Author’s Note: With the recent police brutality issues escalating to dangerous levels, I have had a lot on my mind regarding the issue. My reaction to such thoughts has always been to write, so I opened up a blank text document and poured my thoughts out in the form of a blog post. 5 pages and over 2400 words later, I realized how much there is on my mind. I’ve decided to publish it, despite a majority of the post being unreferenced thoughts I just had to get out. Since the solution I suggest involves debate and transparent, it would be hypocritical to keep it to myself. I’ve written this so that the main point can, hopefully, come across from just the introduction and conclusion. All I ask is that, before reading it, you take a step back and relax. This issue is dangerously clouded by emotions. It can only be resolved by opening your mind and looking at this from more than one angle. Think of it as a reset, of sorts.
As I’m nearing my degree in Public Relations, issues of conflict have become more and more interesting to me. While I prefer corporate over political PR, social issues have come to my attention quite often. Sadly, serious conflict has been rising lately, and it has empowered me more and more to get into PR – essentially, a referee between two different entities (typically a corporation and its stakeholders) that need to work together to make the world right. With the recent uprising of police-related issues, a number of incredibly controversial situations have occurred. For various reasons, I have felt divided; but in some ways, I feel directly in the middle, very much undecided. Let me explain.
First, I’ll start with my background and full disclosure. I grew up in a fairly diverse area for the first 18 years of my life – my home zip code, according to the 2010 census, is about 56% white, 22% black, and 32.8% Hispanic/Latino. Majority white, but over 50% Black and Hispanic, at least qualifies as slightly diverse. I then went on to a majority white school, but in a very diverse city (Boston). And in terms of full disclosure – I grew up around, and am related to, many people in law enforcement, including my father. These include a state trooper, a couple dispatchers, a corrections officer, and a local retired sergeant, most closely. Because of this, I’ve met many cops – some I like, some I don’t. I never really got into the idea that cops are inherently good, as they weren’t quite as mysterious to me. Between my diverse hometown, liberal thinking, and police family, I like to think I could be considered biased on either side – and thus unbiased, in a way.
Because I am so surrounded by college students, minorities, and police, I have heard very strong feelings from both sides. However, from a PR standpoint, I haven’t seen much particularly “good” from either. The debate is full of stereotypes, assumptions, insults, and – most predominately – blaming. Victim-blaming, race-blaming, police-blaming. This has come in various forms, mainly due to lack of organization on both sides. Different people are fighting different battles with different rhetoric, preventing progress. But among them is a critical theme – one blames the other, each is stubborn in their views, and no real debate is conducted. It ends simply in more fighting and more revenge. This brings us to a crucial point – violence solves nothing. Saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong” solves nothing. This is, in simple PR terminology, a crisis. This applies to both sides – a crisis for the police, and a crisis for the minority community in the U.S. When a company encounters a crisis, they hire a PR specialist to resolve it. Unfortunately, the police aren’t nationally unified enough to represent them all in one voice, and an entire race community is too large to be united under one voice. But if it were to happen, this is what those voices would sound like on each side.
While the gap between police and minorities has slowly grown over many years, the recent deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City have severely escalated fear of police brutality. Both are African American men who were killed by police offers while committing a crime – Michael Brown just after a robbery, and Eric Garner while selling illegal cigarettes. Both men were unarmed, but had been “resisting arrest.” An officer shot Michael Brown, while Eric Garner was put in a chokehold. Neither officer is being charged. Minority communities – particularly blacks – have claimed that these are cases of excessive police brutality, and a lack of charges against the police officers is racist because white cops are “being allowed” to kill black men.
Immediately after the decision in Ferguson, riots began. Stores were vandalized and looted, people paraded through the streets, and police fought to keep the rioting under control. With the Eric Garner decision not long after, riots escalated in New York City and quickly spread across the country. #BlackLivesMatter exploded on Twitter, and “die-ins” took place across the country where protestors laid on the ground, pretending to be dead, in streets, malls, and other public places.
