Shooting Strains Police-Community Ties in NYC

The death of Sean Bell tests relations between police and the predominantly black community where Bell lived. Can the two sides reconcile? Carolyne Abdullah, program director for the Study Circles Resource Center, and Jack Riley, acting director of the Rand Center on Quality Policing, discuss developments with Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Race and policing isn't just an issue in New York. There are organizations across the country trying to bring police and communities together. I spoke with Carolyn Abdullah, program director for the Study Circles Resource Center. She creates structured forums between police and communities who share ideas. And I also spoke with Jack Riley. He's the acting director of the RAND Corporation Center on Quality Policing. He studied relations between police and residents in Cincinnati, Ohio, and says his team found no hard evidence of racist policies.

Mr. JACK RILEY (Director, RAND Corporation Center on Quality Policing): But that doesn't in any way, shape or form take away from the fact that black residents in Cincinnati experienced policing very different from white residents.

Black residents tend to live in neighborhoods that have higher crime rates, where the police are allocating more of their resources. And if the police are engaged in proactive policing measures such as aggressive enforcement of vehicle code standards as a way of showing law enforcement presence and attempting to keep drug dealers out of a neighborhood or a specific area or something.

And so this contributes to the perception that blacks are treated differently because of their race, when in fact there is a difference in the policing, but it is driven by policy choices and by the department attempting to be both proactive but also concentrate resources where they think they're needed the most.

CHIDEYA: Carolyn, you know, one way I've heard people put it in casual conversation is that Officer Friendly does not come to the black neighborhood. Is that one of the perceptions that you picked up out of what you do for the Study Circles Resource Center, and what exactly is the work that you do?

Ms. CAROLYN ABDULLAH (Program Director, Study Circles Resource Center): I think Jack is quite right when he talks about the perceptions of people of color in these communities and how they perceive policing. And so what we try to do is go out to communities and helped engaged residents, and engage the police community to talk about what can we do to address this perceptions? What can we do to make change? What can we do to better police our communities?

And oftentimes, when we have that kind of conversation - which they normally do not have - they generally come out that process saying, well, I didn't know that residents experienced these kinds of things and this kind of issues. Or a community member may say, I didn't know police work involved these kinds of things.

So the community becomes a very active participant in trying to determine what does policing look like in my community, and what should it look like in my particular community.

CHIDEYA: Jack, let's talk more about an issue that you brought up, which is basically how police police. And you mentioned an example of, you know, aggressive vehicle infraction enforcement and how people might perceive that as targeted. It sounds to me like what you're saying is that it's not just race. It's also policy - police policy. It's also socioeconomics.

To what extent could community members or, you know, even people who were within police departments, make some recommendations that might help breakdown the problems of perception and then also solve the problems of actual incidents that just crossed the line of shootings and beatings, of which there certainly had been plenty?

Mr. RILEY: Well, one of the things that I think we're accomplishing with the five-year evaluation that we have in Cincinnati of the partnership to improve police community relations is we're helping communities understand what kind of measurement capability and benchmarks they have to have in place.

And a clear outcome we don't have in place at this point is the ability to compare two different policies that might achieve the same result - and let's just for the sake of argument say reducing the amount of drug dealing in a specific neighborhood - two different approaches that police might use to that particular problem. One might be this kind of aggressive enforcement of vehicle traffic going through that particular neighborhood. And another might be more investment in undercover operations and efforts to penetrate the drug-dealing effort from the inside.

You have to consider the impact of those two policy choices on police community relations. And if you find two policies that are equally effective, and one of them has a much worse impact on police community relations than the other, then hopefully over time we'll be able to demonstrate that it would be to the department's advantage to favor that policy that disrupts or disturbs police community relations the least.

But I think it's really important for your listeners to understand that understanding how to measure these kinds of effects and how to design enforcement policies in a way where they were effective against crime but also incorporate perceptions and realities of racial bias into the enforcement mechanism - this is all relatively new stuff to the field of policing.

CHIDEYA: And, Carolyn, I'll just give you the last word since we're almost out of time. In the case of the death of Mr. Bell in New York, you have a city that has had its share - more than its share - of racially charged policing incidents. You know, everything from Amadou Diallo to Abner Louima. Things seem to have been getting better in the past few years, but now this is opening up a lot of old wounds.

What would you say to people in New York? I mean, that's - from what I understand, New York City is not one of the areas you dealt with directly, but what is perhaps something that folks should remember on both sides of the issue?

Ms. ABDULLAH: I think one of the issues is that we are sort of used to the idea that citizen engagement is an input process model, and they are not really an active participant in making and deciding what those policies should be. And I think we move toward a more comprehensive approach to policing in our communities that what citizens have to say is not simply regarded as the okay or the rubber stamp to a policy that was created within the police department itself.

And we really want to help them have those ideas at the forefront of making policies to deal with crime and other issues of safety in their communities.

CHIDEYA: Well, Carolyn, Jack, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RILEY: Thank you.

Ms. ABDULLAH: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Carolyn Abdullah is program director for the Study Circle's Resource Center. She joined us from the studios of Mississippi ETV in Jackson. And Jack Riley is acting director of the Rand Corporation's Center on Quality Policing.

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CHIDEYA: Coming up, eight black teens in California face hate crime charges. And she wrote stories that readers didn't want to ever end. We remember writer Bebe Moore Campbell. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable, next.

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