Black And Blue: Police And Minorities

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., revived the ongoing discussion about tensions between police officers and non-white Americans. John Burris, a lawyer who represented Rodney King, joins Portland, Ore., Police Chief Rosie Sizer and Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Clarence Edwards to discuss what happens when black and blue collide.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his home in Cambridge has renewed a national discussion on race relations and law enforcement.

There's a long history of tension between white police officers and black citizens stretching from the civil rights protests to the beating of Rodney King to the New Year's Day shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California.

We still have two very different versions of what happened on that porch in Cambridge last week, but clearly it raises important questions. How are police officers trained to handle tense situations? What's the responsibility of the author(ph)? What is our responsibility and our rights as citizens? And how does ethnicity change the equation?

We'll talk with the chief of police from Portland, Oregon in a few minutes about what she sees in her department, and we want to hear from callers later in the program. But first, we turn to John Burris, who joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. He is a civil rights attorney who was co-counsel in the Rodney King case. He's also the author of the book "Blue vs. Black: Let's End the Conflict Between Cops and Minorities." Welcome to the program, Mr. Burris.

Mr. JOHN BURRIS (Author): Good to be with you.

NEARY: Now, you represented Rodney King, whose case of course marked a really significant moment in race relations in this country. You've represented many others as well. How common would you say is this experience of minorities who say they've been discriminated against by the police?

Mr. BURRIS: Well, that's a fairly common complaint that happens often. It's really a question of disparate policing that occurs. I have many, many cases in my office now. The fact that happened to Professor Gates is fairly common. I've had that a lot, where a person is engaged in some kind of innocent behavior and ultimately even in trying to vindicate themselves they wind up being physically arrested or even physically assaulted.

That didn't happen in this case. But look, there has been a lot of efforts to improve police and community relationships. I certainly have been involved in that. I think progress is being made. But on the other hand, you still have a lot of it occurring on a routine basis, particularly in significant urban communities where there are large black populations, Hispanic populations. It is ongoing, and you know, at my efforts, we try to work with this.

We have to understand what police officers are trying to do, which I'm constantly trying to advise, but you have situations where an officer assumes certain facts, given that they've been called to a situation, and before they allow a person to sort of advise and tell what their position is or to demonstrate that they're not engaged in unlawful activities, they frequently are treated in a very rough, aggressive manner. They're handcuffed, and if they resist in any way about why they are being treated this way, they are physically assaulted.

So it happens a lot in this community, particularly in urban communities. I think in the black community it is a fait accompli that this kind of conduct is going to happen.

NEARY: Let me ask you. Why do you think these kinds of incidents escalate, and sometimes escalate terribly out of control, but…

Mr. BURRIS: Well, they escalate because I think there's a lack of appreciation (unintelligible) disrespect. Certainly in the African-American community they feel like they are being disrespected. The police officers feel like they're not given the respect that they're due, and ultimately these come down, unfortunately, to a mano-a-mano situation because we don't see it much with women.

We see it much more with white men and black men, and I think it's a question of disrespect that it's the underpinning of all of this, and unfortunately that's how it comes about, and we find very minor situations that escalate in the situation where a person is physically assaulted and ultimately arrested, like in Mr. Gates' position, for a relatively minor and insignificant crime, and an arrest like this has long-term ramifications.

Mr. Gates was fortunate. He was able to get out of this, but people wind up having to go to criminal courts and fight these charges, hire a lawyer and then have to try to find out if their civil rights have been violated. So this kind of case can escalate, and unfortunately I don't think enough consideration is given to the human side of individuals' ego, individuals' sense of self-respect, because I think if you respected people and talked to them in a respectful way, you can de-escalate many of these situations that ultimately escalate out of control.

NEARY: Well, you've written a book, "Blue vs. Black," that makes some suggestions about how we can end the conflict between cops and minorities. What would you say is really key? What's the key to the ending?

Mr. BURRIS: The ultimately key to me, and it always has been, is communication, the ability to talk to people in a respectful way and get them to understand why you are doing what you are doing and giving them an opportunity to respond.