On December 20th, the situation escalated when Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a black man, shot and killed two NYPD officers in Brooklyn. He had shot his girlfriend in Baltimore earlier in the day, posted threats on photo-sharing social network Instagram that suggested he would kill two police offers in New York that day, then travelled to NYC to do it. After shooting the two cops, he fled to a nearby subway station and committed suicide.
Let’s start with the police. From a basic, sort of cliché view, the police are a law-enforcing unit who the “good people” of the community are supposed to trust because they get rid of the “bad people.” However, that trust has been breached over time. Minorities have faced unfathomable discrimination over many years in countless situations. This has occurred not just from law enforcement, but can potentially come from anyone they interact with. This fear easily invokes paranoia; if you never know when someone is going to discriminate against you, how can you automatically assume that a police officer can be trusted? Over time, this builds– anecdotal evidence adds up until a stereotype is formed. From the police point of view, this can often be hard to understand. You’re protecting people, so you assume that they should assume you’re “good.” But it isn’t nearly so simple. Stereotypes from the other direction don’t help either – blacks are often assumed to be the perpetrators, leading to racial profiling. This is an assumption based off of Bureau of Justice statistics, claiming that “racial differences exist, with blacks disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders…(and) in 2005, offending rates for blacks were more than 7 times higher than the rates for whites.” (http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/htius.pdf) Yes, blacks commit more homicides – but blacks are also a significantly larger population in high-risk neighborhoods and member of gangs, due to larger issues, such as lack of wealth (see Thomas Shapiro’s book The Hidden Cost of Being African American) and discrimination in other areas, leading to low income and high unemployment.
After the incidents involving Brown, Garner, and Brinsley, the anti-brutality movement grew larger than ever. The Brinsley incident was the first real violent retaliation against the police. Earlier protests included unnecessarily disruptive actions, but nothing particularly violent. Those who are pro-police responded with, quite understandably, anger. Violence was fought against with violence, leading to more aggression. An incredibly dangerous progression of events. There is something here that the pro-police side needs to focus on: Brinsley is one person. An unknown number of protestors, likely hundreds of thousands, marched in cities around America, and one person committed murder. He also shot his girlfriend and posted threats on a social networking site, then killed himself – not something a normal protestor would do. This is a case of a likely psychotic man unable to control his emotions, and not understanding the implications of murder. One man cannot lead to an assumption about the rest of the protestors, just like one or two cops resorting to unnecessary brutality don’t make all cops bad. There have been people on social media who support Brinsley’s decision to murder cops – again, a small minority compared to the entirety of the anti-brutality protestors.
Let’s take a step back and simplify what’s going on. The issue is surrounding police brutality – many people believe it is a problem that does, in fact, occur. The police believe that these situations are justified and in self-defense; in the Brown and Garner cases, the police officer could potentially have been in serious danger. The pro-police response has been to denounce claims of police brutality, saying that the police officers acted accordingly to the situation and how they were trained. But this solves nothing, as the question of whether or not police brutality is an issue is irrelevant. The protestors have made up their minds. Are police perfect? Both sides can agree that they are not. They do what they are trained to do for a situation to end in the best interest of all involved – the police officer safe, the innocent unharmed, and the criminals taken care of as necessary. This is where the real debate needs to be: are police able to manage a situation in which all parties involved are dealt with fairly? This question is much more complicated than a simple “yes or no.” To what extent does a police officer have control of a situation? What constitutes “fair” in this question? These are the questions that the pro-police need to be thinking about.
The answer to a question of how police should be dealing with situations is transparency. This is where PR comes in. Police shouldn’t be a mystery – just some people who show up when there’s a problem, armed with training not understood by much of the public. The pro-police side of the debate needs to open up and explain why the actions of the officers who killed Brown and Garner were justified, instead of simply turning away questions that can’t be answered with “because we said so.” Peaceful debate is healthy. How, exactly, does police training say to deal with situations like this? Why? How can the public contribute to wording and interpreting that training? Who decides the appropriate course of action?
Besides answering questions, communication in general is key. Talk to people. Make friends in the community you patrol. Work with them, instead of around them. And, most importantly, show what you do. What your mission is. Be passionate about helping people in all aspects you can. And when a police officer does something wrong, stand against it. Supporting someone who does bad things makes you look like a bad person yourself. Just because someone else is a cop doesn’t mean you’re obligated to support them. You are obligated to support your mission, not the people who are hired but fail to do it. If someone can’t do it, they need to be dealt with, and the victims need to be treated with respect.
