Race and Policing in America

Jeff Pegues is the CBS News Justice and Homeland Security Correspondent. He wrote a book titled, “Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between The Police and Black America.”

Drawing equally from the law enforcement community and African-Americans, the book explores perceptions on both sides.

Pegues is remarkably and painstakingly fair. Politics, recent events, philosophy, tactics, and history are all covered. If you want a decent overview of race and policing in America, this is a good read.

Unfortunately, the book does little to provide solutions. Race, community and police relations is a swamp where few emerge unscathed. I guarantee you that people on both sides will strongly disagree with what’s below. But an honest dialog is necessary.


Talk to police officers either in person or via social media forums and the word “reform” draws puzzled responses.

As far as some cops are concerned, there is little need for “reform.”  “Just let us do our jobs in consultation with the community,” said one officer. “All of these divisions can be over quickly if we all work together to reduce violent crime.”

But It’s Never That Simple

Many African-Americans and members of other groups have a justifiable list of current and historical grievances.

When we write for Crime in America.Net, we try to consider the issues of all. African-Americans are not the only ones with concerns about American law enforcement.

An estimated 63 million U.S. residents age 16 or older, or about 26 percent of the population, had proactive (they called) or reactive (they were stopped) contacts with police in 2011 per the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics-Police Encounters.

While the vast majority of citizens (regardless of background) thought the interactions were justifiable, and those police officers behaved properly, it’s inevitable that the officer’s demeanor, actions or citizen preconceived beliefs create negative encounters. Considering the nature of police work, it’s impossible to have contacts with 26 percent of the population yearly without issues.

As someone who came from a working-class background in Baltimore, we had our own perceptions of cops while growing up. Our encounters were routinely harsh. We all understood, however, that a smart remark to the officers’ face would create a less than satisfying experience. Our parents would probably support the officers before they would sustain us.

When I was stopped by police after three days of off-roading in my open-top jeep, I understood that my encounter was based on how I looked (a disheveled young male out for a ride at 2:00 a.m.). He said that I didn’t stop for a stop sign. That was malarky. I remember the encounter to this day.

Class, race, ethnicity and many other factors all play a part in how we view cops, ourselves, and our collective role in crime control.

How Do We Fix Our Problems?

Leaving history behind, the essence of the problem comes down to crime rates and how the public views high crime communities.

Crime destroys cities, economic development, education, families and social cohesion. Crime concentrated in one area reverberates throughout the entire metropolitan area.

Politicians and media demand solutions and that usually means increased police patrols and a level of aggressiveness that produces less crime and lots of community resentment. Data on police stops indicate that most proactive encounters are with citizens not engaged in criminal activity.

It also means that cops are taking enormous risks with their own safety.

But starting in 2015 after riots over police shootings, and harsh media coverage and public reactions, cops are not being nearly as aggressive as they were. Concurrently, violent crime increased in many (not all) American cities, see Did Baltimore Kill American Policing?

Police agencies are having an increasingly difficult time holding on to current officers and recruitment is becoming difficult (if not impossible). People are getting out of policing; families and loved ones are insisting they leave.

So we have a conundrum, people are harsher towards police tactics and officers, but violent crime is destroying communities.

Past discussions don’t seem to be taking us vary far as to solutions.


An allegiance to “community policing” and improved training seems to be the standard (but tired) response.

We want cops to be guardians and not warriors, but if there is an active shooter in a school, we want cops to rush into battle suitably armed and trained. Is there any wonder why there is so little progress as to police reform?

If cops aren’t getting out of their vehicles except when called, and if community members see officers as part of the problem, a “community” strategy seems to be challenged from the beginning.

This is what cops want and need:

They want decent, respectful treatment from the people they serve.

They want assurances (to the point where it’s possible) that they won’t be injured or murdered. Police fatalities seem to be skyrocketing, see Police Deaths.

They want communities to take responsibility for their own crime problems. This is criminology 101; cops are there to provide stability, not to solve the ills of the world. Crime control is principally the responsibility of communities. Communities (or the larger society) decide what’s acceptable behavior, and what isn’t. We need to understand and depend on the power of peers and communities to control crime. To do that, communities need to take responsibility for their own safety.

