Policing Post Mortem: What Needs to Happen Next?

Ever since the indictments came down against six Baltimore police officers after the death of Freddie Gray there’s been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking and political punditry about what should happen to correct the epidemic of police brutality aimed largely at young Black men. 

But talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words: In the aftermath of Newtown, Ct. we have yet to pass sensible gun laws or to close dangerous loopholes. And when it comes to the horrendous backlash against women’s rights, even the rhetoric is missing.

Having listened to the gaggle of talking heads on TV news shows, it seems to me that several things are needed if change is to happen.

First, let’s listen to people who really understand the problems we face and have good ideas about how to fix them. Some awesome voices and astute analysis came out of Baltimore from within the Black community; “experts” need to listen to them. Among them were the Mamas who head households and raise kids, youth, clergy, and neighborhood leaders. They have a lot to say about what people in the trenches need to survive with dignity. Talking with grassroots folks is at the heart of qualitative research about community problems and how to tackle them and the process works best when it isn’t based on top-down assumptions or value judgments. Where were those voices in the public arena?

Then we have to stop the Blame Game and own the problem, because it belongs to all of us. It’s easy for pundits to blame unions, welfare, single mothers, absent fathers (many of whom are incarcerated) and lack of training (for nonexistent jobs). But the reality is that responsibility for an epidemic of police violence and the reaction to it lies within institutions, governments, corporations, businesses, and with individuals who must recognize the prejudices they harbor.  As economist Paul Krugman pointed out, lagging wages, poor health care, failing education systems, false assumptions and deifying middle class values have all contributed to the crisis.

Telling the truth about what happened and why in cities like Baltimore is urgent. Further, we must be innovative, perhaps even risk-taking, in thinking of ways to address urban America’s problems, not in the future, but now. We must answer hard questions: What needs to happen immediately? Where will necessary resources (human and financial) come from? Where is money invested and what’s the measurable outcome? How can we work strategically, collaboratively and productively and avoid competition or duplication?

Then there’s White-Man-Speak. Are others are as tired as I am of listening to political rhetoric from people (usually male) who have no first-hand experience of the problems about which they pontificate? I’m tired of the Us/Them dichotomy reflected in superficial statements presented as “analysis” from “experts.” I’m fed up with folks who can’t say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong,” as the mayor of Baltimore couldn’t when she referred to young, frustrated citizens as “thugs.” I’m tired of people like Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland and a potential Democratic presidential candidate, using their media time for campaign pitches thinly veiled as solutions.

Frankly, I’m tired of media establishment journalists who don’t have the guts to ask hard questions and press for answers. Why didn’t hosts of Meet the Press and Face the Nation ask the retired detectives they dug up about the legality of locking up hundreds of people in heinous conditions without charge or bail for 48 hours in Baltimore? Why not one question about the millions of dollars paid in reparations for police brutality in Baltimore? Why not hold Speaker Boehner’s feet to the fire when he pouts and ignores questions?

The fact is that superficial talk, assumptions framed as gospel, and blaming vs. getting to the bottom of behavioral precipitants are no substitute for communicating with each other – cops, business people, parents, teachers, kids, clergy, local officials, community opinion leaders. (Attorney General Loretta Lynch made a good start.)  Key questions need to be asked: “What are the biggest obstacles to change? How can we work together to overcome them? Where are we getting it wrong? What do YOU need to feel you have a chance at life? How can we get there together? What are top priorities and how should we begin to approach them? When should we talk again about how we’re doing?”

That approach is labor-intensive and costly in both human and financial terms. It requires a deep commitment to getting things right and seeing things through, no matter how challenging. It means compromising and yielding ego. It means learning to trust others, no matter where they come from or what credentials they hold, or lack. It’s never easy but it is always worthwhile.

Wes Moore, a Black Baltimore resident, retired veteran, and author appearing on Meet the Press said, “People need to think you care before they care what you think. Everyone needs to feel safe. It’s a matter of human intelligence.”

His statement seems like a fine place to start talking before translating words into action.