At the center of the discussion of the #blacklivesmatter movement is the issue of law enforcement’s relationship with communities of color. While there are myriad issues related to improving conditions for blacks in America, the most prevalent theme of late is how to bridge the gap between police and community in a way that begins to restore trust and remove harmful perceptions.
Oftentimes, such perceptions suggest to both sides that each is a threat to the other’s safety and serve as a barrier to any real understanding. Citizens want safe neighborhoods without crime, but shouldn’t have to fear police. Police have a job to do but are fundamentally charged with public service and protection.
This is a complex discussion because it involves much more than legislating body cameras or requiring special prosecutors, but requires a cultural paradigm shift that often goes unmentioned as part of the conversation. That paradigm shift is the need for the famed blue wall of silence to come down once and for all.
Beyond Walter Scott and Michael Slager, Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson and countless others, the blue wall of silence has for decades served as not only a protector but also an incubator for a toxic culture among police. This culture has bred a mindset among many officers that has resulted in not only law enforcement’s continued violations of civilians—black civilians in particular—but, worse, an unspoken code that officers do not tell on other officers even when those violations are egregious and illegal.
We’ve heard a lot from police advocates and unions about how much #bluelivesmatter and that #itsnotallcops. For those sentiments to mean anything to us, John Q. Public, the officers who consider themselves not to be part of the problem need to play a more active and visible role in being part of the solution.
In many respects, the officers who perform their jobs daily with aplomb and professionalism represent a critical piece of this puzzle because they are the ones who truly know which of the officers in their precincts are the bad actors. They hear the comments at target practice, in the locker room and other places to which we do not have access. They often witness attitudes from some of their fellow officers that reflect racially biased and discriminatory mindsets. These “good” officers are the ones who are seldom surprised when those same bad actors find themselves in controversial situations after a shooting or an act of brutality because they knew something wasn’t right all along.
Yet, these same officers also seldom speak up. The integrity that these officers exercise in the daily execution of their duty to protect and serve means little if they are not willing to do what is right and stop saying silent when they observe behaviors that are unethical and/or illegal by others on the force. It may be something as seemingly benign as noticing that their partner has a tendency to stop black drivers more often than whites, even if all he does ultimately is write a ticket. Still, it only takes seconds on the wrong day for the attitudes that fuel these sorts of microaggressions to spark an incident that might have been prevented.
Much has been made of Clarence Habersham, the black officer pictured on the scene after Walter Scott was shot by Officer Michael Slager, with many calling for his arrest and prosecution. Although Habersham’s ultimate fate as a cop remains to be seen, it is worth noting that it is officers like him who are often best positioned to help “police the police” because they are the ones with access when there is no camera, and who are on the scene when no one is looking. When “good” officers do not stand up for what is right but instead choose to cover for “bad” cops, they not only betray the public trust but also should face staunch disciplinary and legal action because they are also part of the problem and an impediment to progress.
Make no mistake—there are reasons that police officers close ranks. Very few of us leave our homes each day with the real concern that we may not return to be with our families at the end of our shift. That shared understanding, combined with the fact that police are often targets, would naturally engender a sense of high camaraderie among the ranks. Not only does that make sense, but it should be expected.
However, that’s hardly a viable excuse for abandoning ethics. The police officers who have contempt for the communities they serve are like cancers that threaten to spread to every rookie officer who joins the force. The folks best positioned to address that cancer are the ones on the inside. It is for that reason that their help is needed and the blue wall of silence must finally come down.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.