Long before this nation began debating racial profiling, officer killings of unarmed African-Americans, and police accountability, Suffolk Professors Brenda Bond and Frank Rudy Cooper had been examining the fragile relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Cooper, a law professor, is working on a book about the role of masculinity in confrontations between police and young men of color. Bond, associate professor of public service and chair of the Sawyer Business School’s Institute for Public Service, has fostered relationships with several Massachusetts police departments and launched the Public Safety Leadership Initiative between the Boston Police Department and the University. Cooper and Bond talk about how police departments can change and how Boston has, so far, avoided becoming another Ferguson.
Why was the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 the spark for Black Lives Matter and a national conversation about racial profiling and police accountability?
COOPER: A few things were special in Ferguson. One was the level of pain that was going on there. With the Ferguson report, we found out later that there was such a pervasive exploitation of a majority black population in an environment that had a history of being a sundown town [Areas where black people are warned to be gone before dark]. It was very clear that this was old-school racial oppression. So I think that was a powder keg. Any major event of injustice, given the timing, could have been the one, but given the fact that black people in Ferguson were so righteously angry made it explode there.
Brenda, You’ve worked closely with local police departments. From your perspective, what has been the officers’ general reaction to the increased attention on policing and racial profiling? Has there been any effect on how officers do their jobs?
BOND: They are having a lot more conversations about themselves and their behaviors. I think there is a really positive move toward more transparency. I think there’s an awareness among hopefully progressive police agencies that they have a duty and a responsibility – not just written in code – that they have to behave and act in a way that meets the expectations of the community. I think there’s a lot more attention to training and early-warning systems in terms of behavior. They’re still not where they want to be, but part of that is resources. Training costs a significant amount of money, and they’re not equipped to provide the police with as much training as they should have. Police departments have very little money for training, except for the mandated in-service training, but the conversation has changed at the leadership level.
How have Boston police managed to avoid issues related to shootings that have sparked rancor elsewhere?
BOND: They learned a lot from Occupy Boston. They learned a lot of lessons from what happened to Victoria Snelgrove (Emerson College student accidentally killed by a Boston police officer in 2004 during a Red Sox victory celebration). I think they reflect and respond the way a police department should. They are involved in a situation, and they look at it and say, ‘What worked about that, what didn’t work.’ With Chief [William] Gross, they are really connected to the community. I think, like most places, they still have work to do, but they’re trying to connect with the right folks in the community.
COOPER: As somehow who grew up in [Cambridge], Boston’s black community has not been completely energized and is not very powerful when compared to other major cities. This is not a city, comparatively speaking, where every time there is an incident there is a large hue and cry against the police. Some of that, as Brenda mentioned, is that the police here are probably better at working with the community. But maybe again, it’s levels of pain and we’re not in the same circumstances as Ferguson is. By the same token, [the black community doesn’t] have the power and influence people have in other cities.
So much has been said and written about racial profiling and police accountability? For you, what important fact has overlooked? If you were leading this discussion, how would you change what we’ve been hearing?
BOND: I tend to look at the structural factors that play into these things: how do we understand and measure bias at the front end when someone is hired? Are we doing a good enough job around hiring and training? I tend to focus on these things because I just feel like they’re broken. This institution of policing is operating almost the same way as it did 100 years ago. How do we think about and ensure that these kinds of biases don’t come walking through the door? You have to create lifelong training and professional development for officers so that we continue to ensure that whatever they have, whatever biases, are not acted on.
COOPER: I’ve been talking about masculinity in racial profiling for a while and that seems to have been picked up a little bit more in the national conversation. The bottom line is a lot of times we’re talking about men dealing with men, and sometimes we’re talking about men dealing with women, where the men feel they have to protect their sense of masculine esteem. So in the classic scenario where you have the beat cop dealing with young men of color, both sides may feel like they can’t lose face. And that face is associated with being a man and not being disrespected. I think that’s something the national conversation should talk about – a lot of times especially for young black males and probably Latino males, you feel like you’re put upon in the world in general, and then here comes this cop disrespecting you. The only thing you have left is the protection of your respect in the community, and that’s a powerful motivator to push back.