Monday, September 03, 2001
Respect at core of police debate
A poll commissioned by The Enquirer finds whites expect police to treat them with courtesy and fairness, while blacks expect to encounter disrespect. The difference is a flash point of the racial divide.
By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Blacks and whites in Greater Cincinnati have very different expectations when the flashing lights of police cruisers appear in their rearview mirrors.
Most whites believe the police officer will be courteous, unbiased and professional. Most blacks believe the officer will not treat them fairly or with respect.
Of the many topics explored in the Enquirer's survey on race relations in Greater Cincinnati, the relationship between police and African-Americans reveals some of the sharpest and deepest divides.
From racial profiling to the professionalism of police, blacks see problems where whites do not.
Those differences fueled Cincinnati's riots nearly five months ago. And any attempt to improve race relations will have to address the wide disparity in black and white attitudes toward law enforcement.
''Race relations in this country as a whole are strained, and the criminal justice system is where the rubber meets the road,'' says Howard Rahtz, a Cincinnati police officer and author of the book Community Policing. The Enquirer's poll found that African-Americans see respect -- or the lack of it -- as the main reason for their rocky relationship with police.
The poll shows that 69 percent of African-Americans in Greater Cincinnati do not believe law enforcement treats minorities ''fairly and with respect.''
About as many whites disagree, with 68 percent saying minorities are treated with respect.
Although the racial divide in such opinions is widest in the city, where most of the region's African-Americans live, the difference is also significant in the suburbs. Only 32 percent of blacks in the suburbs believe police treat minorities with respect, compared with 70 percent of suburban whites.
Polls in other metropolitan communities have found similar racial divisions, but few show a divide as deep as the one in Greater Cincinnati. The problem is complex, experts say, and it goes beyond the April riots and the fatal shooting by police that triggered them.
''It's more than shootings. It's day-to-day citizen interaction,'' says Samuel Walker, co-author of The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity and Crime in America.
''It's the sense of what respect you get, and whether (police) have concrete programs to reach out. I think that's what is not happening in Cincinnati.''
But reaching out can be difficult. Two hurdles -- history and proximity -- often stand in the way of those who seek more mutual respect between police and African-Americans.
History is a problem because it stirs bad memories, from the crackdowns on civil rights marchers in the 1960s to the beating of Rodney King in the 1990s.
And proximity is a problem because many African-Americans live in urban neighborhoods, where crime rates are higher and frequent contact with police is almost unavoidable.
That means the people who are most suspicious of police also have the most contact with them. It is the kind of relationship that tends to create tension, not mutual respect.
The proximity factor
Blacks and whites often react to the same police activity in different ways, with more blacks finding fault with police and more whites giving them the benefit of the doubt.
One reason for the difference: Blacks tend to live a lot closer to the activity, and they don't like what they see.
Cincinnati is home to the region's largest concentration of African-American residents, as well as the largest police force. More than 60 percent of the seven-county region's black population lives in the city, and more than 1,000 officers patrol its neighborhoods.
Crime in the city is higher, police are more visible and encounters with residents are more frequent. Cincinnati police already have responded to 375,000 emergency calls this year.
''We go where the crime is,'' says Keith Fangman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. ''It's not a racist statement to say that the overwhelming majority of shootings and homicides occur in black neighborhoods.''
He says the unprecedented wave of gun violence this summer in Cincinnati's inner city proves his point.
Sometimes, concerns about respect and fairness take a back seat to concerns for personal safety.
That, in turn, can lead police and residents to adopt a siege mentality. Officers may begin to view every resident as a potential criminal, and residents may begin to resent what they see as police harassment.
''Everyone should be respectful of police, but there has to be mutual respect,'' says Jack McWilliams, an African-American and former president of the South Cumminsville community council. ''Some people feel the police are harsh. They feel they're treated like criminals.''
He says that fosters the belief that police play by different rules in black neighborhoods.
''It's not uncommon for people to conclude that policing in the African-American community is different than in the white community,'' says Cecil Thomas, director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission.
The irony is that while African-Americans trust police less than whites, they often need them more. The Enquirer's poll found that blacks rated crime as one of their greatest concerns.
But the poll also suggests blacks believe law enforcement too often demands that they sacrifice personal liberties in the name of public safety.
Eight out of 10 blacks believe police engage in racial profiling, the practice of stopping people because of the color of their skin. Only two of 10 whites believe profiling occurs.
A delicate balance
Gary Hines says he has been profiled many times. Once, while traveling with a white woman, an officer stopped his car to ask the woman, ''Are you all right, ma'am?''
Now the African-American man is worried about the same kind of thing happening to his 15-year-old son.
When his son starts driving, Mr. Hines plans to do what some of his black friends did for their sons: He'll take him to the local police station for an introduction. The hope is that if police know the young men, they'll be less likely to harass them.
''They didn't want their sons to be abused by the system,'' says Mr. Hines, who owns a consulting firm in West Chester Township.
