Will Dallas And Baton Rouge Set Back Police Reform Efforts?

Jul 20, 2016
Originally published on July 21, 2016 12:17 pm

On Sunday, in the hours after the attack on officers in Baton Rouge, La., police reformers were quick to condemn the killings — and there were touching efforts to bridge the divide between the black community and police, such as a cookout in Wichita, Kan. Planned as a protest, it was repurposed as a community barbecue with local police.

"You see African-Americans hugging Hispanics, you see Hispanics hugging Caucasians, citizens hugging police, citizens hugging sheriffs. This is amazing," says one of the organizers, an activist named A.J. Bohannan. "I think that what happened in Baton Rouge made this event that much more important, so that we can get on the same page — so that those things that are in Baton Rouge don't trickle over into Wichita."

But nationally, the tone has not always been so conciliatory. The recent murders of law enforcement officers have been deeply unsettling and have damaged the progress reformers say they've been making.

Many police are angry, and some think the attacks were triggered by what they see as the anti-police rhetoric of Black Lives Matter. They say angry words lead to violent deeds.

"You got one guy with a bullhorn who's screaming, 'kill the cops,' what do those other six end up doing?" says Keith Wenzel.

Most cops can't say things like this publicly, but Keith Wenzel can because he's now retired from the Dallas Police Department — though he's still a reserve officer. He says police have been demoralized, and he singles out Hillary Clinton for recently talking about "systemic racism" in law enforcement.

"Every cop right now looks in a mirror and says, 'Clinton's talking about me — Clinton doesn't even know me, or my friends, or my colleagues,' and yet, systemic," Wenzel says. "She has said we're all that way — he didn't say one or two, she said we're all that way."

Reformers are deeply worried that rank-and-file police will feel more justified in rejecting the basic political premise of the last couple of years: that law enforcement has a racism problem.

This worries police leaders, too — at least those who've bought into the reform process.

"What I've tried to tell officers that are just bitter and angry about what's happened, I say to them: 'Look, if we can't move closer so that we can continue to have these conversations, it's gonna mean that more police officers are gonna die out there,' " says Terry Cunningham is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

But right now, it's not easy keeping police in the room — figuratively, and literally. So President Obama has made that his mission: On Monday, he had police leaders over to the White House for several hours. And in the Oval Office afterwards, he made a point of saying supportive things.

"I strongly believe that there is no contradiction between us protecting our officers, honoring our officers, making sure that they have all the tools they need to do their job safely, and ... building trust between police officers and departments and the communities that they serve," Obama said.

According to Cunningham, that's just what police have wanted for the last seven years — "that kind of support and acknowledgement."

He is also pleased with the open letter that the president just sent to law enforcement, and one line in particular resonates with many police: "[W]e can no longer ask you to solve issues we refuse to address as a society." Just as Black Lives Matter wants police to acknowledge the reality of racism, police want them to acknowledge that the system is about a lot more than just cops.

Charles Ramsey, the former chief of police in Philadelphia, and the co-chair of the police reform task force that Obama set up after Ferguson, says it can't all fall on the shoulders of police.

"It's like all the ills of society, we wind up somehow being looked at as the people that need to solve them," he says. The president understands this, Ramsey says, and is reorienting his task force to take a broader look at the justice system as a whole.

"You know, this doesn't happen overnight," he says. "No one has a light switch that they can turn on and suddenly everything is different."

Ramsey thinks there has been some real progress over the past couple of years: More departments are adopting the recommendations of the task force, and training their officers in de-escalation techniques and how to control implicit bias.

Ramsey's co-chair on the task force, law professor and former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, agrees that there's been progress.

"Of course these incidents will have an impact," says Robinson. "But ... persistence — and I would say stubbornness — in bringing change is essential."

But that progress hasn't been fast enough for many in the reform movement, including members of a group that protested last week outside the Minnesota governor's mansion.

Jacob Ladda says he's willing to concede that the police have a tough job — but he wants police to concede certain realities, too.

"We hear a lot of police saying, or their wives saying, that 'every day I work I risk my life,' " Ladda says. "Well, every time a black person steps out of their residence, they can lose their life, because that's what's happening."

