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Overcoming Fear, Building Partnerships: Toward a New Paradigm in Police-Community Race Relations

Friday, December 11, 1998
Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Keynote Speech, 1998 New Jersey Law Enforcement Summit
Chief Charles H. Ramsey
Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, DC

I first want to thank Governor Whitman and Attorney General Verniero for graciously inviting me to be your speaker this morning. I am truly honored and excited to be here. I also thank Tom O'Reilly and his staff at the Department of Law and Public Safety for their valuable assistance in helping me understand the context of this summit and its importance to public safety here in New Jersey and, I believe, across the nation. I would like to acknowledge my fellow speakers and panelists. After I sit down, I very much look forward to hearing from you, and learning from you, for the rest of the day. Finally, I want to thank—and really congratulate—all of you who are here today. Your presence, in such large numbers, at this historic summit demonstrates a concern, a commitment, a willingness to learn, explore and experiment with new ideas—all of which bodes well for the future of policing and public safety here in the state of New Jersey.

The three issues we will be dissecting today are among the most critical that we, as a society, face as we head into a new century—indeed, a new millennium. These issues—police-community race relations, youth and school violence, and illegal drug abuse—are so critical, in part, because they are inter-related. How effective we are in addressing any one of these issues has a direct impact on the other two. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, Americans were asked to identify the leading causes of crime. Twenty-three percent said illegal drugs; twenty-two percent cited a lack of parental responsibility or family breakdown. These were the top two causes that people mentioned.

In major cities across the country, significant percentages of the people we arrest continue to test positive for illegal drugs. In Manhattan, for example, more than 78 percent of the men and 80 percent of the women arrested in 1997 tested positive for at least one illegal drug, according to the National Institute of Justice's ADAM, or Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring, Program. High levels of drug use were found among all types of arrestees—violent, property and drug suspects.

Drugs have a significant impact on youth crime as well. In Washington, DC, nearly 2 out of every 3 male juveniles arrested last year tested positive for illegal drugs. And even though we have seen some encouraging trends in youth crime in the last few years, the levels of youth crime and violence—and the severe nature of youth crime and violence—remain much higher today than they were a generation ago. Many people predict that youth crime will go higher still in the next decade, as the number of young people in the so-called "crime-prone" age groups continues to grow. The bottom line is that we need to be finding solutions today to the problems of youth and school violence. And those solutions must encompass new strategies for drug education, prevention, treatment and enforcement.

But even as crucial as the issues of drugs and crime and youth violence are, I firmly believe that it is the third issue on the table today—police-community race relations—that is of primary importance for everyone in this room, and for government and community leaders across our nation. Race relations between the police and the community is one of those fundamental, bedrock issues that we must work through and "get right," if we are to have any hope for significant and lasting progress on stopping illegal drugs, reducing youth crime and improving public safety. The issue is just that important, and each of you is to be congratulated for having the courage to take it on in a frank and open discussion here today.

I don't have to lecture anyone in this room about the historical significance of race in America. It is an issue that, in many ways, has defined us, divided us, and perplexed us since the very beginning of our nation. The influence of race has been particularly acute in policing—indeed, in the entire criminal justice system. For those of us in this profession, one fact remains inescapable: race does matter. Despite tremendous gains throughout this century in civil rights, voting rights, fair employment and housing, sizable percentages of Americans today—especially Americans of color—still view policing in the US to be discriminatory, if not by policy and definition, certainly in its day-to-day application. And despite tremendous reforms in policing itself—with more women and minorities in our ranks and more attention paid to cultural awareness and sensitivity—race continues to loom large over much of what we do—from everyday traffic stops, to drug enforcement and interdiction efforts, to long-term criminal investigations. And the importance of race relations will only grow in significance, as our society continues to grow and become more diverse.

Changing how an increasingly diverse and historically suspicious segment of society views the police is no small undertaking. The long-standing, deeply held views of our citizens—especially views on something as visceral as police protection and public safety—can, and do, take a long time to change. Here in New Jersey, this summit can serve as a "new beginning" in what we must accept as a long-term change process.

