We don’t want to do Detroit again, one participant said, when 50 years later, the city still hasn’t fully recovered.
In the last few weeks, the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus has hosted four open forums on police/community relations, each with different sponsors and for different audiences. Participants found the forums revealing. They heard things that they hadn’t heard before, from people whom they did not yet know. They also disclosed things that they hadn’t shared in a long time, if at all. In doing so, they made significant new relationships while changing old relationships for the better.
Every forum also asked whether these gatherings, held here and across the nation, make any difference.
Failed police/community relations carry huge social and economic cost. Residents want peace and order without the sense of an oppressive occupying force. Police officers want to return home alive and uninjured, with the respect of those for whose security they risk their lives. Somewhere in that tense mix, communities find themselves torn by deadly police/resident conflict.
The forums recognized that communities tear themselves apart with resident-on-resident violence that includes domestic, drug-gang, mental-illness, terrorists and other varieties. They also recognized every occupation, policing or otherwise, has its dangerous kooks and no solution likely will eliminate all such horrors. The forums also concluded police have a higher duty, one that police seem fully ready to accept. One awful incident is too many, especially when the stakes so quickly spread beyond that one precious life to other lives affected by breakdowns in police/community relations.
Fortunately, law is action logic, not simply group therapy, as helpful as talking can be for relationships, understanding and even peace of mind. Law wants peace in neighborhoods, real peace of the physical-security kind, but with liberty, not the peace of an occupying force. So, what do these forums produce?
First, we recognize new trends and circumstances. Increased access to concealed-weapon permits is one example, as are changes in local and national economies, family structure and mental-health resources. Law and policing must recognize and respond to those changes, just as they currently are doing. Keep talking about those changes.
Second, we see the influence of new technologies, particularly smartphone video, body cameras and social media but also new body armor, Tasers and other disabling and protective devices. With video in particular, we rapidly share compelling recordings, often made all the more compelling by the unfortunate fact they may be critically incomplete. We need to monitor and deploy these new technologies while recognizing their challenges and limitations. Judge surely, but don’t rush to judgment.
Third, we have abundant new data, some of it in those very same recordings and social-media accounts but also in digitalized hospital records of police-injury reports and records maintained and distributed by the police agencies themselves. We also find the data is incomplete. While scholars are hard at work discerning patterns and trends from what data we have, we need more and better data. It’s coming. Encourage it.
Fourth, we find familiar stressors for both community and police alike. Veterans returning from undeclared wars re-enter communities and join local police forces, bringing their trauma with them. Neighborhoods produce their own battle-like stresses. Medicine offers new testing and therapies for stress-induced conditions. We need to take greater advantage of those resources.
Fifth, we find opportunities for new policies, protocols and practices guiding officer training, rotation, relief and testing, how to respond to citizens lawfully carrying concealed weapons and, of course, when and how to intervene using reasonable and necessary force.
Talk may be cheap, but talk can work, as these themes emerge and actions follow.
I once represented in a civil-rights action a young man whom an officer shot in the back while the young man lay defenseless on the ground with his hands behind his back. I have a low opinion of human nature but high opinion of human capacity. My hope is that in talking, studying and law reform, young men like that former client of mine will not have been shot. Let’s keep talking and forming relationships that promote peace, law, security, liberty, respect and order — not violence. Let communities then flourish.
Nelson Miller is associate dean at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School