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Experts advance solutions for healing relationships between law enforcement and communities of color

Rebecca Noricks

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – In the wake of multiple deaths of unarmed youths and people of color from encounters with the police, leading experts on policing and community building proposed ways to improve law enforcement-community relationships during a plenary session at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s (WKKF) 2015 America Healing Conference.

This week, more than 500 civil rights, social justice and community-based leaders gathered to discuss ways that Americans of all races, ethnicities and religions can heal divisiveness and work toward racial equity so children can thrive. Mistrust between communities and police, as well as health, economic and environmental conditions fashioned by a legacy of racism, are frequently cited for curtailing opportunities and creating unrest in communities of color.   

The plenary session, “Healing Relationships between Law Enforcement and Communities of Color,” provided panelist leaders with a platform to recommend actionable ideas.  

2015 America Healing ConferenceThe panel, which was moderated by Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning, multimedia journalist based in Charlotte, North Carolina, included: Jeffrey Blackwell, chief of police, Cincinnati, Ohio; Melanca Clark, chief of staff, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice; Rachel Godsil, director of research, Perception Institute; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Joseph Scantlebury, vice president for program strategy, Kellogg Foundation. 

Ifill recommended that the federal government leverage grants to change police behavior and practices in departments across the country. Specifically, she said the nearly $1 billion in annual grants should be conditioned on “training to manage implicit bias; training to de-escalate encounters, especially with young people; (and) training in encounters with the mentally ill.”

She also called for more comprehensive data collection, saying that it’s impossible to determine whether police-engaged deaths are on the rise because dependable statistics are rare. 

Scantlebury noted that while much attention has been placed on policing in African American communities, significant problems exist for all communities of color. “We know all across this country we have Asian Americans facing tensions with police at times, Latino communities facing tensions with police at times,” he said before dramatically listing the names of police abuse victims of all nationalities. 

“Everything that is going on traumatizes children, traumatizes families…let’s heal,” Scantlebury related, adding that WKKF supports community leaders committed to racial equity and healing nationally, with added focus within Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans.

Blackwell, who is widely recognized for championing progressive policing approaches, described a training program where on the first week on the job, his new officers focus on interacting with the community in positive ways. Furthermore, he said that in Cincinnati, police frequently meet with community leaders, listening to their priorities and then collaborating on an approach for their neighborhoods. He even has a police officer working full time helping third graders read, a program that has significantly increased their reading scores on standardized tests.

“We are listening,” he said of many police chiefs across the country, “we hear the cries of this nation to change the way we treat people of color. We need to lift people up … I believe strongly that we become guardians in our communities and not warriors. That is a huge paradigm shift in this country.” 

Clark said the Justice Department quietly plays a role in helping police departments address specific issues. Under the Collaborative Reform for Technical Assistance program, jurisdictions ask for help in assessing issues from use of force policies to community engagement. Emphasizing that DOJ can’t only “sue our way” to improvements, Clark said her department is supporting “police departments that want to be productive on their own without the hammer of a court order.” Moreover, their reports are blueprints that can be implemented by other police departments.

Meanwhile, Godsil discussed the advances in mind sciences that help explain how individuals can openly reject racism, but still exhibit biased behaviors. For example, teachers disproportionally discipline students of color, police arrest youths and adults of color for minor infractions for which whites would not be detained, and courts issue severe penalties to people of color for the same offenses for which whites would receive a slap on the wrist.

It was thought, she said, that if laws and attitudes toward race were changed, it would produce more justice in our society. But it hasn’t, she said, adding that researchers are working to better understand unconscious bias and provide these findings to schools, police departments and other institutions so they can better understand people’s motivation to discrimination.  

La June Montgomery Tabron, WKKF’s president and CEO, said the plenary was a timely and critical conversation in identifying a path toward progress.  

“WKKF advocates healing in our communities and our nation, but we must understand the complexity of the problems and promote actionable solutions,” she said. “The panelist’s recommendations and those from the president’s 21st Century Policing Report are essential next steps forward in establishing the necessary accountability and data collection systems in communities.”  

To watch a recording of the panel, visit http://wkkfevents.org/americahealing/livestream


W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life. 

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti.

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