Police Violence, Black-on-Black Crime and Trust

The fact is that many in the African American community don't trust the police

Posted Dec 05, 2014

When I taught for a semester at an historical black college in South Carolina a few years ago, students talked about their experiences with the police. One student said he had been pulled over by the police so many times that he stopped counting at twenty. “Maybe if you didn’t have dreads,” another student remarked, “they wouldn’t be stopping you. I’ve never been stopped.” This student always came to class well-groomed, as though ready for a job interview.

Another student said that on the way to class that day she had been pulled over by a cop. When she reached for the ID tag she wire from work that hung around her neck, the next thing she knew she had a gun pressed against her chest. This was the same student who weeks earlier admitted that in the past she had shoplifted; most of the class also suspected that she had stolen a cell phone from one of her classmates recently.

How do you interpret these two stories? In a recent discussion on Meet the Press, former mayor Ruddy Giuliani said that the problem was within the African American community itself. His point was that the real problem was black-on-black crime. So, I suppose in the two anecdotes above, he would point to the dreadlocks in the first instance and the history of theft in the second as examples of how the problem is internal to the black community.

Michael Eric Dyson, sociology professor at Georgetown University, responded strongly to Giuliani’s comments. Dyson said that most criminals involved in black-on-black crime wound up in jail and the problem of police officers killing black citizens can’t be swept away by “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy in your mind, sir!” So I suppose he would hear my students stories and conclude that there is something seriously wrong with police enforcement in the African American community.

Ironically, while grand juries in Missouri and New York refused to bring charges against white officers involved in the deaths of black men, South Carolina is bringing former cops to courts. The most recent indictment comes from Orangeburg County, where I taught. There the former police chief of Eutawville faces murder charges stemming from the shooting death of an unarmed black man in 2011. This is the third indictment against a South Carolina police officer in the past 4 months.

It does make you wonder whether if Giuliani were the prosecutor in Orangeburg whether he would have brought the cases to trial or whether he would have called on African Americans to clean up their own neighborhoods before calling the police.

The Giuliani-Dyson debate did reveal one figure that is worth considering: the difference between black-on-black crime and white-on-white crime isn’t very great, a difference of less than 10%. In other words, rates of white on white crime are not so different than black on black crime.

Whatever the crime statistics, there is no question that blacks and whites have different experiences with the police and therefore have different interpretations of the facts. But as psychologist and philosophers know, perceptions become facts.

Something needs to be done to create a sense of trust between African Americans and the police that is now too often sorely lacking.