That concern is most intense in neighborhoods with a strong police presence. In high-crime areas, it's not unusual for officers to ask everyone in a car -- not just the driver -- to hand over identification during a traffic stop.
The officer wants to know if any passengers have warrants out for their arrest. The passengers want to know if whites would be treated the same way.
For many blacks, the answer is no. ''There is a white skin privilege,'' says Mr. Hines, who also is director of the NAACP of Hamilton, Fairfield and West Chester.
But police say race is not the reason officer behavior may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. The main reason, they say, is location.
On one street, a car filled with teens might be ignored. On a street known for drug activity, they all might be asked for IDs.
''Officers get a feeling when something is not right, and they get nosy,'' says Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher. ''It's not part of the job to be disrespectful, but it is part of the job to pay attention.
''It's a delicate balance that cops walk.''
But in the eyes of many African-Americans, the balance doesn't seem as delicate if race is a factor.
Mr. Walker says changing that perception is crucial in neighborhoods where police are most active. Otherwise, he says, mutual respect quickly gives way to resentment.
Over time, that resentment can make the city a tinderbox, ready to explode if police make a mistake. In Cincinnati, the fuse was lit by the fatal police shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man fleeing police.
The Enquirer's poll found that the vast majority of blacks and whites, roughly 80 percent, think more unrest is possible.
''Police are a very visible symbol of authority,'' Mr. Walker says. ''They have the badge, the gun, the uniform. They're out there driving down the street.
''They are a lightning rod for people's feelings about society in general.''
The burden of history
For African-Americans, many of those feelings are deeply rooted in American history. Cincinnati's recent history reinforces those feelings.
The death of Roger Owensby in police custody. The controversial, videotaped arrest of Pharon Crosby. And the shooting of escaped mental patient Lorenzo Collins.
''You don't have to go back too far in history to see what role law enforcement played in discrimination and racism,'' says Ron Davis, a task force chairman with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. ''That lack of trust in law enforcement has been brought down to the next generation.''
The Enquirer's poll suggests one legacy of that history is a lack of faith among blacks in law enforcement's ability to improve.
Only half of African-Americans believe their local police are well-trained and professional, compared with 89 percent of whites. And only half believe Cincinnati police are taking actions that will improve race relations, compared with nearly 80 percent of whites.
''There's a perceptual problem,'' says Fort Thomas Police Chief Steve Schmidt. ''Police have to bear the burden of history.''
He says some African-Americans don't respect police because history has taught them that police don't respect them.
''People might think of us as the fat guy with the reflective sunglasses and dogs,'' he says. ''We're not like that anymore, but that's the perception we have to face.''
The feelings run as deep as the racial divisions in this community.
Lessons from life
William Bailey and Philip Lawler are at opposite ends of that racial divide. Both men are retired, and both raised families in Greater Cincinnati. But their personal histories have taught them very different lessons about law enforcement.
Mr. Bailey is white. Mr. Lawler is black.
''My personal viewpoint is that the police don't treat anybody any different because of their race,'' says Mr. Bailey, who has lived in Price Hill for 32 years. ''If someone runs a stop sign and they happen to be a certain color, then so be it.''
As a member of Price Hill Citizens on Patrol, Mr. Bailey has spent a lot of time with police. He says if people have trouble with police, they usually bring it on themselves.
''I've had my share of speeding tickets,'' Mr. Bailey says. ''But I never had a police officer give me a hard road to go, because I never gave them a hard road to go.''
Mr. Lawler, who now lives in West Chester Township, says he has experienced problems with police in suburbs and cities.
''You just don't feel comfortable,'' Mr. Lawler says. ''You don't necessarily feel you're going to get the same treatment as everyone else.''
He doesn't assume every encounter with police will end badly, or that his race will matter to the officer. But sometimes, he says, he can't help feeling it does.
A few years ago, his daughter was returning home from college with her boyfriend. It was only a half-day drive, but they were stopped by police for traffic violations three times.
Mr. Lawler doubts two white college students would have been stopped three times in one day.
''All my life,'' he says, ''I have been watching those kinds of incidents occur.''
Mr. Lawler and Mr. Bailey do agree on one thing: Mutual respect will be elusive until something changes. Mr. Rahtz, the author and Cincinnati cop, thinks he knows how to do that.
He says police should focus more on the community as a whole. They should shake more hands and learn more names. They should talk to people any time, not just when they're looking for a suspect.
And residents should treat officers as individuals, not as authority figures who are out to get them.
Mr. Hines, whose son will get his driver's license in a few months, thinks that's a good idea. But he's still going to caution his son to be wary of police.
''I don't want to make him paranoid, but I'll tell him he might be profiled,'' Mr. Hines says. ''He should know.''
Complete poll results and PDF of the report
Respect at core of police debate
People want safety, but with respect
Contact can ease suspicion
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About this series
How this poll was done