Sunday, June 04, 2000

Police confront racial divisions

Chief's use of slur highlights issues

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One provocative word from the police chief has hurled Cincinnati back into a raging debate over police officers and race relations.

        When Chief Thomas Streicher used the harsh epithet to emphasize his point during a training session, he said he was trying to tackle the race issue head-on. Instead, he ignited a debate over his intent and the appropriateness of using a racial slur.

Chief Thomas Streicher
        Cincinnati's history of racial tension made the chief's mistake even more conspicuous, Mayor Charlie Luken said.

        City officials are calling for a re-examination of how Cincinnati officers are trained to serve a diverse population.

        “It has allowed us to raise some questions,” Councilmember Alicia Reece said, “even in our own council chambers.”

        Cincinnati is not alone in its struggle with the issue.

        Louisville was rocked by protests after a former chief gave commendations to two white officers who shot to death an unarmed black motorist last year. The chief was fired. Training is being reexamined.

        Last week in Chicago, Police Superintendent Terry Hillard met with black citizens and promised that the force's top commanders are working on a plan to improve race relations. The latest flare-up there started after two unarmed black motorists were shot and killed in 1999.

        “You'd like to think that we've progressed to a point in society where this isn't an issue,” said Lt. Tracy Schiller, who oversees training in Louisville. “But it is. And we've got to figure out ways to deal with it.”

        Most larger departments, including Cincinnati's, require recruits to take diversity training. Fewer require sessions throughout officers' careers. But the problem, officials say, is the kind of training — a lecture by an outsider just won't delve deep enough to stick.

        “You just can't bring in a consultant, sit somebody down and say, "Don't call somebody the n-word' and "Don't say, "You people,'” said Jerry Oliver, chief of the Richmond, Va., Bureau of Police. “That won't work.”

        Across the country, the classes' agendas vary as widely as their names — cultural diversity training, human dignity awareness, racial understanding. Some are one-day lectures. Some departments invite African-American community members to sit face-to-face with officers and talk about real-life examples of their contacts on the street.

        Varying just as much as the type of training is how open officers are to listening, trainers said. The topic is embraced wholeheartedly in some places, but met with serious reluctance in many others.

        “We just tend to try to get a crack in the door on what their biases are,” said Bob Stewart, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which conducts training for departments. “And to get them to understand that you just can't afford to imbed these kinds of attitudes in your behavior.”

        That's particularly tough in a profession hardened by daily contact with criminals, many of whom view the police as part of the system they think is to blame for their life circumstances.

        “This is a societal issue,” Chief Oliver said. “Our very, very best police officers are only as good as the people society is producing.”

        That makes for a “bubbling soup pot” that mixes a frustrating job with potent ingredients such as upbringing, temperament and values, said Wesley Mitchell, chief of police for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

        He compared the current need for race-relations training in law enforcement to the old days when cops were taught about domestic violence as if it only happened to somebody else. Now, Chief Mitchell said, trainers talk about how abusive officers can be to their own loved ones. The same kind of change in attitude needs to happen with race talks, he said.

The power of words
        Chief Streicher said he was trying to avoid another ineffective training session when he decided to visit the academy May 10 and participate in the class himself. He knew the word was harsh when he used it, he said, but he thought making the class more like a real street situation would make it more worthwhile.

        He was role-playing about the police division's citizen complaint process and pretending to be an offensive citizen when he said to an African-American sergeant, “If I called Andre Smith a n-----.”

        Chief Streicher said the scenario continued with him repeatedly saying not to use such a phrase and telling the supervisors that he would not tolerate anyone using it or anything similar.

        Sgt. Smith filed an official complaint. Since then, the chief apologized to Sgt. Smith and has agreed to apologize to the rest of the approximately 20 supervisors who were in the class. Sgt. Smith and Chief Streicher have agreed to work together to improve race-related issues within the 1,000-officer division.

        Chief Streicher's discipline was a discussion with Safety Director Kent Ryan on what went wrong and how it is not to happen again.

        Many supporters came out for the chief. He's not that kind of guy, they said. He didn't intend any harm, his boss said. And in his own words: I was trying to do the right thing.

        University of Pennsylvania race expert Louis Carter, who is African-American, believes that. He credits the chief with trying to tackle a tough topic with some straight talk.

        “The chief was further ahead,” Mr. Carer said of Chief Streicher, whom he doesn't know. “But he has to also go through some growing pains. He wasn't ready for what happened and the African-American wasn't either.”

        Letting yourself get offended by any word just gives the word more power and credibility than it deserves, he said. More important is learning to refuse to take per sonally any such slurs and learning to better communicate to prevent situations from escalating into racial issues.

        “It's being sure and focused about your purpose, which is service,” Mr. Carter said. “That's what the training needs to be about — communication and focus.”

        Despite the many examples of racial tension across the United States, diversity proponents do see some reasons to be encouraged. Florida recently enacted mandatory race training for all police officers. California officials are working on similar rules.

        And a consortium of law-enforcement groups, including NOBLE, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum, is using a grant to travel the country giving race relations training.

        “I don't care where your heart is,” Chief Oliver said. “What I really care about is your behavior. Behavior we can change.”

        Chief Mitchell, who says race relations in policing is one of the most difficult issues raging in society now, reduces it to ethics. Departments must mandate ethical conduct and support those mandates with careful hiring and rewards.

        “Ethical conduct,” he said, “will always do the right thing.”


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