In preparing for today's program, I had a chance to review the recent Star-Ledger/Eagleton Poll on New Jerseyans' views of the State Police. What struck me about the poll was not that it exposed deep differences in how white and black residents of this state view law enforcement. What struck me is how similar the findings were to other studies conducted across the country. I understand that tensions and emotions here have been heightened following the April incident on the New Jersey Turnpike. But I also know that the spark that can ignite such high tension and emotion is smoldering just beneath the surface in most every major urban area today. New Jersey is not alone.

I offer this observation not in an attempt to downplay the significance of the New Jersey poll—just the opposite, in fact. I raise the issue to let you know just how widespread and potentially volatile the problem is for all of us, in every jurisdiction. Take the 1995 Gallup survey on public confidence in various institutions. In this national survey, the police ranked second overall in public confidence, behind only the military and ahead of organized religion, the Supreme Court, the news media, and Congress and the Presidency. (By the way, the criminal justice system as a whole scored even lower than all of these institutions.) But looking at the overall numbers more closely reveals a deep racial divide. While 63 percent of white Americans said they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, only 26 percent of African-Americans felt the same way. In fact, 1 in 3 black Americans said they have very little or no confidence in the police. These findings should give pause to every police executive, and every mayor and governor, in our nation.

Diversity alone does not guarantee success in the arena of public perception either. In Washington, DC, we recently commissioned a survey of residents to measure their impressions of police service, demeanor and effectiveness in addressing neighborhood problems. On the whole, our Department received very high marks, except among one group -- young black males. They not only had more encounters with the police than other groups; they also had the lowest level of satisfaction with police service. This, in is a city where African-Americans make up a majority of residents and a majority of police officers. My point is that this issue involves more than a matter of numbers—of racial diversity within a community or within a police department. Tensions and emotions surrounding race go much deeper than simple mathematics—and they can be found in just about every major urban area in our country today.

So how did we get to where we are—a nation with such divergent views of the police? I think it is important to examine this question from an historical perspective. There is a certain irony, isn't there, that we stand here today, at the beginning of a new century, wrestling with issues of racism, distrust and unequal treatment under the law. A century ago, our predecessors grappled with the very same issues. The emerging minority groups have changed, from Italians, Irish and Eastern Europeans, to mostly Latinos and Asians—along with black Americans, who to a large extent have remained "on the outside looking in" for the entire century. But while the groups have changed, the problems and issues remain much the same—and the police are once again squarely in the middle of the controversy.

In the early part of this century, out-and-out racism and discrimination characterized many public agencies—including many police departments that were called upon by political leaders to enforce the racist laws of the time. I recognize that there are probably still vestiges of this type of blatant racism in policing today. However, I do not think that bald-faced bigotry and discrimination are the primary problems we face. The issues affecting police-community race relations today are more subtle, more complex and, in some ways, more difficult to address. Weeding out blatant racism in policing was relatively easy, compared with the more elusive and intricate issues we face today.

Many of these issues are peculiar to policing—a profession that is charged with protecting life and property, but also empowered to use force and, if necessary, to take life, in order to carry out its mission. You just don't find such profound and seemingly contradictory dilemmas in areas such as housing, employment and other disciplines still struggling with issues of race and tolerance. There is something very unique about the relationship between police and the minority community. We must recognize this uniqueness if we are to improve that relationship.

This morning, I want to explore one of those factors that is unique to police-community race relations, because I think it is so critical. That factor is fear and the stress that goes with it. In urban communities across America—and, increasingly, in suburban and rural areas as well—ordinary, everyday interactions between the police and the community have become tinged with fear—fear and stress that exists on both sides of the interaction.

Residents are deeply afraid of crime and violence in their communities. Some of that fear is driven by an increasingly aggressive and ubiquitous news media, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for crime news. But much of the community's fear is also driven by their own experiences, and the experiences of family members and friends. We have all celebrated the steady reductions in crime over the last several years. But the fact remains that more than 13 million index crimes were reported to the police nationwide in 1997. Millions more non-index crimes were also reported, not to mention the millions and millions of offenses that occurred but were never reported to the police. Even if you never turned on a television set or never read a newspaper, you would likely know of crime in your community. And that crime would likely cause you to be more fearful.

