All lives matter, of course. Black lives matter. Police lives matter. Mentally ill lives matter. Addict lives matter. Each of us is important. Every life is worth saving. Have I said anything controversial yet? Have I said anything you disagree with?
Chris and I have really struggled with whether to post anything about this issue, especially as two rallies, seemingly in opposition to each other, were scheduled on back to back Saturdays. Last week a “Police Lives Matter Rally” on Kennedy Plaza in the freezing cold drew a hearty crowd, as covered in the Sun story here. This Saturday (the 24th) at the same spot, there will be a “Rally Against Police Brutality and Racial Discrimination”, organizing on facebook here. This is an issue where tempers easily flare, and both sides have had difficulty approaching the issue calmly. I think people voicing their opinions is a great thing, but I think it’s very easy—when this discussion takes place only in charged-up Facebook comments and fiery protests—for everyone to get defensive and nobody to take the time to listen to each other. I want to explore what we are arguing about when we argue about the police in Lowell, and whether there is any overlap between these two points of view.
What concerns would each side have?
I hear police supporters object to the way hardworking and self-sacrificing police officers are often lumped together with bad ones. I hear anger about an issue they feel doesn’t apply to Lowell, because Lowell has such a small black population*. And I think also there’s the reflexive defensiveness that happens when somebody calls you racist and an understandable suspicion of a national movement stirring up issues in Lowell that seem like they have more to do with the South or New York City.
The people at the rally against racism and police brutality say that they are indeed part of a national movement, but with local relevance. They voice concerns about two occasionally separate but frequently interconnected issues: problems of officer-involved violence, and problems related to racial profiling by police, especially of black people. While this movement is playing out on a national scale, and many want to show their solidarity with residents of other cities, they also have specific local concerns based on incidents that have occurred here.
Many cite last year’s Alyssa Brame case, in which a woman died in police custody after a series of mistakes that directly contradicted written policy. Alyssa Brame was white, but the clear lapse in protocol weakens some people’s trust in the police.
Others say that racial profiling is an issue in Lowell. Although to my knowledge no one has done much real research into this topic, anecdotal evidence does suggest it’s at least perceived as an issue. When UTEC did their City Council Candidate forum in 2013, they surveyed Lowell High youth to find out what their concerns were, and police relations were high on the list. According to their survey, more than half of the students had had “negative interactions with the police, and have felt profiled”. Of course, that’s far from conclusive, you’d need a lot more than a casual survey to really know what was going on. But more than half? That seems alarming.
Part of the issue of communication between the groups might be different uses of language. The movement’s frequent motto “Black Lives Matter” can be confusing to people who respond “all lives matter”. However, it’s a rallying cry that’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter, but that black lives don’t matter less than other lives. Everyone is familiar with the concept of “missing white woman syndrome” in which a blonde woman who is the victim of a crime is given endless news airtime, while people of color who are victims get much less attention.** Many African-Americans feel that their communities and particularly their safety are often given less attention in a similar fashion.
“Black lives matter” is meant to be a little shocking, to make you say “Of course they do!” Because of course they do. That we are all equal, and that all of our lives are important, is one of our most fundamental principals, something we can surely all agree about.
What do we want policing to look like in Lowell?
I think if you polled the police support rally, and this Saturday’s upcoming one, you’d actually get surprisingly similar answers. The police should treat everyone fairly and with respect. The police should be a regular part of the fabric of the neighborhood, friendly and helpful. Officers should use force only when truly necessarily, and deadly force as a very last resort. Police officers should be respected as having a very stressful job that can also be dangerous.
What if you asked police officers? Well, as you’ve probably heard, Lowell has recently renewed its emphasis on the community policing model, a holistic strategy that emphasizes approaching not only an individual crime but the larger environment it takes place in. Lowell police officers spend more time in the neighborhoods, walking, biking, and segwaying around to improve their own visibility and accessibility. The model also emphasizes building community partnerships, and thinking creatively about how to resolve chronic problems.