The question after Baton Rouge and Dallas is whether police officers are still willing to listen to this.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The recent murders of law enforcement officers have been deeply unsettling for the communities where they happened and beyond and for the national movement for police reform. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the damage done by those attacks and what reformers are doing to salvage the progress they say they've been making.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: On Sunday in the hours after the attack on the officers in Baton Rouge, police reformers were quick to condemn the killings. And there were touching efforts to bridge the divide between the black community and police, such as this cookout in Wichita. It had been planned as a protest but was repurposed as a community barbecue with the local police.

A J BOHANNAN: You see African-Americans hugging Hispanics. You just see Hispanics hugging Caucasians, citizens hugging police, citizens hugging sheriffs. This is amazing.

KASTE: That's one of the organizers, an activist named A.J. Bohannan.

BOHANNAN: I think that that - what happened in Baton Rouge made this event that much more important so that we can get on the same page and say that those things that are in Baton Rouge don't trickle over into Wichita, Kan.

KASTE: But nationally, the tone has not always been so conciliatory. Many police are angry, and some think the attacks were triggered by what they see as the anti-police rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, that angry words have led to violent deeds.

KEITH WENZEL: You got one guy with a bullhorn who's screaming, kill the cops. What are those other six end up doing?

KASTE: Most cops can't say things like this publicly, but Keith Wenzel can because he's now retired from the Dallas Police Department, though he's still a reserve officer. He says police have been demoralized, and he singles out Hillary Clinton for recently talking about quote, "systemic racism" in law enforcement.

WENZEL: Every cop right now looks in a mirror and says, Clinton's talking about me. Clinton doesn't even know me or my friends or my colleagues - and yet systemic. She has said we're all that way. She didn't say one or two. She said we're all that way.

KASTE: Reformers are deeply worried that rank and file police will now feel more justified in rejecting the basic political premise of the last couple of years that law enforcement has a racism problem. This worries police leaders, too, at least those who've bought into the reform process. Terry Cunningham is a president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

TERRY CUNNINGHAM: What I've tried to tell, you know, officers that are just bitter and angry about what's happened, you know, I say to them, look; if we can't move closer so that we can continue to have these conversations, it's going to mean that more police officers are going to die out there.

KASTE: But right now it's not easy to get police around the table, figuratively and literally. So President Obama has made that his mission. On Monday he had police leaders over to the White House for several hours. And in the Oval Office, afterwards he made a point of saying supportive things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I strongly believe that there is no contradiction between us protecting our officers, honoring our officers, making sure that they have all the tools they need to do their job safely and building trust between police officers in departments in the communities that they serve.

CUNNINGHAM: That's what we've been looking for, you know, for the last, you know, seven years - that - you know, that kind of support and acknowledgement.

KASTE: That's Chief Cunningham again of the IACP. He's also pleased with the open letter that the president just sent to law enforcement. And one line in particular resonates with many police where the president writes, quote, "we can no longer ask you to solve issues we refuse to address as a society," unquote.

Just as Black Lives Matter wants police to acknowledge the reality of racism, police want them to acknowledge that the system is about a lot more than just the cops. Charles Ramsey is the former chief of police in Philadelphia and the co-chair of the police reform task force that Obama set up after Ferguson.

CHARLES RAMSEY: It's, like, all the ills of society - we wind up somehow being looked at as the people that need to solve them. It shouldn't just all fall on the shoulders of police.

KASTE: Ramsey says the president gets this and is orienting his task force to take a broader look at the justice system as a whole.

RAMSEY: You know, this doesn't happen overnight. No one has a light switch that they can turn on and suddenly everything is different.

KASTE: Ramsey thinks there has been some real progress over the past couple of years. More departments are adopting the recommendations of the task force and training their officers in de-escalation techniques and how to control implicit bias.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Power to the people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Power to the people.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Power to the people.

KASTE: But that progress hasn't been fast enough for many in the reform movement, such as this group protesting last week outside the Minnesota governor's mansion. Jacob Ladda says he's willing to concede that the police have a tough job, but he wants police to concede certain realities too.

JACOB LADDA: We hear a lot of police saying - or their wives saying that, you know, every day I work, I risk my life. Well, every time a black person steps out of their residence, they can lose their life because that's what's happening.

KASTE: The question after Baton Rouge and Dallas is whether police officers are still willing to listen to this. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.