A conversation about race and policing is part of moving toward solutions.
There was a big crowd at Naked City Brewery & Taphouse in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood Tuesday night. On stage was not a band, but two police officers and a professor talking about policing and race.
It’s an issue we need to keep going over until we get it right. Every week we see how it can go wrong, as in the video of a white South Carolina sheriff’s deputy flipping a black student out of her desk and dragging her across a classroom floor.
Policing is far from the only area affected by race, but it’s certainly the most dramatic. You might not draw a crowd talking about bias in mortgage lending.
Tuesday’s conversation was hosted by Humanities Washington, which puts on events around the state to get people thinking and talking about important issues. Humanities held two sessions on race last year and is hosting two this year.
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Onstage, Megan Ming Francis, a University of Washington assistant professor in political science, was flanked by two Seattle police officers, Assistant Chief Robert Merner and Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the department’s public-affairs director. Phyllis Fletcher, managing editor of Northwest News Network, moderated.
Francis brought up the Tamir Rice case, in which a 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun was shot to death by a police officer in Cleveland last November. This month, two reports found the officer acted reasonably. Francis questioned the standard. “What’s reasonable to me might be different for these two gentlemen,” she said.
Police deserve protection, but the way the current standard is interpreted seems out of balance to me.
Merner said officers should be questioned, but they should also be respected for their training and experience.
Francis said having years of experience shouldn’t grant immunity from deep questioning. Professors mess up all the time, she said. And she wondered whether officers who’ve been around for decades hold onto biases from earlier times.
Merner, who’s been in Seattle since April, answered with a story about his years in Boston. In the 1990s he was in the gang unit, mostly working in minority neighborhoods. Murder rates were soaring in Boston, but even back then, he believed the solution lay more in mentoring, jobs and getting kids back in school than adding more police. After Boston adopted programs to help young people, he said homicides dropped rapidly. (U.S. gun homicides peaked in the mid-1990s for a number of reasons, but I agree the interventions he mentioned would be helpful.)
There was applause, then more questions about why we keep seeing violent confrontations.
Francis is working on a book about the criminal- justice system (She’s the author of “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State.”) She said we need to think about whether it is an individual problem or a systemic one.
Merner spoke to the goodness of the officers he sees. “I’ve watched police officers put milk in refrigerators,” he said. Many times he’s seen officers bring food to people, “But CNN isn’t there.”
He said when officers see a video of an officer shooting a running man in the back eight times, they are sickened by it, and sometimes judged because of it. He said, “I think it is a bad-apple problem.”
Sometimes it is just one person, but how does a person like that get hired? Why is a person like that so protected by the justice system?
Every one of these videotaped confrontations involve imperfect individuals, but they also are about systems and structures that allow or even foster confrontations.
The improvements Merner and Whitcomb talked about — better training and policies, community programs like the one in Boston — were often about fixing systemic problems. Policing in Seattle is better now than it was just a few years ago because of institutional changes.
Afterward Zaki Hamid, program director for Humanities Washington, told me he wants these conversations about race to go deeper than what’s on the surface. The next one is called “Seattle Skin: Being Black in a Liberal City,” 7 p.m., Nov. 10, also at Naked City.
Sometimes it takes quite a few repetitions for a conversation to get to that deeper level.