Training-and-Assessment-Proposal

Dewan, S. and Oppel Jr., R. (2015).  In Tamir Rice Case, Many Errors by Cleveland Police, Then a Fatal One. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/23/us/in-tamir-rice-shooting-in-cleveland-many-errors-by-police-then-a-fatal-one.html

Graham, D. (2015). Can the Feds Clean Up Cleveland's Police Force?. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/cleveland-consent-decree/394085/

Higgs, R. (2019). Cleveland Councilman Kevin Conwell decries 'walking while black' and calls for closer scrutiny of Case Western Reserve police. Cleveland.com. https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2018/03/cleveland_councilman_kevin_con.html

Higgs, R. (2020). Cleveland City Council declares racism a public health crisis, launching community-wide effort to tackle inequities. Cleveland.com.  https://www.cleveland.com/cityhall/2020/06/cleveland-city-council-declares-racism-a-public-health-crisis-launching-community-wide-effort-to-tackle-inequities.html

Obasogie, O., & Newman, Z. (2019). CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION WITHOUT JUDGES: POLICE VIOLENCE, EXCESSIVE FORCE, AND REMAKING THE FOURTH AMENDMENT. Virginia Law Review, 105(2), 425-448. 

Thomson-DeVeaux, O., Rakich, N., and Butchireddygari, L. (2020). Why’s it so rare for police officers to face legal consequences?. FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-its-still-so-rare-for-police-officers-to-face-legal-consequences-for-misconduct/

Vermeer, M. J., Woods, D., & Jackson, B. A. (2020). Would law enforcement leaders support defunding the police? Probably - if communities ask police to solve fewer problems. RAND Corporation 2020.

Weier, S. (2014). Consider Afro-Pessimism. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 59(3), 419-433.

Weiss, D.E., Chaiken, J.E., DeMuth, J., Sweeney, P. (2021). Memorandum: Recommendation for a Shaker Heights Crisis Response Pilot Program. 


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Written in pursuit of my MSSA

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