Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson and Policing in our Communities

The killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson has once again opened up important discussions about race, violence and the value of life in contemporary America.  The Grand Jury's decision yesterday not to indict Officer Wilson has added intensity to those discussions.

Many others have provided insights from a variety of perspectives.  Dean Mike Kinman at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis has offered particularly good words on reconciliation, prayer and healing on his blog.  My thoughts and prayers continue to go out to Mr. Brown's family, Officer Wilson and his family, as well as the community of Ferguson and our nation.

Beyond the very important big picture questions that need to be addressed, this tragedy also provides us an opportunity to look at some of more mundane decisions communities make about their police departments.  As in many things, the devil is in the details, and since joining Sharon City Council last year, I have seen many structural pressures that help create situations like the one in Ferguson that can go wrong very quickly.

I do not mean to imply that racism, discrimination or other larger evils do not need to be dealt with.  But I also want to recognize the pressures on local municipalities make it more likely that a solo officer will have to make a difficult decision that could end in the loss of his own life or the life or someone else, and we should do everything we can not to put our police officers in those situations.

The first surprise to many may be that officers are mostly working by themselves.  We expect a solo state police officer at a speed trap, but the banter between partners in the squad car on many TV cop shows might lead us to believe that most local cruisers carry two officers.  In most communities I work with, a car has a single officer, even at night.  Back-up can be called in, but when situations go unexpectedly downhill, one person has to make the response, and his or her options may be limited.

Additionally, this solo officer in the car is increasingly unlikely to be integrated into that neighborhood.  Municipalities are dropping residency requirements for police (although Sharon, PA, has not) and, generally for good reasons, police do not often live in high crime areas.  The most significant issue in this disconnect, however, is the loss of beat officers or community police in areas requiring more intensive and frequent police intervention.   

These losses are primarily due to municipal finances.  As city tax bases shrink, fewer funds are available for safety services.  These pressures are compounded by changes in federal grants and the increasing costs of benefits for current and retired municipal police.

Amazingly, a the federal government will give local police forces tanks and other equipment more appropriate to fight the Nazis than to respond to a domestic violence call.  But getting funds for community police officers from the federal government is increasingly difficult.  Grants are scarcer and hurdles higher.   In Sharon a few years ago, city officials turned down one grant because they did not believe the city could guarantee that it could cover the costs of the grant's local requirements.

At the same time, municipalities have a harder and harder time funding police positions due to out of control health care and pension benefits.  Cities face similar burdens of all employers when health plans increase costs from 15-38% from one year to the next.  With medium-term union contracts and binding arbitration, many municipalities have no recourse when health care costs increase in a given year except raise taxes or cut positions.  Another large issue is  mandated pension benefits, especially for past city employees.  In Pennsylvania, all pensions to municipal employees must be defined benefit plans.  Not only is that expensive, but when the stock market dips, additional funds are required of the city to keep their existing pension obligations current.  In Sharon this year, the pension obligation was more than $300,000 over last year's.  In Reading, PA, pension obligations have meant a decrease in their police force from 200 officers to 160 officers.  (For more information on Pennsylvania's municipal pensions and what you can do, go to fixthenumbers.com.)

Fewer officers working alone with less time to spend getting to know people in high-crime neighborhoods makes it more likely that good officers end up in crisis situations.  This climate also means that some of the suggestions made after Ferguson are more difficult to implement.  Recruiting minority officers is not as easy as a TV talking head makes it sound.  The most likely way to recruit minority officers over the long-term is to have police officers present as positive role models where minority youth congregate, while affording the officers time to build relationships.  Such opportunities are slim when police only have time to drive up in their cruiser to respond to a call.  Police jobs also look less attractive to everyone when wages are low, risk is high, and new hires are the first to be laid off when health costs increase.   

Added to these pressures are the increasingly dangerous questions officers must ask about anyone they are stopping.  Not only are guns prevalent, but bullets designed to go through "bullet-proof" vests are also increasingly common.  Questionable activity requiring police response is frequently carried out by individuals under the influence, and different drugs lead people to act in radically different irrational ways.

So in addition to many suggestions offered elsewhere, here are a few things we can do to make a difference:

First, know your community.  Walk and drive around neighborhoods that you don't frequent.  Stop in and meet local shop owners and those running area social service agencies.  Build relationships with people in town, including people who you wouldn't meet in other places.

Second, find out about your local government.  Go to a city council or school board meeting.  Ask questions.  Talk to the police chief or the fire chief about what struggles the community is facing and what struggles their department is facing.  Then do what makes sense based on what you find out.

Third, pray.  Pray, and ask your church to pray, for our public safety officers, for all the needs of our communities, and for racial reconciliation in the U.S.  On his blog today, the Rev. Steve Pankey had this photo with the prayer for the First Sunday of Advent.  It might be a good place to start.


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