President Obama went out of his way to address the issues of police and race at the recent congressional black caucus banquet.
While speaking about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., he reportedly said: “The anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood that in too many communities around this country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement…Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black or talking while black — judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness.”
Racism is a very real issue, but I take issue with the fact that the president is making the entire profession of law enforcement the scapegoat for complex social problems over which the police have little or no control.
Police officers have to deal with the social effects of poverty, school dropout rates, fatherless homes, economic disparity, proliferation of gangs, drug abuse and domestic violence, just to name a few issues. Police officers don’t create disordered communities. They just have to police them.
In most of the communities where there is a high degree of mistrust there is also a high degree of dysfunction and crime. These are communities where there is a high rate of victimization and the continued response and presence of law enforcement is just a fact of life. It is, however, in the response where police officers can be most effective.
What Obama failed to say was that across the country, police departments are engaging neighborhoods and community members of all ethnicities and races in dealing with crime in their own communities. This is more the rule than the exception. Just take a look at a recent publication from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
My own experience has been that most residents of even the most crime-ridden neighborhoods want peaceful and safe communities where their families can feel secure. They don’t want their children in gangs, exposed to drugs or crime-ridden streets. I’ve known families begging for the police to stay parked on the street all night. It was the only time they felt safe.
The voices of these law-abiding-but-struggling community members often are drowned out by the loud and very vocal part of the community who only enable crime, disorder and mistrust.
The presence and response of law enforcement never will be the cure-all for the issues that plague communities because the police are not the cause of these problems.
Hopefully, police officers will continue to treat the symptoms of complex social issues and be a catalyst for positive change in problem-plagued communities.
Vargas is a retired Anaheim Police captain and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo copyright Robo’s photos, flickr.com