Obviously, every situation is a little bit different, but I'll tell you: Most situations would not occur if the officer talked to the person in a respectful way and tried to communicate…

NEARY: And what about if the person also speaks respectfully too, I would say, because people get angry pretty quickly in these kinds of situations.

Mr. BURRIS: Absolutely, but most people, I have found, if you treat them with respect, that is the police, they will respond in a respectful way. Obviously, you have situations where they can escalate out of control, but I will tell you: If you communicate and just demonstrate that you understand and have some empathy for the person and why they're there and how you happened to get there, you can de-escalate and you can prevent most of these situations from occurring.

NEARY: All right, Mr. Burris, thanks so much for joining us. John Burris joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. He's a civil rights attorney and the author of the book "Blue vs. Black: Let's End the Conflict Between Cops and Minorities."

And joining us now is Rosie Sizer. She is the chief of police in Portland, Oregon, and she joins us from her office there. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Chief ROSIE SIZER (Chief of Police, Portland, Oregon): It's my pleasure.

NEARY: Now, President Obama addressed Henry Louis Gates' arrest in his news conference last night. Let's listen to a bit of that tape now.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.

Now, Ms. Sizer, we want to get into the question of race, but first, let's talk about just the basics. What should happen when a person is confronted by an officer in their home. If you do offer proof that you live there, should that be the end of it?

Chief SIZER: In most cases, I think it is the end of it. The call for service that the officer responded to was what could be considered a burglary in progress or some suspicious activity, and in most cases when an individual is able to present proof that they, in fact, live in the house, the call is resolved fairly quickly.

NEARY: Now, I think it's fairly common, as the president said, people get angry in situations like this. There can be, you know, an exchange of words, maybe raised voices. This would be before anything physical occurred, just raised voices. From a police officer's perspective, what's - how should a police officer diffuse a situation like that?

Chief SIZER: Well, ideally you should be able to diffuse a situation like this verbally, and very seldom resort to an arrest situation. I don't know the specifics of what happened.

NEARY: And we don't want to get into the specifics of this case. I'm asking you in general how a police officer should handle any kind of situation where, you know, the person involved is angry but not threatening, let's say.

Chief SIZER: Well, it really depends on the kind of a call you're responding to, the information you receive about the call, whether or not the suspect description indicates any violence or whether or not the individual may be armed with a weapon. It's the facts surrounding that determine the appropriate response.

So I think it's very hard to say very generally what the best response is because it's very, very fact-specific.

NEARY: Yeah. Do police departments in general have specific guidelines for dealing with that particular situation, with a situation where what you've really got at first is just an angry person?

Chief SIZER: Well, we have training doctrine, and we also have policies and procedures, but policies and procedures are often very much more general. Training doctrine and training practices often give police officers guidelines about how they respond to a wide variety of incidents, and we also depend upon their maturity and common sense to resolve situations in the best way possible.

NEARY: Now, what happens when race is part of the equation here? I mean, what we've been talking about so far is just this could be anybody: a person of any race gets angry, heated words exchanged with the police. What happens when race is part of it?

Chief SIZER: Well, race is not uncommonly part of policing in America, and often it adds emotion. It adds distrust to an encounter that may already be difficult.

NEARY: And what kind of training do officers have for specifically dealing with these situations when race is involved? Is there training?

Chief SIZER: I think there's very little training. I think there is more than there has been historically, but I think this is a fairly new venture for police departments.

Most police training has been oriented in the past on giving officers background in law, in procedures, and on police tactics. I think there's been insufficient attention historically given to communications training and very little attention to how communications can sometimes break down in the heat of discussions of race.

NEARY: Now, do you agree with what the president said - that is, that blacks and Hispanics are stopped disproportionately by police, that there's a history of that in this country?

Chief SIZER: Well, for about the last 10 years, many police departments, especially large, urban police departments, have been collecting data on their traffic stops, and most departments, including my own, show disproportionate stops based on race when measured against census data.

I think most scholars also recognize census data is not a good benchmark for stops, but there really is not another benchmark.

NEARY: Now, I know that you recently released a plan to address racial profiling in your city, Portland, and we're going to ask you about that when we return from a short break. So stay with us. We are talking with Rosie Sizer, chief of police in Portland, Oregon, and we're talking about tensions between law enforcement and minorities.

