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Police In Other Communities Are Consumed By Ferguson


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record.






MARTIN: That's the sound of protesters who marched in the streets of New York carrying signs that read things like black lives matter. The same scene played out this past week in cities around the country. A vocal response to the decision by a grand jury not to indict a police officer for the killing of an unarmed black man named Eric Garner. This of course, coming just a week after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of an unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown. Even before the New York grand jury announcement, President Obama acknowledged the protests and one of the root problems.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.

MARTIN: And back in New York, the Mayor Bill de Blasio made controversial remarks about how the police there might treat his own son who is mixed race.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face. We've had to literally train him as families have all over this city for decades in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

MARTIN: There are a lot of layers to this story. When you step back, it's about the history of racism in this country. But if you focus in, this is in many ways a story about the police - how they do their job and why communities of color don't trust them. For The Record today, the trust gap. In a moment, we'll talk with the chairman of the National Black Police Association about what responsibility the police have to close that gap. But first, the view from three street-level police officers. We spoke with three members of the police department in Columbus, Ohio, to get their take on the debate happening right now about police brutality and racial profiling. It's worth pointing out that a lawsuit was filed against the Columbus Police Department in 1999 for civil rights violations, alleging that police officers routinely conducted illegal searches and used excessive force. The case was dismissed in 2002 after a judge deemed the department had made reforms. The three voices you're about to hear are just that - three voices. Two white officers, one black on where the trust gap comes from and what can fix it.

JASON PAPPAS: My name is Jason Pappas and I'm the president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Columbus, Ohio. I've been an officer for 23 years.

ISAAC BRIDGES: My name is Isaac Bridges and I'm a police officer in the central Ohio area about 24 years as of December 1.

O'DONNELL: My name is Tim O'Donnell. I have been a police officer for 26 years.

MARTIN: Tim O'Donnell tells me that like a lot of other Americans, he and his colleagues are consumed with conversations about Ferguson and New York and the allegations of police brutality.

O'DONNELL: I'm sure it's happening in every police department across the country. They're having lunch together, they're doing - they're taking runs together and they're talking about it.

MARTIN: That includes the widespread belief that police treat people of color unfairly. I put this to Sergeant Isaac Bridges, who is African-American. Does racial profiling happen?

BRIDGES: Well, it's - yes, I'm sure it does happen. But it's not something that's widespread.

MARTIN: At the same time, though, he knows there's a problem.

BRIDGES: We feel the tension. I mean, we're police officers and we're pretty attuned to our senses. And we have citizens that are pretty boisterous about telling us their feelings and the perception and the distrust that's particularly the African-American community.

MARTIN: President Obama suggested one way to heal that distrust is to equip police officers with body cameras. Officer Jason Pappas says doing so will not fix the problem.

PAPPAS: The fact of the matter is we have pole cameras, street cameras, red light cameras, citizens have cell phones, we have dash cameras. I mean, there are cameras all over the place, and none of that changes the conversation.

MARTIN: Isaac Bridges disagrees. He says more transparency is key to bridging the trust gap.

BRIDGES: I think officers have learned that the cameras will help us more than they will hurt us because it will show exactly what officers are dealing with.

MARTIN: And, according to Tim O'Donnell, what they're dealing with is a relationship that has become toxic.

O'DONNELL: I think as police officers we do feel it. And I think it's unfair that we feel it, to be honest with you. We shouldn't -

MARTIN: What do you mean?

O'DONNELL: We shouldn't go into a community - if you're going to be an inner-city police officer, whether you're male or female, white or black, Hispanic, that police officer needs to go into that community treating people fairly. I also believe that the community - the minority community - in that environment also needs to show the same type of behavior towards the officers. Don't - people of color don't want to be prejudged or to have us show prejudice, then why should you prejudge or show prejudice towards an officer just because he's white? So yeah, we feel it. I think white officers feel the dislike.

MARTIN: He acknowledges that some police officers have earned that reaction. But all three of the police we spoke with said it's the actions of a few that are to blame.