The racial disparity is particularly evident when in comes to fear. While fewer than 1 in 10 white Americans say they are not very safe or not safe at all in their neighborhoods, the figure for black Americans is nearly 1 in 4, according a recent Yankelovich Partners/Time/CNN survey.

Tragically, in many of the communities where residents are the most fearful of crime, they are also more likely to be fearful of the people who are supposed to protect them—that is, the police. These are not so much fears about getting into physical confrontations with the police, but fears of being treated with suspicion, disrespect and derision. Such fears are found among minority residents of all socio-economic classes—among people like Gary Rodwell, a 42-year-old executive from Philadelphia who was among 11 black motorists who recently sued the Maryland State Police over alleged race-based traffic stops on Interstate 95. "Even now," Mr. Rodwell told The New York Times, "I continue to feel pretty frightened on I-95, particularly after the sun goes down, and I know I'm pretty much at the whim of the people who are supposed to protect and serve." Those fears are real and, regrettably, they are far too pervasive among our minority communities today.

At the same time, our police officers are also fearful. They are fearful of many of the same things the community is afraid of: the unpredictable nature of crime and violence on the streets they patrol. Officers are fearful of violence against themselves and their colleagues—and with good reason. Over the last decade, 688 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, 633 with firearms. In just the last two weeks, I have had to send condolences to my colleagues in Los Angeles and Detroit over the senseless deaths of officers there. The police officers in the room today know these fears are very, very real.

Police are fearful of other things as well. They are fearful of the intense scrutiny placed on them by the media, by community activists, by the legal system, by their bosses. This is an interesting one—but I think police are fearful of rejection. As Arthur Niederhoff pointed out in his classic 1964 book, "Behind the Shield," police are largely ignored by the middle class, looked down upon by the upper class, and feared or actively disliked by the lower class. I believe many of these same dynamics—these same fears—hold true today. Finally, I think the police are fearful of the perceived downward spiral of society in general, and they are afraid this trend will ultimately affect themselves, their families, the communities they live in.

As I said, some of these fears—on both sides of the relationship—are justified. Others, I believe, are exaggerated—out of touch with reality. These fears are brought on by a narrow view of the world. For many police officers, especially those working in high-crime areas, their lives have become a "good guys vs. bad guys" drama played out in the communities they serve. And these officers see so many of the latter that they tend to lose sight of the former—the good, law-abiding people who make up the vast majority of residents in even the most crime-infested communities. It is from these experiences and attitudes and fears that we get metaphors like "the thin blue line"—an overused cliche and misguided concept that I will discuss a little later.

My point is that fear—among police officers and community members—tends to breed mistrust, which in turn fosters stereotypes, which in turn leads to an exaggerated sense of the differences between our two groups. It is in this whole environment of fear, I believe, that incidents like the one on the Jersey Turnpike—or in myriad other jurisdictions—take place. I am not here to judge or second-guess any of the individuals involved in that particular incident. I understand it is still the subject of a thorough investigation. But I do ask you to think about the role that fear and stress may have played in the actions of all the parties involved. For the four people in the vehicle, their actions could possibly have been driven by their fears and apprehensions of being stopped by two white police officers. For the troopers, their actions could possibly have been driven by their fears and apprehension of stopping a vehicle with four young black and Hispanic males. Think about it for a minute.

It's regrettable, but situations like this are a recipe for a tragedy waiting to happen. Most times, nothing does happen, but the ingredients are there nonetheless. These situations do not take place in a vacuum. They take place in an environment shaped by the experiences, the attitudes and, yes, the fears of all the people involved. If we can better understand those fears, I believe we can better understand this and other like incidents.

Fears—and the mistrust and stereotypes that accompany them—can have an impact on more than just the actions of individual police officers and individual residents. Such fears can also influence broader standards and practices within our police agencies. Recently, we have seen this issue come up in the growing debate over the use of racial profiles in drug interdiction and other law enforcement activities. No discussion of police-community race relations would be complete without a frank discussion of this practice.