They want people to acknowledge that they are human; the stereotypes (i.e., all cops are brutal) are dehumanizing.

They want media coverage that’s respectful and takes the context of what police are capable of doing into consideration.

They want people to stop asking them to do the impossible. Cops can’t be all things to all people.

They want to make good arrests that stand up in court. Don’t ask officers to make volume arrests.

If the public wants expert decision-making under the most extreme circumstances possible, then pay for this expertise. Let mental health professionals be on the street 24-7 to deal with increasingly complex problems. The same applies to domestic violence, childcare and an additional array of human crisis. Let the experts handle these issues with officers in the background.

Pay cops well. A $50,000 starting salary should be the national norm with a $100,000 salary in ten years. A four-week vacation should be standard thus giving officers sufficient time to decompress.

Let police officers take themselves off the street when there is a personal crisis in their lives. We do this for everyone else. Why not do it for cops? This alone would probably deescalate most of the problems as to police use of force. PTSD is a common occurrence in law enforcement. It’s time to acknowledge this and stop sweeping it under the rug.  A Police Study from the University of Texas focuses on self-control, but the primary lesson is that life events control behavior.

Basic training should be six months. There should be a week of specialized retraining every two months.

Have enough officers to respond to calls and sufficient person-power to engage citizens in conversation.

If we want officers to take increased risks with people they believe are a potential threat, then quadruple the amount of firearms or self-defense training and equip them properly, or have special units on immediate 24-7 availability to deal with risky people.

The bottom line is that officers want what’s best for themselves and the public they serve. To get that level of interaction, society must be willing to foot the bill.

This is what communities want and need:

Communities need cops to understand that there have been decades (centuries?) of heavy-handed and harsh, discriminatory actions on the part of law enforcement. Resentment is ingrained. Officers need to understand the complex relationships and accept (embrace?) the challenges.

A major challenge is an unrecognized prejudice. Every person, regardless as to who they are, has preconceived notions as to race or sex or class. Communities are asking cops to understand and confront their own feelings as to the people they police. This includes black officers patrolling black communities.

Communities want a say as to the type of policing they want. If the community doesn’t want stop and frisk or the enforcement of marijuana possession or open container laws, then listen to their concerns. Every law enforcement agency (and every officer) has discretionary powers. No agency (or officer) enforces the letter of the law.

Too many confrontations start out as police enforcing minor traffic or criminal violations. This needs to stop unless communities tell cops otherwise. Let the community tell police when enforcement should change. Let the community create a list as to what it wants.

Citizens want respect and courtesy; they don’t want or need overbearing officers unless the situation clearly calls for it.


I understand the above fly’s in the face of proactive or broken windows policing and that many police commanders and mayors will disagree, but we are past the time where we get to say that we know better than community residents.

I also understand that what I propose will be expensive and will require federal funding.

But many cops would love “clarity” as to less enforcement. Police officers could spend the majority of their time (now that they have time) talking to residents and being good guys, and getting leads as to major crimes (the essence of community policing).

And most importantly for cops, they end the majority of confrontations, and they come home safe; their psychological scars are fewer. They are happier.

Maybe now cops won’t quit in droves, which is what’s happening now (and no one wants to take their place). Maybe we will go back to a restrained form of proactive policing now they have defined rules of engagement.

There will be detractors who will say that if, “You take care of the small stuff the big stuff will take care of itself” (broken windows).

Not all communities will proceed down this path, and that’s fine. Most won’t. The overwhelming number of communities in this country will want things to stay as they are, so we’re not risking much.

But it’s cowardly to tell cops to enforce the law without acknowledging the physical and psychological dangers (on both sides) in communities that feel they are being over-policed.

You are not an occupying force if your only role is to deal with the big stuff, the crimes everyone wants to be addressed.

Police officers need some level of support if they are to do their jobs with precision and compassion. They need encouragement if we expect them to continue to do their jobs.

Communities need some level of power sharing and an ironclad agreement that officers will be kind, restrained and respectful.

We know what to do. Stop asking the impossible of police officers. Stop asking communities to be passive recipients of enforcement.

We all need each other to solve the problems of relations and crime control.


Contact us at [email protected].

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.