A measure of hope for the future
In a nutshell:A balanced and thorough review of the fraught and sensitive issue of police violence against black Americans; very helpful to readers seeking to rise above media debates to gain a deeper understanding of the disparate perspectives on this terrible problem within the context of historical, economic and social trends. Highly recommended.
When I finished reading Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between Police and Black America by Jeff Pegues, a long-buried memory rattled its way out of my head.
I was in elementary school, a member of the safety patrol, overseeing a busy intersection in Washington, D.C., both before and after school. I loved being a patrol guard, and wore the cheesy plastic orange sash with pride.
Each day, a D.C. police officer pulled up in his squad car to meet me at my posting. I have no idea how he was assigned; I was too young to think to ask. He helped me get the lower-grade kids safely across the four-lane road in what otherwise would have been a dangerous situation, but always made me believe I was in charge. I saw him every day for two years, except during the summer. His name? He said, “Call me Officer Friendly.” I did. That experience began to shape a view of police in a positive way.
But that nascent view was shattered two years later. Three blocks away from my old safely patrol crossing, another police officer pulled out his gun out and held it to my brother’s head because my brother mouthed off at him. My brother was teenager, and at that stage, prone to bad decisions and reckless behavior. But he was still terrified by having a gun pushed against his temple.
The next day, after my mom found out what happened, she marched up to that street corner, waited for the cop to show up again on his shift and demanded he apologize to her son. He did, but probably only because she also filed a formal complaint.
After that, my trust in police was shattered. How could someone use their government-regulated right to use violence against an unarmed kid? The two long years of good work cultivating positive relationships by Officer Friendly—and likely many more officers like him across the District’s force in that era—went down the drain with the rogue trigger-happy action of one mean cop.
My mother was white, so she had no fear of showing her displeasure, and expected to be both heard and feared. And she was. I think back on how that whole thing would have gone down had my brother been black. And I get sick to my stomach because now, as the bullying, murderous behavior of some police toward people of color is finally being brought into the open where it can no longer be ignored, lied about, or hidden by other cops. I know the answer. At best, my brother would humiliated and angry, and deeply mistrustful of police. At worst, the gun pointed at his head would have been used and he would be dead.
When I was invited to review Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between Police and Black America by Jeff Pegues, I'll admit that my trust in the policing system of this country was pretty low. Murdering, lying, beatings, evidence-tampering, collusion. Before these horrible attacks on people of color came to light, I didn't believe that racism wasn't sometimes in play, but I honestly didn't think it was so murderously bad. I was ashamed at my naivety.
I'm glad I read the book. It left me with a measure of hope for a brighter policing future, something that's sorely needed in this country right now.
Pegues is an award-winning CBS correspondent, a familiar face covering homeland security and justice. Structurally, the book reflects this experience and gives the reader a glimpse into the process he presumably undertakes when investigating a story. We learn as he uncovers facts, asks questions, reads, frames and integrates relevant information. “I wanted to see firsthand how city residents, police and politicians were reacting,” he writes. “I was going to go where the interviews led me.”
In the book, he focuses much of his investigative attention on Chicago, as a microcosm to examine broader trends, at the moment when the city was reeling from the newly-released video of the brutal police shooting of the teenager Laquan McDonald. “His body absorbed some of the bullets as he lay dying on the street. He was shot so many times you actually see smoke rising from his body,” he writes, describing the video.
Pegues’ style is to present evidence—unedited interview transcripts, full copies of speeches, bulleted lists of commission recommendations, descriptions of policing techniques (such as “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk”) and more—linked together with pertinent commentary and analysis. This approach was initially jarring in its back and forth pacing. But later, as I settled into the style, the power of this narrative architecture became clearer. The strategy allowed Pegues to remain a trusted but still objective observer. (The interviews with Chicago community activist Ja’Mal Green and Philadelphia Police Captain Joe Bologna were especially compelling and illuminating.)
There are many important points to consider in this book. I call out a few that resonated particularly with me below as examples of the thoroughness of his approach.
The history of interaction between police and black America cannot be overlooked when seeking solutions to the current crisis. Pegues quotes James Comey, then FBI director on this point. “Those of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”
Pegues cites public opinion polls about how blacks and whites view the police, responses so radically different that it’s “as if whites and blacks are living in a different universe.” With additional reporting and analysis, Pegues shows how sustained and enlightened leadership, and honesty on both sides, will be required to close the trust deficit built up since the country’s slave-holding days all the way through Jim Crow to the racist present moment. We could look to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model deployed by South Africa to shine a light on this shameful aspect of American history.
As if this was not daunting enough, the systemic defunding of many public programs over the past several decades has resulted in a situation in which “police are confronting more than just crime, there are social issues police cannot handle alone.” The combined effects of mental illness, economic displacement, homelessness, addiction and other issues have resulted in a stressful, overwhelming environment for police in many cities.
This is exacerbated, in some areas, by how we recruit and train police. Currently, many police officers are former military people, some possibly suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. And recruitment itself is a challenge. “Interest in becoming a police officer has been trending downwards since the 1990s.” Some police chiefs across the nation are working diligently to address these issues, with a renewed focus on helping police officers identify and mitigate their own unconscious biases, and becoming experts on de-escalation tactics. Celebrating this effort even as we collectively hold individual bad cops accountable is important for morale.
So, why did this book leave me feeling hopeful? Because Pegues shows that everyone on all sides of this issue largely agrees on both the problems and the solutions. For example, to some degree, there is consensus that community beat policing is core to a reformed future.
Pegues presents evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, showing that when police and the citizens residing and working in a neighborhood know each other, police become trusted and respected, rather than feared, and also know who are the local agitators. As one activist put it describing what any parent wants: “They don’t want their kids to have to walk past drug dealers, but they also don’t want their nineteen-year old son who works the night shift getting stopped by police each time he comes home from work.” What’s needed is the political will to adequately fund a community policing model.
Maybe children in the future will have the experience I did, the first one with Officer Friendly. After reading this fine book, I certainly intend to add my voice to advocate for this outcome. If we all did, we might make a difference.