Profiling presents a truly vexing problem for the police. The vast majority of agencies have a stated policy against targeting possible offenders based solely on race. And the vast majority of Americans—black and white—agree with such policies. The question becomes much murkier when you ask whether race can be used at all, in combination with other factors, in identifying individuals for surveillance and enforcement. The courts have generally allowed a good-faith "reasonableness" standard when it comes to this type of "combination profiling." And many well-intentioned police executives and policy makers have justified this approach for a simple reason: its apparent effectiveness. Traffic stops and other interventions often do lead to arrests and seizures of drugs, cash and guns—sometimes very significant arrests and very significant seizures. And we cannot ignore the reality that in many communities, members of minority groups commit a disproportionate number of crimes.

Whether they are backed by formal policies or not—and, in most instances, they are not—police officers use profiles or stereotypes or hunches based on race, ethnicity or class every day. Most officers—black or white—would probably admit to it. Many community members have come to expect it.

But any short-term gains from such profiling must also be weighed against the long-term impact on our effectiveness as police officers. Is the one traffic stop that results in a kilogram seizure of cocaine worth the price that our agencies pay by inconveniencing and alienating a dozen or more people who were stopped because they, too, fit the profile? As Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School wrote recently, what are the "cumulative negative effects"? On those individuals? On their family members, friends, co-workers and others who hear of their experiences? On their communities?

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey offers some insight. It found that fewer than half of all African-Americans think that police in their community treat all races equally. And more than 4 in 10 think police treat blacks worse than whites. While most white Americans consider unequal treatment by police officers to be the exception, a significant percentage of black Americans think such behavior is the rule.

And don't think that fears and racial divisions stop at relations between police and communities. They flow over to race relations within our own police departments. Ask black police officers how they felt when they were pulled over in their civilian cars during a traffic stop. Many will tell you that they felt the same suspicion, mistrust and alienation that so many African-Americans in general continue to complain about. In the Metropolitan Police Department, we have had three cases in the last three years in which white police officers mistakenly shot fellow black police officers in friendly-fire tragedies. While each of these incidents was accidental, they did expose a real problem within our Department—and some deep racial divisions.

Ladies and gentlemen, something is fundamentally out of sync here. Those communities most in need of police services—primarily lower-income and/or minority communities—are also those communities in the best position to help us be more effective in fighting crime. Residents live in these communities, they have information and intelligence about the communities, and they have a vested interest in making their communities better and safer. Yet, it is these very communities that have become the most suspicious, distrustful and alienated from the police. Through a complex set of circumstances, events and attitudes, we now have a dysfunctional relationship with a large—and growing—segment of the community we serve. It is a relationship we must fix—and fix quickly—if we are to move forward.

That is the bad news part of my speech this morning. The good news is that I believe this is a problem that we—as police officers, criminal justice officials, and community members—can fix. I am hopeful, because I have seen important signs of progress—more dialogue and openness, a greater willingness to confront the issue head-on in forums such as this one, and concrete examples of police and communities working together.

Don't get me wrong. The "operational problem" is a large and difficult one. How do we get people—human beings ... police officers and community members alike—to set aside their experiences, their prejudices, their stereotypes, their fears, and come to some common ground? Most police departments have recognized that we need to do something. That's good and healthy and hopeful. In my opinion, however, we just haven't gone far enough.

Traditional police approaches to improving race relations have generally fallen into two categories: more training and more diversity. Both are critically important, but both are inherently limited on their own. In the area of training, we have seen a dramatic increase in cultural awareness and sensitivity instruction provided to new recruits as well as experienced officers. Such courses are now a standard part of just about every police training curricula, which is a major reform. Still, a one- or two-day seminar on cultural sensitivity can never erase or reverse decades of experiences and attitudes. I have known police officers who would use the "N word" a dozen times a day, then rush into a burning building to rescue a black family. That officer doesn't recognize the contradiction, and a cultural awareness course is not going to do the trick. Cultural awareness training is critical. But if that is all you are doing, you are not doing enough.