If you've experienced this directly, either as a police officer or a citizen, tell us your story. Call us at 800-989-8255, or send us an email to talk@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. A bit later in the program, actor Jeff Daniels joins us to talk about his new movie, but right now we're talking about cops, ethnicity and the long history of tension in this country.

If you've experienced this directly, either as a police officer or a citizen, tell us your story. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. The email is talk@npr.org, or you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

My guest is Rosie Sizer. She's the chief of police of Portland, Oregon. And joining us now is Clarence Edwards. He was the first African-American chief of police in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., and he now works as a senior law enforcement and security consultant. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CLARENCE EDWARDS (Former Chief of Police, Montgomery County, Maryland): Thank you.

NEARY: Thanks for being with us. First of all, I just was wondering: Did you hear the president last night? And I was wondering what your reaction was to the comments that he made about the situation in Cambridge with Mr. Gates.

Mr. EDWARDS: Yes, I heard his comments, and I happen to have lived in Boston from 1977 to 1979. So I'm somewhat familiar with the situation in the Boston area, although Cambridge is considered a much better place for people of color than some areas of Boston. But I heard the president, and I think his statement was accurate.

NEARY: Okay. We were talking with Chief Sizer just before you joined us, and I was mentioning before the break, Chief Sizer, that you came up with a plan to deal with racial profiling, and I wonder if you can tell us what's in that plan.

Chief SIZER: Well, we've been involved in a long discussion about race relations in my community the entire tenure of my chiefdom, I guess, and out of that discussion we developed and presented a racial profiling plan.

I can't say that this is all novel information. What I can say, it's a principled attempt to make things better, to build public trust between the police bureau and our community, particularly communities of color, and it's divided into four principal parts, one focusing on recruitment and hiring, one on data, a third section is on building relationships with minority communities, and fourth on training.

NEARY: All right, Clarence Edwards, I wanted to ask you, continuing this discussion about racial profiling. Do you - in your opinion, is it an exception or is it really institutionalized racism?

Mr. EDWARDS: In some instances it's an exception, and in others it's institutionalized racism. I think that the onus falls on the chief and the top echelon within the police department to set the stage by training and by strict enforcement when there is evidence that you have a problem officer, and frequently that's not the case.

NEARY: Something I'd like to ask both of you, but let's start with you, Mr. Edwards, and that is kind of the weight of history here. The president alluded to that last night or spoke pretty directly to that last night when he said that, you know, there is a history here of tension between people of color and police departments, of a sense that they are disproportionately picked on, let's say, by the police or targeted by the police.

So how, as police officers, when you are dealing with these kinds of situations, how do you deal with that weight of history? How do you take that in and make that something you can help your officers understand they have to deal with each time they go out on the street? Can you?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, one thing that I've emphasized over the years is that we have to do a better job of scrutinizing police applicants. I've advocated we use the polygraph exam to detect unlawful activity or drug use, but there, to my knowledge, are no questions on that that relate specifically to a person's attitude on race, and I think that's something that perhaps we need to look at.

And I think your culture in the organization, you have to be constantly monitoring that to make sure that people who are coming on, people who are actively working the street, as well as your supervisors and managers, understand that this is something that's not going to be tolerated, because if they see someone get away with it, and somebody has that type of mentality, then it will happen.

NEARY: So when you were chief of police in Montgomery County, Maryland, how did you work on that culture? I mean, do you institute programs? Is it a question of saying this is simply not allowed within the police department at all, certain kinds of language, certain kinds of attitudes towards other - I mean, how do you change a culture?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, our training in Montgomery County was based on bringing community activists, who are respected people, into the training academy, to sit down and talk to your recruits and explain to them the concerns of the various different communities.

Montgomery County has a significant Hispanic population, as well as a black population. So we bring people in, and they would be a part of the discussions in recruit school, and also in service. Because one of the things I've noticed over the years is in America we don't know each other, and a people that don't know each other are apprehensive about each other and have fears, and we're trying to overcome those apprehensions and fears.

NEARY: Chief Sizer, what about you, this whole idea that it has to begin in the culture of the department?

