Lived and Remembered Experiences: Policing to Improve Relations with Communities of Color

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Christine Elow


This thesis critically analyzes the history of intense policing of Blacks in the United States and the lived experience of such policing. The aim of this analysis is to speak to police audiences and provide police with an additional tool in their toolbox to defuse tense and traumatic incidents. As a police officer myself, I believe that in most contexts in the United States, the police lack an understanding of the anger, resistance, and fear they encounter during interaction with Blacks. This thesis aims to fill this gap in knowledge. If police officers are educated about how their presence and illegitimate and aggressive police practices trigger trauma in Black individuals, then the police can take affirmative steps to heal and reduce the trauma of and frequent violence produced during policing interactions.
Over the decades, violent uprisings between the police and communities of color have led to police reform efforts designed to reduce crime and improve relationships in communities of color. These efforts include community policing programs, fair and impartial police training, diversity training, and crime mapping. Still, police and communities of color are in some ways arguably no better off than they were 50 years ago. Although the idea of community policing is not new, the efforts made to improve community–police relationships have focused more on headlines than content. Policing has remained centered on crime control.
The problems that exist between the police and the Black community stem from a history of racialized policing and the resulting trauma of Black individuals and communities. Furthermore, most police officers and policing practices do not understand how trauma manifests during interactions with Black people, which further traumatizes individuals, not to mention erodes the possibility for genuine community policing and trusting relationships between both parties. For example, stop and frisk, motor vehicle enforcement, and other aggressive policing practices that appear to address crime and disorder actually perpetuate racism, racial trauma, and the subjugation of Black people. The 21st Century Policing report, produced under the Obama administration, offers recommendations to move policing away from its racist past to heal the relationship and build trust between the police and the Black community. This thesis takes the recommendations of the 21st Century Policing report one step further, suggesting the skill of “critical empathy” must be exercised during engagements with police and communities of color if policing is to enter a new era.
My research is a theoretical and critical analysis situated within the scholarship of critical race theory (CRT), which uses various research methods—such as participatory action research, community-based research, qualitative research, and feminist research—to contribute to research on social justice with a focus on marginalized communities and individuals of color. CRT was developed to give voice to the experiences of people of color and provide a critical analysis of those experiences as they arise in social contexts in which race and racism are pervasive. The intent of CRT is to provide a platform for people whose experiences and voices have been silenced or erased in order to account for the social and alienating conditions of violence, oppression, marginalization, and exclusion. CRT theorists promote a race-conscious approach in the post–civil rights era, arguing that the racial imbalances that existed before the civil rights era are still present because they are woven into the social structures of this country. By drawing on how CRT scholars link race and racism to an individual’s or community’s economic, political, and social status, as well as how such status impacts an individual’s experience of the world, I develop my own critical analysis of racialized policing in contemporary times.
CRT contends that racism exists in the structures and institutions in the United States to maintain White superiority and Black subjugation. The police have historically been a visible and brutal tool in the enforcement of White supremacy through enforcement of racist laws, policies, and procedures. Throughout history, communities of color have been subjected to both overt and covert surveillance as well as perceived and actual discriminatory practices by the police. Today, racism and discrimination are subtler and more insidious: heavily patrolled neighborhoods, people followed in stores, residents subjected to stop and frisk, and “driving while Black” traffic stops are common in communities of color, especially poor communities of color. Such policing tactics may seem necessary, effective, or at least harmless, but they constitute what scholars now recognize as “micro-aggressions,” which negatively affect the health and well-being of people of color, especially those living in poverty.
The report on 21st Century Policing provides a comprehensive guide for best practices that will change the landscape of contemporary policing for the better, particularly regarding racial justice. Although the aim of the report is not racial justice per se, the Six Pillars intend to create policing practices that are sensitive and responsive to the reality of the troubling and violent history of racialized policing. The report highlights the need for a paradigm shift in policing, a move from a warrior model to a guardian model—a shift that can help heal the history of racialized policing. A move to community policing that is rooted in procedural justice and legitimacy, which is outlined in the Six Pillars, is an important step in changing the way policing has been racist. While the 21st Century Policing report is an important step, I turn to CRT to enter the lived experience of racialized policing by Black individuals and communities as well as suggest that to realize the recommendations of the report, police officers need to develop and employ in their practices an understanding of the history of racist policing and its harm to Black individuals and communities. This understanding will lead to the skill of critical empathy, which is needed if policing is to serve, rather than harm, people of color.

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