The same holds true for increasing diversity within the ranks of police officers. Again, we have seen tremendous progress in recent years. When I started as a police officer in Chicago in the early 1970s, we were just introducing "salt and pepper cars" that teamed white and black officers. Today, we don't even think twice about such pairings. In many cases, we have been able to attract more women and minorities, even as we have increased the educational requirements for police officers. As Deputy Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, I pushed for an increase in our entry-level educational standard from a high school diploma to two years of college. At the same time, I helped to oversee a more aggressive and professional recruiting campaign targeting women and people of color. The results: the applicant pool for our June 1997 exam was the most diverse ever, nearly mirroring the city's population as a whole, with blacks representing a plurality of applicants.

So we can—and we should—continue to diversify. But, as I pointed out earlier, diversification alone will not guarantee success in improving race relations. Washington, DC, is a perfect example, where 65 percent of the police force is African-American, but we still face strained relations with black and other minority communities.

Rather, what we need is nothing short of a cultural change within our police departments ... where intolerance, bigotry and discrimination—whether conscious or unconscious—are simply not tolerated ... where using the "N word" or stopping a motorist because he is black or Hispanic is unacceptable—not because the bosses said so, or the Academy instructor or the city council said so, but because the officers themselves said so. That is when we will know we have turned the corner on police-community race relations.

The first step in this cultural change is more openness and communication within police departments on the issues of race and policing. For every hour we spend in diversity classes, we should be spending 10 hours talking frankly and honestly among ourselves about our experiences, our feelings, our stereotypes, our fears. As part of our culture, police officers don't acknowledge these issues enough—and, therefore, we just let things slide ... things like inappropriate language, racial stereotypes, a traffic stop solely because someone is black in a white neighborhood, or vice versa. We simply must do a better job of acknowledging and addressing the little, everyday things that have become embedded in the police culture.

The one big issue we need to discuss more openly and more frequently is fear. As I mentioned earlier, there are literally thousands of police officers out there right now who are afraid and under tremendous stress in both their professional and personal lives. That's not the problem. The problem is that not enough of us want to acknowledge the fear and do something about it. Beyond talking about fear, there are some concrete things we can, and should, do to help ease it.

  • We can rotate our officers out of certain high-crime, high-stress assignments on a regular basis. The military does this with combat troops. We should think about doing the same.
  • We can provide more assistance to help officers in their personal lives. Being a police officer puts tremendous stress on one's personal life—the irregular hours, the difficult assignments, the danger and exposure officers face. These are some of the reasons why you see such high rates of divorce, alcoholism, financial problems and suicide among police officers. There is no stronger indicator of the amount of stress in policing than the high number of suicides we have.
  • We can provide more, and more thorough, counseling to our officers concerning their professional lives—on an ongoing basis and particularly after high-stress incidents such as shootings. At times, the police culture tends to push some police officers back on the street before they are ready. Just recently, I had an officer who had been shot several weeks before come into my office and confide in me that he was simply not ready to go back to his assignment as scheduled, in a high-crime neighborhood. I admired his honesty, but regretted the fact that he had to come to the chief of police to express his feelings and his fears. As police departments, we simply must do better.

I am convinced that if we in policing could do a better job of addressing these and other cultural issues within our agencies, we would enjoy much better external relationships with our communities.

But I also know that it will take more than changing our culture to improve race relations with the community. It will also require changing our whole philosophy of policing. To truly overcome the fears and stress that exist today, and the racial divisions they create, police agencies have to get in touch with all the communities we serve. We have to put behind us, once and for all, the "thin blue line" metaphor that I mentioned earlier. As police officers, we cannot be a line separating one group from another. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are not dispassionate outsiders in the community or a subculture unto ourselves. We are part and parcel of the communities we serve. The sooner we acknowledge that role, the faster we will be able to heal some of the divisions and reduce some of the fears that continue to envelope us.

