Police seeking 'bridges' to black community Plans for reform, better communication voiced at conference

AN UNPRECEDENTED and unheralded conference was held recently at Rice University's James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy. This conference was conceptualized by Lee Brown, who is, as many of us are, concerned about the relationship between African-American communities and their law enforcement agencies. O.J. Simpson, Mark Fuhrman, and misconduct in Detroit and Philadelphia all bring visions of police malfeasance and deteriorating police-community relationships. Brown, with corporate sponsorship from AT&T;, issued a "Call to Action" to leaders of law enforcement and to our country's African-American organizations. The results were two days of honest discourse, a new understanding, and an action plan for change.

As participants introduced themselves and discussion began, issues of racism, classism, and sexism emerged. Socio-economic trends, such as the changes in job patterns, were presented. As technology and automation create more jobs for the well-educated, manufacturing jobs that pay union wages are disappearing.


The result of this evolution is a larger number of high income earners, a larger service economy of low wage earners, and a decreasing manufacturing middle class. This economic polarization results in "haves and have nots." This classism divides our nation and, in addition, flight of the middle class to the suburbs results in cities primed for disorder.

Day-to-day contacts with police were described as a source of fear and anxiety for many African-Americans. As Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, notes: "We are a community that is sorely in need of a police presence to protect us against crime, particularly now; we are also a community that, for understandable reasons, is often afraid of the police protection we seek."


Reasons for this fear were spoken by National Urban League President Hugh Price, who described personal mistreatment during routine encounters with law enforcement. The abusive treatment of ordinary people by police was recounted as common practice. Experienced law enforcement leaders cannot deny these assertions.

Police leaders spoke authoritatively about the need for internal reform. Concomitantly, leaders from the African-American community spoke about the need to work with the police.

Ira Harris, executive director of The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, commented: "We have to change the attitudes of both sides; the police and the community."

Houston's chief, Sam Nuchia, recalled the question asked of a RTC local minister after meeting with the police department: "Does this meeting mean there are no more problems between the community and the police?" "No," the minister replied, "it means there is now a bridge connecting us where neither of us have to come all the way across; we can meet in the middle."

Police leaders and African-American leaders agreed to form an alliance to encourage the accurate portrayal of themselves in the print and electronic media. Collectively, we need to understand and accept that our communities are connected and interdependent and that our cooperative strategies are a new and non-traditional partnership.

The eloquent Jewel Jackson McCabe, chairperson of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, strongly encouraged police chiefs to use their "bully pulpit" to be change agents in the broadest social context and to see themselves as leaders for social justice.

We discussed the need to "hire in the spirit of service, not in the spirit of adventure" to ensure that we initially bring the right kind of young men and women into law enforcement.

Chief Betsy Watson from Austin, Texas, commented, "If we recruit and hire the best young police officers, why are they different three years later?"


This statement reinforces the fact that we need to pay particular attention to the initial and on-going training of all officers. The Boston Police Department does exactly this through its new training model, "Facing History and Ourselves," which confronts issues of diversity and sensitivity in the department.

Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske of the Buffalo Police Department discussed his department's "Roll Call Against Racism." This roll call was an institutional and grass roots-level promotion of tolerance and education that addressed the damage that hatred and racism can cause in a community. This event was spiritual rather than political or commercial. It was intended to promote and highlight unity and cooperation among all segments of society, including those from religious, political, business and community groups. The roll call provided a venue to enable these different parties to interact and declare their personal and institutional commitment toward ending racism and hatred.

At the conclusion of the conference we agreed that the African-American and law enforcement communities must establish a new partnership. This partnership is capable of winning the battle being fought against race, gender and class disparity. We need to make an immediate public statement and develop a plan of action; a 20-year plan where these two voices, never before joined, can make a resounding public proclamation about social justice in America.

Let us join hands and join voices and not let this opportunity slip away.

Thomas C. Frazier is Baltimore's police commissioner.

Pub Date: 11/03/96