New Police Superintendent Bill Taylor has spoken frequently about this, emphasizing that having officers be assigned a particular beat, building relationships and getting to know the community can help people to feel safe coming to the police with a problem or with information. They’ve also introduced a series of events called “Coffee with a Cop” in which folks can turn up to chat with their neighborhood police officers about safety concerns and anything else they might wonder about. Chris wrote about one we went to here, and there’s another one coming up on the 28th from 8-9:30 a.m. at Starbucks on South Campus (Wilder Street) at UMass Lowell.
The worst thing that can happen to a police force is for it to find itself in opposition to the communities it is supposed to serve. When police feel unsafe, they naturally react more aggressively to people becoming angry and unpredictable. In turn, when a community feels police officers treat them violently and unfairly, they are unlikely to speak to the police when they need help and far more likely to lose their cool in a tense encounter with police. Think about the anxiety and frustration you feel when you get pulled over for speeding. Any encounter between civilians and police officers has an inherent tension. That situation becomes exponentially more dangerous when the police in a community are viewed negatively.
Even if the only lives we cared about were police lives, I think we would still design a model of policing that calls for officers to use force as little as possible. The more escalated a situation becomes, the more dangerous for all involved. In addition, the memory of having to hurt, or God forbid, kill someone can be a very difficult burden to bear, as soldiers struggling with PTSD suggest. I could be wrong, but I think most police officers would say that they try to use force as little as possible. Good training and mental health resources can help officers focus on deescalation of tense situations and deal with their emotions afterward.
I admire police officers because I’ve worked at a video store. Let me explain: at the video store I often had to give people the bad news that they had minor late fees. People hate that! They hate getting bad news, they hate having to pay money, they hate being caught in a mistake. People were often very rude and aggressive with me about this, occasionally even scary, and it was emotionally exhausting to have to deal with these kinds of unpredictable minor tantrums. Police officers have to give out a lot of bad news, deal with people a lot angrier than I did. Handling angry and unpredictable, even unstable people is very stressful, and it really takes a very special person with very good training and a good support system to be able to respond calmly and unemotionally to an escalating situation. True strength is the police officers that can let such abuse roll off their backs, and handle bad situations with empathy and calm.
What about documented cases of police aggression, scary video footage of police officers in situations like Tamir Rice, the 12-year old with a bb gun in Cleveland shot within seconds of police arriving at the scene? Police supporters often say that police overreaching is just “a few bad apples”. That may be so, but the rest of that expression is important. A few bad apples can spoil the whole barrel, creating an atmosphere of aggression and abuse. In other police forces, there are examples of good officers losing their jobs because they tried to report abuse in their colleagues. I know extra levels of accountability can be a hassle (I work for the federal government!) but truly, oversight like body cameras or citizen review boards will only help good officers protect themselves. I understand that officers have a strong brotherhood (and sisterhood. siblinghood?), but how can it be offensive to suggest that those who “serve and protect” our community are accountable to us?
I’ve tried to drive this post directly down the middle, because I truly believe that if both sides could speak to each other calmly, it would not be that hard to agree on what the police in Lowell should really look like. We all want to be safe. We all want to be treated fairly. We want our friends, family, and neighbors to be treated fairly, too. We want police officers to go home safe at night. We also want criminals to have their day in court, addicts to get treatment, and the mentally ill to get help. There will probably always be tragic situations, but we truly can all work together to build a peaceful community. Each and every life in Lowell matters.
*It’s true that Lowell has many a much smaller proportion of African-Americans than many big cities, only about 7,000 estimated in 2013 (6.5%). It’s worth remembering, though, that Lowell has more African immigrants every year, and that many of the concerns of the the black lives matter movement are shared by other people of color. ↩
**I think even the term “people of color” confuses some people, which is understandable because it’s relatively new. “People of color” means more than African Americans—it means everyone who isn’t white/caucasian. ↩