Community policing represents a major step in this direction. Both anecdotal evidence and hard evaluation results show that when police and communities work together—in non-adversarial, low-tension, low-fear situations—positive things happen. And they happen in communities of all types, all races, all socio-economic make-ups. One of the early concerns about community policing was that it would operate well in middle- and upper-class communities, but would have little or no impact on lower-income neighborhoods. We were particularly concerned about this issue in Chicago, and we asked our evaluators from Northwestern University to examine it as part of their ongoing research.

Their findings surprised even the lead researchers on the project. In Chicago, the highest levels of community awareness and community involvement in community policing occurred not in the low-crime, middle-class neighborhoods, but in the highest-crime, predominantly minority neighborhoods such as Englewood and Austin. And with this increased involvement came more positive feelings toward the police, greater trust and increased customer satisfaction. In other words, community policing has helped to start a positive cycle that is reducing crime in the short term, while breaking down the barriers and building the trust that will be critical over the long haul. And it is achieving these results in the very communities—largely minority neighborhoods—that have the greatest need and the greatest capacity to help the police.

In Chicago and in communities across America, we have learned some key lessons from community policing that apply to our discussion today.

  • First, we have learned that a common issue—reducing crime, violence and fear—can bring diverse groups together: community with community, and community with police.
  • Second, we have learned that if given the opportunity and resources, communities will step up to the plate and accept their responsibility for community safety. Residents no longer buy into the "thin blue line" metaphor either. They recognize their importance, and they want to be part of the solution.
  • Finally, we have learned that when diverse groups work together on common issues that transcend race, race relations improve. Rather than being issues that divide us, drugs, gangs, and youth and school violence can be the issues that unite us.

I am very hopeful about community policing and the positive impact it can have not just on public safety, but also on police-community race relations. I am hopeful as long as we are ready to commit to community policing in practice, not just name. That means not relegating "community policing" to only a small group of specially trained officers, while leaving the rest of the organization and culture alone. That type of approach to community policing will only lead to confusion within the department and the community, and could possibly make things worse. Community policing is a philosophy that must be embraced by the entire police department. As such, community policing must guide all police strategies and tactics.

We must also avoid the temptation to relegate community policing to special times, such as monthly meetings, or special programs or tactics, such as foot or bike patrols. These are important, but they are not community policing in and of themselves. Community policing must be practiced at all times, by all officers. Think about it. Each and every day, our police officers have literally thousands of prime opportunities to build trust, rapport, support and respect within the community. These opportunities clearly outnumber the more stressful, fear-inducing situations that police officers also must confront. Our officers need to take advantage of each and every one of those opportunities. Only then can they begin to get in touch with the "good guy" majority that exists in every community.

Will community policing prevent incidents such as the one on the New Jersey Turnpike from ever happening again? No, it won't. But I do believe that community policing can help reduce their likelihood in the future, by increasing communication, building trust and reducing fear. Just as importantly, community policing will help us more readily see these incidents for what they usually are: isolated events, and not necessarily part of a larger pattern. And I think community policing will help us learn from, and move beyond, these incidents when they do occur. Community policing will help us get back to the business at hand: building safe and healthy communities.

I want to close this morning by sharing with you some advice given to me by my first partner as a young Chicago Police officer. It's something I think about often.

He told me that at the moment of birth, every individual starts out as a "perfect 10." But if you're poor, take away three. If you're a person of color, take away another three. If you come from a broken home or dysfunctional family, deduct three more. That leaves that person—that "perfect 10"—with only "one." And that "one" is the individual's dignity and self-respect. My partner's advice to me: never take away that person's "one"—because that's their personal dignity and self-respect. Do what you have to do as a police officer, but never take away that "one," because that "one" may be the only thing the person has—and he will fight to hold on to it.

As we move into this new and uncertain world of greater diversity, lingering fear and the new hope of community policing, let us remember that every life has value. Circumstances and fate are sometimes the only things that separate those of us here today from those people who fighting to hold on to that "one." If each of us can each remember that, then maybe there would be no need for forums like this in the future, because we will have reached that new paradigm—that new partnership—we set out to achieve. Police will be able carry out the critical functions that we perform in our society, including our role as defenders of the Constitution. And all residents, of all colors, will be able to enjoy peaceful and safe communities because of our efforts. Thank you all very much.