Chief SIZER: Oh, I think that's absolutely true. You talked about the history and the burden of history on minority communities and the police. Unfortunately, many newly hired officers are not aware of the history at all, and so I think it's incumbent upon us to teach them the history and teach them the various perspectives that exist around the issue and better prepare them for the stew that they're going to face on the street of race and class and politics and resentment, so they are -they react in a way that is not turtling up and just being defensive and shutting down, or at the end of the spectrum, reacting with anger when their moral authority is questioned.

NEARY: Chief Edwards, is the weight of history so strong that, in fact, minorities can perceive that the situation involves race or is racist or is racial profiling when it really isn't?

Mr. EDWARDS: It's possible in some instances, and that's brought about because people do encounter problems. I'll give you an example. I was chief of police. I'm in a suit, and I get on the elevator. There's a white woman on the elevator. She grabs her pocketbook and moves to the corner, changes her pocketbook over to the other side.

So I started laughing, and I went into my vest pocket and came out with my credentials and badge. I said, lady, you don't have to be afraid of me. I'm chief of police.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. EDWARDS: Now, that's an example, and you have another example where Magic Johnson and another basketball player had a similar experience on an elevator, and when you multiply these things out over the lifespan of a person, people become pretty sensitive to that.

Now, what I believe, that our secondary education needs to do a better job of teaching our children about the history of slavery, about Jim Crow, and about all of those problematic areas in this country. We don't do that, and so therefore you can get an education through - K through 12 and not have a clue about what is really going on in this country.

NEARY: We are talking about race relations and law enforcement. Our guests are Clarence Edwards, the Montgomery County, Maryland's first African-American chief of police. He currently works as a senior law enforcement and security consultant. And we're also talking with Rosie Sizer, chief of police in Portland, Oregon.

We're going to take a call now from Jason, who is calling from Arkansas. Hi, Jason.

JASON (Caller): Hi. I totally agree with your speakers. The point that I'd like to make is that, you know, I'm a white guy, and I've had many experiences with the police, and in virtually all of them they've treated me, you know, disrespectfully. They've escalated the situation if I got upset about it, and I think that a lot of times minorities assume that their minority status is why that happens, when in actuality I think it's the way the police are trained to deal with suspects.

NEARY: Chief Sizer, did you want to respond to that?

Chief SIZER: We've just gone through our in-service training annually, and we had instructors who really talked about that, clueing officers in that disrespectful communication is often interpreted by minorities as racial bias when in fact the officer may be acting like a jerk, and maybe he or she routinely acts like a jerk. And so it really incumbent on us to be respectful and professional in how we interact with everyone, even though we in turn do not always receive that behavior.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call now. Thanks so much for your call, Jason.

JASON: Thank you.

NEARY: Okay. We're going to go to Paul, who's calling from Chicago. Hi, Paul.

PAUL (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good. Go ahead.

PAUL: Okay. Yeah. I had incident where - when I was 14 years old in Chicago - and an officer backhanded me in my mouth. And it took the other two officers that he was working with to stop him from hitting me again.

NEARY: And what was the situation that you were in? Were you being stop for something or…

PAUL: No. I hopped the turnstile when I was a kid. We hopped the train over the turnstile. And the thing is, I had a few bucks in my pocket. And he asked me why I did it, and I was just being a silly kid. And -but he was being really rough with me and he backhanded me in my mouth because I didn't respond to his question in a timely manner, I suppose.

NEARY: And how did it end - just when his partner intervened, then it was over?

PAUL: Yeah. They gave him a really hard look and they said, hey, you know, like, what's your problem? Why don't you calm down, you know? I mean, I was just, you know, a 14-year-old kid, you know? So I guess they thought he was getting out of hand.

NEARY: Yeah. Chief Edwards, here's a case where you had two cops - one maybe did the right thing, one did the wrong thing.

Chief EDWARDS: Well, I'll give you a personal experience. When I was chief, I guess around 2:30 in the morning I received a phone call from a female sergeant. And she indicated that one of our officers had done something very similar to what was just described, and she was reporting it to me. That wasn't the protocol, but she called me because she knew that I was very serious about incidents of this type. And she asked me, will you support me? And I assured her that I would. This officer had had a number of problems and he was - his employment was terminated.

NEARY: Okay. Thanks for your call, Paul.

