Laslo Boyd: Do Police-Community Relations Have To Be Troubled?

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By: Laslo Boyd 

As recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, vividly demonstrate, grand juries are not the solution to tensions between the police and residents of minority communities. Both grand juries, operating largely in secret, seemed to presume that police officers deserve an almost unlimited benefit of the doubt for their actions. The decisions not to indict in the aftermath of the deaths of two unarmed black men inflamed rather than reassured.

Moreover, the question of whether to indict a police officer for murder or for using excessive force is already after the fact. Michael Brown and Eric Garner both died as the result of encounters with police officers. Whether the officers responsible for their deaths were treated fairly by the court system is an important issue, but what happened in those encounters on the street is even more important, literally a matter of life or death.

Policing is a difficult and dangerous job. By its very nature, it requires the use of judgment and discretion, often with little time for reflection. While we should not be second guessing every action of police officers, neither should we allow them to avoid responsibility for their actions when the evidence warrants it.

As others have pointed out, Michael Brown’s case involved conflicting testimony and questions about forensic evidence. Even if you agree with the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, however, you should be troubled by the data on patterns of arrests by race in Ferguson and the strong indications of long-term tension between a largely white police force and a largely black community.

The circumstances of Eric Garner’s death are, however, much less ambiguous. There is a growing national discussion about the wisdom of requiring police to wear body cameras. Both President Obama and Mayor Rawlings-Blake have weighed in on the topic. Although there is video of Garner’s arrest and choking, it wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury to indict. The issue is clearly more than one of what is seen.

As the national debate about these two cases continues to swirl, an interesting experiment in Baltimore is worth a look. The goal of the Inner Harbor Project, the brainchild of recent college graduate and Baltimore native Celia Neustadt, is to make the Inner Harbor a safe and inviting place for young people by changing their behavior as well as the perspective of Baltimore police who patrol that area.

Neustadt began her project by collecting information, much of it in the form of focus group discussions with Baltimore City high school students. She eventually conducted sessions in each of the City’s high schools. In addition to the data from this process, Neustadt also recruited student volunteers.

As currently designed, the Inner Harbor Project has five basic components utilizing 25 youth leaders, referred to in the Project as Peace Ambassadors.

The first initiative, reducing conflicts in the Inner Harbor between youths, has two components. First, Peace Ambassadors mediate premeditated conflicts on social media to prevent them from escalating into altercations in the downtown and Inner Harbor. On average, they mediate 20 to 30 conflicts a week with a resolution rate of 75%.

The Baltimore Police Department also refers for mediation teens who have already engaged in a physical altercation extreme enough to warrant their attention but not an arrest. The goal of these in-person mediations is to avoid retaliation or escalation.

The juvenile arrest rate in the Inner Harbor and downtown decreased over this past summer by 86%. In addition, because the Project works directly with police and has gained a measure of trust from them, Peace Ambassadors have also been successful in mediating tensions between police and teens. Lt. Steve Olson, Commander of the Inner Harbor Unit, expressed the relationship in these terms:

One of the biggest points of friction between teens and police is we don't know each other and we don't have a common language. With the Peace Ambassadors, that problem goes away entirely. We get along so well because we're seeking the same thing: safety and inclusivity. And we're on the same page.

A second related initiative involves a Hood2Harbor Peace Ambassador team focused      on getting more young people involved in the effort and spreading a positive message. Peace Ambassadors hand out buttons, which read “Support IHP.” Police officers, retailers, tourists and teens can be spotted wearing the blue button.

A third initiative is training for police officers utilizing the information gleaned from the focus groups. The idea is to help police officers be more sensitive to the attitudes and cultural patterns of young blacks. The cultural competency training has been piloted with Downtown Partnership Guides and will be incorporated into training for police starting in February.

The Project is also developing a Code of Etiquette, a fair and enforceable set of rules for public and quasi-public spaces in the Inner Harbor. Creating the Code has involved participation and buy-in of area high school students, Inner Harbor merchants, and the police. When completed this spring, it will be an agreement by all stakeholders as to what constitutes acceptable behavior in the Inner Harbor.

A final initiative, intended as a positive incentive, is a coupon card for teens. The card would provide discounts from Inner Harbor establishments for teens who agree to and abide by the Code of Etiquette.

The initial efforts in this project started in 2012 and Neustadt hopes that a first round of the initiatives will be fully in place by Spring 2015. She’s already had conversations with people from other cities who are watching the progress of the Inner Harbor Project to see if it can become a national model.

Neustadt’s project is noteworthy for her focus on building positive relationships among groups sometimes in conflict and on pro-active rather than reactive measures. If you look at her website and written materials, she has already recruited an impressive set of organizational partners and a board with real connections in the Baltimore community. 

The Inner Harbor Project is very much a grassroots effort that focuses on practical solutions rather than dramatic pronouncements.  In the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island tensions, it feels like a breath of fresh air.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.