O'DONNELL: We have 5 percent of the department that are not good police officers. They're not good people. But those 5 percent are making the rest of us 95 percent look bad.

MARTIN: Those were the personal views of three beat-level police officers on the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York and the debate over police brutality. Joining me to talk about what we've just heard and the criticisms facing police forces across the country is Malik Aziz. He is the chairman of the National Black Police Association. Deputy Chief Aziz, thanks so much for being with us.

DEPUTY CHIEF MALIK AZIZ: I'm glad to be with you.

MARTIN: You just heard those three perspectives, and specifically Officer Tim O'Donnell in Columbus saying yes, there's a problem of distrust and that there are some bad actors, but that it's just a small percentage of police who are perpetrating this kind of behavior. Do you think that's true?

AZIZ: Yes. He spoke of 5 percent. I would even say it's less than that who actually do horrible things.

MARTIN: That's still a whole lot of police officers in this country who are acting aggressively and who are breeding this sense of distrust.

AZIZ: Well, yes. I can tell you this - if you had 1 million officers and one was bad, one would be too many serving the public. That's just how great of a deal it is. But the real problem becomes when good people do nothing. All too often in my career, I've seen officers turn a blind eye, go the other way, but not go up the chain of command. It has gotten much better over the years. But we have a major issue that goes on that good officers sit back and do nothing or they just become part of something because they don't want any trouble.

MARTIN: We heard those three police officers talk about how they believe that these are isolated incidents. But at the same time, there are these widespread protests around the country, people coming out and saying that this is not isolated, that this is a systematic failure. Can you explain the disconnect?

AZIZ: Well, the disconnect is a cultural disconnect. And here's the problem - I ask people who I know, did you have this conversation when your dad or your mother or your parents sit you down and explain what do you do when stopped by the police? If you haven't had that conversation, then we should start right there, that you haven't experienced the same things that we've experienced growing up in inner cities. And so that's cultural.

MARTIN: It's clear listening to protesters and policeman that they believe that there is a flawed relationship. But does one side bear more responsibility than the other? I mean, it is the police who carry guns. It is the police who are charged to protect and serve.

AZIZ: I would say it's still 50-50. I say that any situation can be quelled by the person who's being approached if you would do just eight things. And that is keep your hands where the police can see them and don't run and God forbid, don't touch any police officer, him or his weapon. Do not resist, do not complain too strongly. Ask for a lawyer, record the officer's name and badge number or his card number and try to find any witnesses. If you follow those things, your interaction with the police, your time to battle any wrongdoing that you think may have occurred will come after that interaction.

MARTIN: So in light of that, how much responsibility did Eric Garner bear in that particular situation that led to his death?

AZIZ: I can tell you if you find yourself surrounded by four or five police, you are not going to have a good day. So at any point in time, Mr. Garner could have said hey, I don't want any trouble with you guys and he could've turned around, put his hands behind his back. No, what happened to Mr. Garner should not have happened. I'll be clear when I say that. But I can tell you that if he would've just did that thing right there, than we could've talked to him and we could address those officers and their policing style and what they were doing on the street that day.

MARTIN: You're saying that in a situation, the onus is on the public, the onus is on the individual to do as they're told and to make sure that their behavior isn't provoking police, that it's somehow their fault.

AZIZ: Well, I don't think that provokes police or not. I think what I'm saying in certain cases, when you realize that you're having a negative experience and you can control the outcome of that experience, then you should do so. If you understand the dos and the don'ts, how is the police officer in control?

MARTIN: But you're saying that for now then, African-American families have to live with a double-standard.

AZIZ: Well, African-Americans who are very smart and love their children and want to proceed, then they must realize that there's a small percentage of officers out there who have gotten by psychological testing and background checks and who may not be operating in the same manner, so treat everybody with respect and survive that encounter. Yes, I'm saying that. And I'm hoping for a better day where we're going to stand in unity and somebody is going to look back on these days and say oh man, we came a long way.

MARTIN: Malik Aziz. He is the deputy police chief for the Dallas Police Department and the chairman of the National Black Police Association. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

AZIZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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