Black officers become the police they wanted to see growing up

Alice White (l) with Blair Anderson
Alice White (l) with Blair Anderson

Among the nearly 60 recommendations of President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force is the need to foster stronger relationships between police and the community. The president established the group in mid-December. Locally, some police officers have long recognized the value of such positive police-community interactions.

Well before recent police shootings involving Black males in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the task force’s March 2 report “[called] upon law enforcement to embrace the mindset that they are part of the community [and] put in place programs designed to promote positive interactions between police and communities.”

Charles Adams
Charles Adams

Five local law enforcement members recently were asked if “multi-cultural competency” on the part of police — especially in educating Blacks and other people of color on how to better interact with police — is now needed. This issue was addressed during a panel discussion on the Minnesota State Mankato Edina campus.

St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson, along with Charles Adams, Alice White, Dennis Hamilton and Gerry Wallerich of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), all spoke at the February 26 “Policing the Pan African Community” panel discussion during the February 25-28 Pan African Student Leadership Conference. “The community is who you work for. We have to do as much as we [can] with what we got,” said Hamilton, an MPD investigator.

White talked about her approach: “I just pop up [unannounced] at a coffee shop, and I bring my laptop. I make myself available to the community in an organic way…and interact with the customers,” she explained of her “Conversations with Cops” sessions. She is the department’s liaison with the East African community.

“It’s a natural environment [where] I can sit down with them individually and give them immediate access to a police officer to answer general questions they might have,” White continued. “People have questions about Ferguson. They have questions about a police report and felt they haven’t had follow-up on. They have questions about the body cameras.”

Anderson said that since becoming police chief in 2012 he’s emphasized that his officers “help solve problems before they turn into catastrophes.” His department has “signed agreements” with area Black organizations and other people of color groups. “We have a community impact team — a sergeant and three officers — and they deal directly with advocates, community leaders.”

Do Blacks see police differently than Whites? “Of course we do,” responded Anderson. “More than anything else, it has to do with our interactions. I’m Black and I grew up in the inner city [of Detroit], but as a kid I didn’t have a lot of negative contact with the police.”

“Generational opinions” often influence how people see police officers as well as past experiences, stated White, a Minneapolis native who was hired by the MPD in 2004. “I didn’t like how I was treated or my friends were treated, so I decided to become the police officer that I would have liked to have encountered when I was growing up.”

Now a homicide detective, Adams recalled, “My interaction with the police was just terrible” during his youth. He grew up on Minneapolis’ North Side. “I then said I will be a cop to try to make a difference.”

FBI Director James Comey last month told a Georgetown University audience that some cops may have a racial bias. When police build genuine relationships with community residents, “People in the community will remember that and will call you,” said Wallerich, who works in the property crimes unit.

“Everybody’s got biases, and as long as you are aware of that and you don’t let that drive your decision-making when you’re dealing with people that are different from you, you probably will make better decisions and get better outcomes,” said Anderson.

On the media reporting of tragic events such as Ferguson, Anderson felt the media didn’t fully explain that sometimes police officers don’t have any other choice when confronted. “As long as I can see your hands, I’m good — we are going to get resolution. The saddest part of all of that stuff that came out of Ferguson…is the way CNN reported that story,” he said.

“If I get into a struggle with you in the street and you try to take my weapon, I can use lethal force,” Anderson continued. “The most inflammatory word [was] unarmed… It doesn’t matter. When you are bombarded with the report of the shooting of an unarmed [person], it inflames the situation unnecessarily for me. There are a lot of police officers killed by unarmed people.”

“Police officers must defend themselves when someone is coming at them,” said Adams. “Whether they are armed or unarmed.”

The St. Cloud police chief afterwards told the MSR, “We all know that the shooting was the flash point — there had to be some things going wrong in Ferguson for a long time, [but] based on what they were reporting, we saw unrest.

“My biggest problem was that when they put out cryptic versions and you don’t have the complete story, how can that be fair and accurate? I don’t often blame the media, but I think they were complicit in the way that story was reported.”

White said she sees “community policing” making a difference, especially in the community where she’s assigned. “I see the kids run up to my car and come hug me. Their moms have invited me to weddings and birthday parties. That’s the measurement I can take — a lot of personal opinions about police officers come from the parents. But when the kids engage with you, I think it shows that the parents are giving good feedback about the law enforcement officers.”

Finally, Anderson advises, “Just do what you’re asked to do” by a police officer. “There is a lot of safety in compliance, and everything usually works out. Less than one percent of cops are bad — 97 percent of police officers across this country do the job right every day. You don’t hear about them, but that’s not salacious enough for the news.”

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