COURT HOUSE – Fundamental disparities in policing in the U.S. exist, according to Dr. Theodore Darden, who spoke during a presentation organized by the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and the Coalition for a Safe Community on “The History of Law Enforcement in the Black Community.”
Darden, a professor of justice studies at the College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, served as a law enforcement officer for 17 years before entering academia, rising to the rank of patrol sergeant.
The roots of policing are in oppressive systems, he told a virtual meeting Feb. 23, including in the antebellum slave catching patrols and Royal Irish Constabulary, which sought to quell movements seeking independence from Britain.
Robert Peel, often described as the father of the modern British police system, learned his craft in Ireland.
“He was in charge of making sure they didn’t rise up against the empire,” Darden said.
As the modern, uniformed police departments began in the U.S. toward the end of the 19th century, he said, the nation was in the midst of unrest, including strikes by miners, a rising labor movement, and restive immigrant populations.
“The inception of the modern police was formed as a means of social control,” he said.
In his presentation, Darden discussed the history of policing, arguing that many of the current systems end up doing more harm in communities they are supposed to help, leaving police officers and community members frustrated and disconnected.
His presentation was not entirely dire. He praised Cape May County for taking active steps toward addressing long-simmering issues and sought to establish a pathway for stronger connections between police and thecommunities they serve.
He described coming changes to New Jersey’s guidelines for the use of force, reforms initiated by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, as a model for other states.
Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, who also spoke, said he saw the draft guidelines and praised the new initiative, which calls for de-escalation and reserves the use of force to a last resort.
In a Dec. 23, 2020, announcement, Grewal said the policy will prioritize “preserving and protecting the sanctity of human life.”
The discussion, and the policy changes, come against the backdrop of national protests following George Floyd’s death while in police custody, one of several Black men killed by police in circumstances that outraged community members.
The unrest of 2020 would seem disturbingly familiar to anyone versed in the history of the riots of the 1960s, but it is also reminiscent of the unrest in Los Angeles, in 1992, after the beating of Rodney King.
Darden cited a federal report from when Lyndon Johnson was in office that made a similar comparison to violence in Harlem, in 1943 and 1935, as well as Chicago, in 1919.
The answer Darden proposed was empathy, for officers to show their humanity to the communities they serve, and to see the humanity of those in the communities.
“I’m not asking officers to second-guess themselves. I’m asking them to be human,” he said.
He discussed the difference between officers training to be warriors compared to training to be guardians.
“If you see yourself as a guardian, you’re willing to work with the members of the community,” he said.
That includes community policing units, which have been part of daily operations in multiple police departments in Cape May County for years, but also training officers and recruiting more officers from diverse backgrounds, including increasing the number of women and people of color.
Changes would also help police officers, Darden argued. Today, officers are asked not only to respond to crime, but to prevent it. That is an impossible standard, he said, because police departments have no tools to address the causes of crime.
As Darden outlined the issue, there are more crimes in poorer neighborhoods, with fewer economic opportunities. Because of existing social structures, those neighborhoods are often primarily Black or minority.
For instance, there may be a neighborhood that sees a disproportionate number of homicides, he said. It makes sense that police would concentrate their activity in that neighborhood, but that also means there are more interactions between officers and community members, which will mean more arrests for minor infractions that would go unnoticed in an affluent area.
Rather than being seen as protectors, officers are often in conflict with residents and are seen primarily as forcefully removing people from the community. If residents see officers as a part of the community, they will be more likely to cooperate and make reports, he said.
“If the community sees the police as an active partner, not just carrying people out of their community, that can go a long way,” Darden said. “They have to approach people and be approachable. They can’t have the only interaction be in a crisis.”
Stedman Graham, a Whitesboro native and public figure, asked about the economics of the issue.
According to Darden, there are multiple layers, including the millions spent on the incarceration of non-violent offenders and the drain of the removal of multiple young people from a community.
“Can you imagine if those resources were appropriated back into that community?” he said.
Cape May County Commissioner Will Morey asked how officials could measure progress on the issue and find benchmarks for success.
One would be a reduction in complaints filed against officers as community relations improve. Another could be more calls to the police.
“If you see an uptick in calls, that’s telling you something. People are willing to trust you and engage,” he said.
Sutherland said several police officers attended the virtual meeting, which was recorded and would be available for others to watch, as part of their training.
Darden said the U.S. has risen to meet its greatest challenges, saying everything that happened in the past helped shape the nation, and communities are continuing to move forward.
He added that it is a mistake to see all police departments as the same, just as it is a mistake to see all law enforcement officers as the same. There are a few huge urban departments, he said, but most police departments are small, local organizations closely tied to their communities.
He praised Cape May County for tackling the issues.
“You’re being proactive in this approach,” he said.
Pastor Thomas Dawson introduced Darden on behalf of the Coalition for a Safe Community, which, he said, has been working with the Prosecutor’s Office on community policing.
He said last year the coalition held a special event for Black History Month. This year, because of the pandemic, people could not gather, so instead, they decided on a virtual gathering.
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