Streets and Beats: 5 things cops and their communities can learn from each other
On June 24, NPR’s Michel Martin came to the Los Angeles Theatre Center for “Street and Beats: Personal stories of cops and community from across L.A.” as part of NPR’s ongoing series of cross-county conversations connecting people with different perspectives, histories and experiences.
L.A.’s “Streets And Beats” program centered around the relationship between police and the communities they serve, a topic made more urgent by the recent wave of high-profile police shootings in the U.S.
Martin brought together former gang members, artists, clergy and law enforcement in an attempt to break through misconceptions, move beyond public posturing and push open the lines of communication in this live event.
We’ve collected five important areas Martin and her panelists touched on:
1. Most cops sign up to serve
L.A. Police Captain Ruby Malachi said she wanted to join the force after a bad personal experience with the police as a teenager. “I wanted to become an officer and make a difference, treat people right. Your first encounter with an officer is a lasting, lifelong impression,” she said.
“Many police officers come on for the right reasons,” Malachi continued. “As tough as it is to police in this day and age, we are extremely proud to wear the badge. And that’s one of the things we’re campaigning at LAPD: let’s show what’s behind the badge.”
"We're real people,” she said. “We care about the job and came onto the job to serve and protect. That’s what we’re sworn to do."
"[Serving on LASD] is coming out of yourself and serving the community, people who need you," said Rafer Owens, Senior Deputy, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “We are obligated and obliged to serve our community.”
Malachi said that police and the community they serve have to work to solve problems together and that there need to be more positive contacts with police officers. "We should be teaching kids to run towards us for help, not from us.”
2. Communities often don't see the concern
Yasmeen Muqtasid, President of Black Women Matter Inc., said the good intentions Malachi and Owens described oftentimes aren’t seen by the community.
“For myself as a black woman, for our organization Black Women Matter, and for black people, the ‘Officer Friendly’ doesn't exist. It never has,” she said.
"When I think about my first interactions with police, it's seeing family members being beaten to a pulp," said Muqtasid. "There's a huge disconnect between what officers say and what the community feels and experiences.”
But it is this gap where Muqtasid said solutions can be found. “That’s where we should look to how we can make structural changes in policing so that the community actually feels what you say you went into the police force to do. And then we can trust you.”
That distrust only seems to be growing. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans’ confidence in their police is the lowest it’s been in 22 years. “Right now there’s a huge trust issue and a PR issue, said Muqtasid. “The brand of policing is no good. It’s a brand I wouldn’t purchase. So as a consumer and a citizen, if we’re not feeling good about your reflection, you need to listen to us.”
Captain Malachi agreed with Muqtasid. “What you’re saying is valid and we recognize that as a law enforcement agency. There is a disconnect. “
3. Unarmed black people are more likely to be killed
"African Americans more likely to be unarmed when killed in encounters with police than any other racial group," said Martin.
Looking towards Owens and Malachi she asked, “Why are unarmed people dying in encounters with police? People asking for help?"
Neither Owens or Malachi had direct answers to Martin’s question.
Owens framed his own actions through a lens of self-defense. "No one wakes up saying 'I want to shoot an unarmed man.' But I will protect myself,” he said.
A recent collection of data by the Guardian found the LAPD responsible for more officer-involved deaths than any other department this year. LAPD also patrols more area and people than most other police departments.
“Recent killings of people of color have not had gang affiliations. In these killings, they were unarmed. The police aren't justified at all,” said Muqtasid.
4. Communities want to see more care in recruitment
Muqtasid said racial profiling could be avoided if police academies were more careful about who they recruited to their ranks.
"I don't want to have someone in my police academy who has attitudes towards Latinos or blacks," she said. “Give me an officer who has taken a sociology course, who fully understands the weight of the lives in his or her hands.”
Martin asked the panelists if they thought police officers are trained properly what to fear and what not to fear, and if they are trained to fear people, not behavior.
"Fears are individual. It's not simple,” Owens replied.
"I just never know what might happen with the police, and I think that says a lot,” said Muqtasid. “A black man or woman can be pulled over and think they’re getting a ticket, and the next thing they know, they’re a hashtag. And there’s a huge problem with that.”
5. Cops are human and they're needed by the community
Journalist Sam Quinones defended the difficult position cops are in, saying society expects them to be mental health professionals with guns.
"Mistakes happen all the time with the police. This is a human-driven occupation," he said.
Growing up, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles Luis J. Rodriguez said he felt he and his San Gabriel community were at war with the police. Now, he wants police to be part of the community.
“When I was a crime reporter I learned that cops are under the gun of society that says crime is their problem, and I don’t think that’s true. I think crime is a social, political, and justice issue. I do think police are given the short end of the stick when it comes to that and that they should not be in charge of everything we can’t resolve,” he said.
Rodriguez said communities need to adopt a better system of accountability.
“Police are needed and we need them in our communities,” he said, “but we need them to be part of a community-driven package in which we’re accountable to each other.”
What would this system of accountability look like? According to Rodriguez, “No more criminalization of our youth, of people for being brown, black, or poor. Knowing that we are all human beings who deserve the best that this country and world should give."
Richard Cabral – Actor, “American Crime”
Ruby Flores Malachi – Captain, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)
Yasmeen Muqtasid – President of Black Women Matter Inc.
Rafer Owens – Senior Deputy, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD)
Quetzal - Grammy® Award-winning rock collective founded in East Los Angeles
Sam Quinones – Author and Journalist
Luis J. Rodriguez – Poet Laureate of Los Angeles
“Streets and Beats” curated social media reaction from cops and community not present on the panel. You can see their thoughts here: