Friday, December 19, 2014

Reducing tragic police encounters

Amid the debate, protest, and violence that followed the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York what can be learned?  Can the incidence of violent civilian-police contact be reduced and the outcomes of such contact mitigated?

Some have described the deaths as indicative of a broader pattern of rampant unjustified police violence by white officers motivated by racism against black men. They call for a national conversation on race and the overhaul of police departments.  Others question the linkage of the events with a broader pattern motivated by racism and increasingly reject demands for redress of past oppression. In the end, making race the focal point of discussion will generate a great deal of emotion, but may be ineffective and even counterproductive in reducing violent civilian-police contact.

The pathway to preventing such incidents for Americans of all races is through better policing and the transformation of a mindset, often concentrated in dangerous neighborhoods, that is hostile to acceptable social norms.

Police department policies, procedures, training, and tactics should be evaluated frequently and appropriate changes implemented.  Police departments, like any other public or private entity, and police officers, are not perfect and can improve.  It is legitimate to debate ways to better the performance of both, but demonizing those who respond daily to aid and defend our communities at great risk is inappropriate.

The police are only one part of the equation in these incidents.  Two people play a role in the police contact and the outcome.

Police officers are enforcing the law in dangerous and high crime areas.  Too often the police contact with a civilian in these communities results in the civilian’s failure to obey police commands and resisting the arrest.  The outcome is unpredictable from that point forward for both the civilian and police.

To reduce the probability that the civilian will come in contact with police requires the transformation of social conditions in neighborhoods throughout America where millions are trapped in a cycle of poverty, crime, and violence.

Neighborhoods in which the vast majority of children are born out of wedlock and live in homes headed by uneducated single mothers are ripe for negative outcomes. Multi-generational dependence on anti-poverty entitlements is often the norm in these neighborhoods.  Substance abuse is rampant and popular culture promotes irresponsible behavior and violence.  Such are the underpinnings of impoverishment and crime.

A household headed by an uneducated single parent molded by the conditions of poverty, crime, substance abuse, governmental dependence, and a sense of victimization and entitlement will likely fail to instill in the children of the household the necessary values of individual responsibility and accountability.  Rarely is a child in such an environment imbued with hope or inspired to seek education that will allow them to escape the bonds of impoverishment.  The end result, particularly for males, is all too often a dead end of incarceration or a police encounter that ends well for no one.

Treating the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty and crime is a failed national policy.  The programs and policies pursued have largely enabled the perpetuation of existing conditions in these neighborhoods.  The focus of government and private programs in these neighborhoods must shift to create foundations of responsibility and education that allow a child to take advantage of opportunities for achievement, success, and fulfillment through work.

Breaking the cycle of generational impoverishment and transforming neighborhoods by turning traditional approaches on their heads is an alternative that may well prevent not only a fatal police encounter, but thousands of murders and aggravated assaults that occur in these neighborhoods each year.   It will also give millions of children hope.

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