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Police should put away the military gear and build connections with young people

Amarion Allen, 11, stands in front of police in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9, 2015. Rick Wilking/Reuters

The ongoing protests in Ferguson one year after the shooting of Michael Brown highlight the elevated risks that African Americans face when interacting with police in the US.

While the protests bring awareness to the crisis of police overreach and brutality, thousands of dedicated people are working for greater police accountability and more community involvement in shaping policing practices.

As a researcher and educator in the field of conflict resolution, I witness firsthand these efforts for change. Unfortunately, these positive steps are being squeezed by lack of funding and support and are harmed by a misguided emphasis on militarized policing.

The numbers tell a story

Police forces throughout the country have a disproportionate rate of contact with racial minorities compared to whites.

The United States has more people in prison per capita than any other country in the world. African Americans are incarcerated more than six times the rate of whites.

We lack reliable data on police shootings, as there is no official government database. US record keepers now estimate an average of 928 people were killed by police annually over the last eight years. That’s nearly double the numbers originally published by the FBI.

The experiences of minority youth

Many African-American youth are impacted by racially unequal school discipline practices, mass incarceration, militarized policing and poverty.

On numerous occasions, I have had the honor to witness young women and men who have experienced lifetimes filled with violence step into leadership roles as they work for economic and racial justice in their communities. These moments provide inspiration.

However, for too many children and youth of color, the relentless fear of possible police harassment and violence can have devastating effects. A perceived lack of accountability of police for acts of brutality can lead to a sense of powerlessness. Those tasked with protection are seen as a source of torment, not solace.

Many of the community members and law enforcement leaders I meet are concerned about developing ways of policing that support positive youth development.

They face an uphill battle. Momentum has been moving in the opposite direction. Community policing and professional development budgets have been cut in many departments. There is currently debate in Congress about further cuts.

The impact of the war on drugs and 9/11

While money is tight for community policing programs and training, the post-9/11 context has added to the militarization of our police practices in the US.

The federal government has distributed more than US$34 billion through “terrorism grants.” These grants empower local police departments to obtain military equipment including high-powered weapons, tanks and drones.

Law enforcement agencies have for the past several decades been increasingly incentivized to engage in paramilitary tactics used by SWAT and undercover units as part of the “war on drugs.”

Racial profiling practices such as “stop and frisk” are now considered ineffective and violent to youth of color.

This militarization put youth of color at greater risk of police brutality, persistent surveillance and harassment.

So how can police work more effectively to solve juvenile justice challenges?

In New Haven

Building understanding Connecticut-Center-for-Nonviolence. Connecticut Center for Nonviolence, CC BY

Some law enforcement agencies have taken the important step of expanding their training to address blind spots in the ways they understand youth of color. That work often requires critically evaluating ageist and racialized frames of threat that often are not conscious.

In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, police officers are being trained in the nonviolent philosophy and practice of Martin Luther King Jr alongside other community members.

A New Haven police officer is armed with history.

This Kingian Nonviolence Training was originally developed by Bernard LaFayette. Dr Lafayette, a world-renowned civil rights leader and freedom rider, personally mentored the senior leadership of Connecticut Center for Nonviolence (CTCN) to design these training programs.

Kingian nonviolence offers a process in which community members and law enforcement learn ways to address conflict without resorting to violence. It also provides participants an important historical perspective on the civil rights campaigns that challenged institutional racism in the US.

Lieutenant Sam Brown of New Haven explains the impact of the training.

“We all have an inherent sense of justice and we all want to help,” Lt Brown said. “It’s what brings us here, to get knowledge and make a difference in the lives of the community.”

In Gainesville

In Gainesville, Florida, the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding is working with the city’s Police Chief Tony Jones to bring together African-American youth and police to discuss critical issues.

Over meals and in difficult conversations, the program strives to generate honest discussion about how youth and police view each other.

In one activity, the young people and officers meet separately and go through the alphabet from A to Z, sharing the first words that comes to mind for each letter when thinking of the other group. The words they come up with are at times insulting and reflect back the stereotypes, tension and anger that exists between youth and police.

The youth often describe police as “killers” and “bullies,” and that they “can’t be trusted.” Police refer to the youth as “arrogant,” “belligerent,” “cocky” and “defiant.” When they meet together, they look at each other’s lists of words and begin a difficult task of examining the causes of the tension and considering ways of shifting these negative relationships.

Searching for a way forward

These programs and many others like them across the country are positively impacting the lives of young people and police officers. Importantly, they are being initiated and led by community groups. While community consultation is an important aspect of improving policing, partnerships with people of color and other groups most negatively impacted by police violence is critical to reform efforts moving forward.

We are at an important crossroads as people across the country are taking to the streets to voice their discontent with police brutality and working to make changes at the local level. The gains are fragile, as the good work that these programs do to build trust and strengthen relationships over time can quickly be undermined by paramilitary police work.

That’s why a growing number of stakeholders, from activists in the #BlackLivesMatter movement to violence prevention experts, community health workers, clergy and many others, are calling for a shift in funding priorities away from paramilitary approaches toward strengthening community consultation, community-led prevention efforts and long-term partnerships with at-risk communities.

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