Communities and Police Must Collaborate for Change

In the midst of outrage following the tragic killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and numerous other Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement, I’ve been remembering my late grandfather. He served as a Black police officer in Philadelphia for 27 years. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he was disgusted by video footage of his colleagues in the Deep South using water hoses and attack dogs to terrorize peaceful protesters bravely marching for civil rights. This was not the world he wanted to leave for his grandchildren.

I inherited my grandfather’s commitment to justice. I’ve attended several marches and die-ins in New York City, demanding a change in police and judicial practices that allow for brutality to go unchecked. Many of the police officers monitoring the demonstrations have been Black, and I truly believe that they, like my grandfather, are also eager for change.

This change is certainly easier said than done. As a Black man born and raised in a racially mixed neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I can attest to how law enforcement treats White youth differently. It did not matter that my community was known as “liberal” or “progressive.” White teenagers could openly engage in adolescent indiscretions, while Black teenagers, including myself, were constantly anxious about our appearance and demeanor in public spaces and particularly during casual interactions with police officers.

There is an urgent need for strategic intervention — we need large-scale changes to the justice system. But stakeholders must also begin to repair the many layers of mistrust that exist between law enforcement and people of color. We need to have tough and courageous conversations about race, perceptions of black masculinity, and implicit bias in police departments and in American society as a whole. We need to get uncomfortable to press forward. Like many Black men of my generation, I refuse to have disparaging chats with my future son about how he “should” and “should not” behave around police officers. The time to change the discourse is now.

To help support this dialogue, PolicyLink and Advancement Project are releasing a series of briefs — Beyond Confrontation: Community-Centered Policing Tools — to help advocates, policymakers, and police officials implement community-centered policing practices. The second brief in the series — Engaging Communities as Partners — lifts up promising practices to build bridges between local law enforcement and community groups and highlights how police departments and community organizations are finding common ground for change in neighborhoods nationwide.

The practices in Engaging Communities as Partners can be tailored and adopted by today’s movement to help make police departments and communities stronger. The brief contains strategies to help preempt rising tensions between police and community members. Although my grandfather passed away many years ago, I believe Engaging Communities as Partners is a step toward the world he wanted to leave for his grandchildren.