What Are We Asking Cops to Do?

Dallas Police Chief David Brown made some headlines this week when he said this:

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said at a briefing Monday. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

When asked to identify laws or policies to address the situation, Brown demonstrated that he walks his talk. He basically said that we should ask the people whose job it is to come up with them.

“Ask the policymakers to do something, then I’ll give you an opinion,” Brown said.

This week, Steve Inskeep interviewed Los Angeles attorney and activist Constance Rice to discuss the kinds of police reforms that are needed in this country.

Why are we always in this position? It’s because we have set up a dynamic, especially in poor communities, where we ask our cops to contain and suppress those communities. And when you used to go down to a community like Watts – because there’s a real success in Watts that shows the way out of this – they have a completely different kind of policing now. But if you went back even 15 years ago, you’d have found the containment suppression and outright warfare…

…in Los Angeles, as in Dallas and I would say Cincinnati, for example, there are some large policing jurisdictions that, for the last 15 years, have been about the business of changing the mindset of their officers – changing the political mandate that they have when they go into poor communities. That relationship can no longer be that of a Rambo-like warrior cop who goes in there to contain and suppress and mass arrest and impose mass incarceration on a poor community. Bottom line – the vision behind this new policing, or healthier policing, is that the cops are there to be part of the community and not just another predator within the community inflicting harm and misery.

Yesterday, during his remarks at the memorial service in Dallas, President Obama echoed these thoughts.

We also know what Chief Brown has said is true: That so much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves. As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book — and then we tell the police “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs, and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience. Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when, periodically, the tensions boil over.

Anyone who has ever watched David Simon’s HBO show The Wire will recognize that this is exactly the dynamic he captured so powerfully as it played out in his hometown of Baltimore. Here is how he described it:

The Wire is certainly an angry show. It’s about the idea that we are worth less. And that is an unreasonable thing to contemplate for all of us. It is unacceptable. And none of us wants to be part of a world that is going to do that to human beings. If we don’t exert on behalf of human dignity at the expense of profit and capitalism and greed, which are inevitabilities, and if we can’t modulate them in some way that is a framework for an intelligent society, we are doomed. It is going to happen sooner than we think. I don’t know what form it will take. But I know that every year America is going to be a more brutish and cynical and divided place.

This gets to the root of the problem. Yes, police reform is necessary. But that is only likely to happen when we challenge ourselves about the question of what it is we are asking them to do. Is it simply to be the warriors who keep the lid on things so that they don’t spill over and affect us? Or are we willing to “exert on behalf of human dignity at the expense of profit and capitalism and greed?”

Update: The fourth season of The Wire focused on the way all of this plays out in middle schools and is particularly relevant to what we are witnessing today. It was captured in this song by Anthony Hamilton.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.