PAUL: All right. Thank you.

NEARY: Appreciate it. Let's go to Willy, who's calling from Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Willy.

WILLY (Caller): Yes.

NEARY: Go ahead.

WILLY: Yes. I was listening to you guys, and - I drive trucks for a living. And I've had several incidents where I was stopped by officers out on the road. And a lot of them - some - well, I've had some, you know, that were pretty decent. But the majority of them were just downright rude. And automatically I was to say nothing, I was to not make any wrong moves - I had one unsnap his gun on me. And I mean I'm standing there totally unarmed and it's just like - it makes you feel violated, you know what I'm saying?

NEARY: Now, Willy, are you African-American?

WILLY: Yes, I am.

NEARY: And did you feel you were treated that way because of your race? Did you feel…

WILLY: Yes. I honestly and surely believe that I was, because, yeah, I'm 54 years old, you know? And I don't have to read a book to realize what I'm up against (unintelligible). There's been several incidents out here over the years that I've had to just bite my lip and just, look, you know…

NEARY: You just have to bite your lip, yeah. That's…

WILLY: Yeah. Yeah. Either that or go to jail, or be shot. I had an officer - I'll give you an - one incident that happened out in California. I was driving a truck that was governed at 63-mile-an-hour. Well, the officer stopped me and told me that was going 72-mile-an-hour. Well, I told him, I said, man, the truck is governed at 63. It won't go any faster than that. And before I could do anything else, the man unsnapped his gun, steps back and asked me if I had anything else to say.

NEARY: Wow. That scared me. You know what? I got scared just hearing you say that.

WILLY: Yeah. And I'm out there on the side of the road, you know, with a man with the gun, nobody else around but him and me on the backside of the truck. I mean, you can imagine how I felt.

NEARY: Yeah. Willy, I'm going to get our guests to respond to your story. Thank you for calling in. And I want to remind our audience that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Okay. I guess let's go to Chief Sizer. You know, here is a really good example of (unintelligible) he said, I'm alone on the side of the road and, you know, the guy heads towards his gun when he hasn't really done anything, it sounds like. Are you still there, Chief Sizer?

Chief SIZER: Yes, I am. Yes, I am.

NEARY: What's your reaction to that situation? And why does that happen? And how can it not happen?

Chief SIZER: Well, I really don't think it's fair to put me in the position of second-guessing what happened.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Chief SIZER: I think what's important for police officers when they hear stories and they were not there and they don't know is to honor the perspective of the person who's telling the story and take into consideration how they can respond appropriately in the job they do every day.

NEARY: Okay. I have an email here from Dave in New Hampshire. I was a law enforcement officer in New Hampshire for a number of years in the '90s. I had only a single run-in with race, as New Hampshire is not known for its diversity. I stopped a car at 10:00 p.m. traveling east on a road in town. The car was traveling over 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. I approached the vehicle and the driver immediately started yelling at me, telling me I stopped him due to his race. Now, at the closing speed, the headlights on, I would've had a hard time telling the color of the vehicle, let alone the driver. He immediately played the race card and was extremely confrontational. I had a great deal of difficulty in calming him down.

I also was torn between writing the ticket and reinforcing his mindset that cops were out to get him, or letting him go and reinforcing the race card play as a way to shame the police into letting you get away with bad behavior. I let him off with a warning, but he pushed every button.

Clarence Edwards, clearly this - we're not going to resolve this right here, right now in the next minute, but is there one thing you would leave - a thought you would leave us with to how you diffuse these kinds of tense situations from both sides?

Chief EDWARDS: Well, one thing that I think police officers have to be cognizant of is the fact that when a person is threatened with a ticket, they'll use whatever ploy that they feel will work. And by the same token, police officers can't - I don't believe should be so thin-skinned as to allow someone to get them to do something that they perhaps would not have done. If you were not going to - in a certain set of circumstances, if we're not going to issue a ticket, then don't issue a ticket simply because the person made you angry.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today. Clarence Edwards is Montgomery County, Maryland's first African-American chief of police. And we were also joined with Rosie Sizer, the chief of police of Portland, Oregon. Thanks to both of you for being with us. And up next, Jeff Daniels.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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