OnPolicing Blog

Race and the Police

February 18, 2016

Clarence Edwards

Clarence Edwards

Clarence Edwards

Clarence Edwards

Race continues to influence how people of African descent in the United States are treated by law enforcement. Racism has been a systematic feature of American society and all of its institutions since this nation’s inception. Acknowledgement of the role implicit and overt biases have historically played in creating disparate law enforcement practices and the resulting frictions between African Americans and the police is a reality that should be immediately addressed.

The assignment of Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian and even African American police officers to police poor, predominantly black neighborhoods who have had little or no social contact with members of this group or specific training in how to effectively interact in such environments is an ongoing recipe for disaster. Police officers from each of the aforementioned groups sometimes bring negative attitudes and or stereotypes to these communities that can adversely affect their decisions and the fairness of their enforcement actions.

Some police forces in this nation have historically played critical roles in maintaining positional power for whites. This has created a very difficult chasm to overcome when police departments attempt to implement community policing initiatives.

Negative minority community perceptions of police in America have a historical basis in fact and should not be ignored by elected officials, the police or the media. The war on drugs, with its primary focus in black and other minority neighborhoods where stop-and-frisk police protocols routinely subjected hundreds of thousands of innocent minorities to such searches, exacerbated feelings of marginalization and frictions with the police.

African Americans across this nation are aware and concerned about the ongoing existence of race-based profiling of this segment of the population by members of some police departments.

Cooperation with the police is predicated in large part in minority communities on how minorities perceive the fairness of their treatment by the police.  Disparate treatment of minorities is counter-productive to the provision of efficient and effective public safety services.

Personal prejudices or partiality on the part of police officers that interfere with their professional judgment and is counter to departmental policy and training has no legal place in law enforcement.

The U.S. Department of Justice suggests that racial reconciliation is a process through which both criminal justice system practitioners and communities can acknowledge past and present harms and together move beyond them.

The willingness of society to honestly examine this issue must be the first step in changing these disparities.  Police chiefs determine the organizational culture of their departments and should be held strictly accountable for ensuring that all segments of the public are treated fairly.

America’s changing demographics require a careful evaluation by both elected and law enforcement officials if the nation is to diminish the likelihood of widespread future civil disturbances.  Society sometimes has an opportunity to choose between two options: the one that is right and the one that is wrong.

The historic minimalist inclusion of minorities in public safety decisions impacting their neighborhoods is an example of a missed opportunity to reduce frictions between the police and minority communities.

The following conditions can and frequently do create an environment where negative police/minority community interactions are likely to exist:

  • A police department with a history of using questionable excessive and at times deadly force against minorities.
  • A police department that investigates allegations of officer misconduct using opaque protocols.
  • Zero tolerance-policing tactics that focus on minorities and minority neighborhoods.
  • The presence of media outlets that daily highlight crimes allegedly committed by minorities.
  • K-12 public schools where police school resource officers are used as student disciplinarians in non-violent situations.
  • Disparate black and other minority student suspension and expulsion rates as a result of actions by police school resource officers.
  • The absence of a holistic police/community approach in attempting to solve frictions between these two groups.
  • Police recruit screening protocols that fail to adequately evaluate applicant implicit biases during the hiring process.
  • Police recruit and in-service training programs that fail to adequately train police officers how to effectively and impartially function in non-white communities.
  • Law enforcement recruit and in-service training that fails to place adequate emphasis on departmental policies prohibiting racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation non-bias policing.
  • Evidence of reluctance by top police officials to adequately document or investigate allegations of the existence of a hostile work environment by minorities as vigorously as crimes are investigated.
  • Lackadaisical first line supervision of patrol, investigative and other specialized unit operations.
  • Top law enforcement officials who tolerate insensitive comments and jokes about racial, ethnic and religious minorities and members of the LGBT community in police facilities.
  • The presence of a police culture that negatively impacts non-white personnel and the provision of law enforcement services to minorities.
  • A community that has selected the police to be the primary responder to social ills such as homelessness, alcohol and illegal drug abuse and mental illness.

Zero tolerance policing tactics is not a new phenomenon in the black community. The advent of cell phones with cameras and recording capabilities now permits witnesses to police/citizen confrontations to quickly capture and disseminate unedited depictions of such incidents via social media. This has prompted major media outlets to broadcast questionable police actions and behavior that otherwise may have gone unreported.  In the not too distant past, some American police forces were tasked with enforcing both de jure and de facto racial apartheid laws and customs when they were directed to by elected officials, which has not been forgotten by African Americans and other racial minorities.  This past history contributes to the current distrust of police by members of these groups.

In conclusion, law enforcement officers should be civil and respectful and abstain from authoritarian or dictatorial language in their interactions with all members of the public unless an emergency situation requires them to use such language to gain compliance with a lawful order.  Police officers should never forget the admonition provided by William Lloyd Garrison which states simply:

“That which is not just is not law,” during their interactions with fellow human beings.


Clarence Edwards has more than 38 years of extensive experience directing critical law enforcement, security and contingency management operations for agencies at the county, state, and federal level. He currently is an independent law enforcement and security consultant.  He was Assistant Commissioner of the Federal Protective Service, then within the United States General Services Administration (GSA). Edwards began his law enforcement career with the United States Park Police and retired from that force in 1984 holding the rank of major. He subsequently served as commander of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police from 1985 until 1991 when he was appointed chief of police for Montgomery County, Maryland. He was Maryland’s first African American county police chief and served in this capacity until 1994.

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