The riots following the Brown and Garner decisions were immediate, large, and aggressive. Most unfortunately, they were also unorganized. Without a voice to speak for them, the anti-brutality protestors have been defined by who got the most attention, which will always be the most violent and controversial of the group. After thousands of protestors participate in peaceful demonstrations, a single person who resorted to murder defined the group as a whole. The biggest names involved, such as Al Sharpton, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, and President Obama, were shoved into blame due to saying too much or not doing enough. But they’re given too much credit – regardless of what they did or didn’t say or do, not much would have changed without proper organization. The anti-brutality movement has been in chaos, indecisive of what methods of protest work best, leading to no results.
Some protestors simply walked. Some chanted. Some blocked roads and highways. Some participated in die-ins. Some encourage violence, others act out violence, and one murders. And after all of these actions, what has been accomplished? Violence and attention. Violence is bad, and attention is only good when something is done with it.
Working under the anti-brutality movement’s presumption that police are overly violent and discriminate, let’s look at what they’ve done. Aggression has been dealt with by dealing more aggression, which only escalates the situation. Stopping an issue is done by encouraging the opposite – in this case, peace. Nonviolent and less intrusive protests receive the most support. Blocking roads interferes with those who are not involved, turning neutral people against you. Encouraging violence will only receive support from the most radical, and acting out on that violence will get support from only the most radical minority.
Because the anti-brutality movement is so large, there will never be a single voice to speak on its behalf. But by working together, they can accomplish their mission. The first step is to realize that everyone in this situation is anti-brutality; one can support police officers and still be against brutality. In fact, most on the pro-police side are. The question is how those situations should have been dealt with. Were Brown and Garner treated fairly, giving that they were resisting arrest? Or, in fact, were they not resisting arrest? Should they not have been arrested for their crimes? Did they pose a threat to police officers? If you were in that situation, what would you have done? Answering these questions opens debate. Simple complaints and threats about police officers only invites the same back to you, leading nowhere.
Claiming “debate is the solution” isn’t a real answer. It’s a start, but nothing is that simple. These issues have been clouded with emotions on both sides, which has led to a complete lack of results. This is why all involved must step back, have a seat, and take a few deep breaths. The sadness, anger, and revenge flowing on both sides have prevented progress. With these emotions fueling the fight, what has happened? 4 men are dead. Many are arrested. Policy surrounding police brutality is unchanged. No trials have occurred. Police have less trust in minorities, and minorities have less trust in police. Both sides are failing.
I can go on for days elaborating on the details of each argument from both sides, the good and the bad of both, how each side has responded to each other, etc. Such details are irrelevant and simply overcomplicate the situation. The problem isn’t that police are too violent, or that protestors are irrational. The problem is that the basic right associated with freedom in America – the right to safety in everyday life – has been horribly violated on both sides of this debate. Police officers don’t feel safe because of discrimination against their job, and minorities don’t feel safe because of discrimination against their skin color. This is nothing new to either side, but the level of fear escalated too quickly for either to comprehend and neither side understands the other. Once this issue is dealt with, the other more deeply rooted issues such as how to deal with criminals can be considered.
Unfortunately, stereotypes, fears, and paranoia are too ingrained to be simply reset. Because of the number of people involved, a “treaty” of sorts is too difficult to implement. But not impossible. Violence and fear aren’t necessary when debate happens, and debate only happens when both sides open their minds, step into each other’s shoes, and practice transparency.
This starts with you. Don’t let the loudest voice or the biggest group speak for you. Encourage debate, practice peace, denounce violence, and support the good people involved in this issue. Write your own blog post with your thoughts. Use #BlackLivesMatter to show support for police, your disdain for violence on both sides, and your love of diversity. Each negative voice inspires more, but each positive voice inspires many. This applies evenly to both sides. Neither is right, and neither is wrong – minorities should be treated fairly, and police have a job to do. These aren’t mutually exclusive.