Police, Race, Community & Shalom

About a week ago Palmyra put up a sign advertising an upcoming town hall, co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Palmyra Police department. Given all the highly publicized 1 issues between law enforcement and the African-American community, I felt this was a meeting worth attending.

The problem with attending, however, was the fact that I’m currently running a book study on Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be, by Cornelius Plantiga, and our normal slot fell in the middle of the scheduled meeting time. While this might have been a deal-breaker, the bringing together of the community (especially the African-American portion of the community) and law-enforcement seemed like a good way to practically explore one of the key points of the book — sin is the disruption of shalom.

From an observer’s standpoint, the meeting highlighted much of Plantinga’s premise. Palmyra hasn’t been subjected to any of the confrontations which have led to the all-too-common tragedies being inflicted on communities all over the country. Yet, a very real rift does exist between the minority (predominantly black) population of Palmyra and the police department.

Some of this is due to bureaucratic failings. Folks in Palmyra remember a time when they were able to call the police department directly with their emergencies. We have since moved to “centralized dispatch” which everyone in the meeting agrees is sorely lacking. One gentleman described his experience with the dispatcher this way, “I had to give the history of Palmyra before they’d help me.” At another point in the meeting he reiterated, “I could come over to your house and pick you up and bring you back while I was still waiting on the phone with them!” The Police agreed the system is broken, and shared the crowd’s frustration with it — but the system is in place and they are forced to use it.

To me, the exchange highlighted the problem with the bureaucratic world-view. Everyone in the room agreed the system does not work, they also agreed it was allowing people to get away with dangerous actions within our town, but the idea of proposing our own solution to the problem never got on the table, “because this is the system 2.” Centralized dispatching also removed the population one step further from the police force. Now, when people call for the police they are subjected to the non-relational frustrations generally associated with calling Comcast’s customer support. From the moment people contact the bureaucratic solution to police dispatch, they feel they are begin treated as objects — and that sets them on edge. Rightfully so!

Some of the rift is caused by lack of communication. One person recounted a story about a car which suddenly began parking in front of her yard for a good portion of the day. She called dispatch, but received no word from the police about the situation, and the car continued to park in the same spot for several more days. Finally, out of frustration, she told her husband to ask what the person was doing, and they found out he was a special investigator.

The police chief revealed why no officer came to check on that particular vehicle. They knew who it was! When private investigators come to town on a case they typically check in with the police before beginning their work. This meant the police knew there wasn’t an active threat, and didn’t drive by the vehicle so as to not “out” the investigator, but the resident was left in the dark. This made the resident feel neglected, and the chief seemed to really understand what impact that lack of direct response had on this resident’s sense of security and inclusion.

Some of the rifts are simply cultural, and are going to take a huge amount of hard work on all parties to heal. For reasons which are both completely understandable and have a basis in personal experience, many of the people expressed a sense that any time they interacted with the police they were being singled out for mistreatment.

One woman brought up being told she couldn’t wait for a spot to open up along the curb when she picked up her grandchildren from school. In her minds it was unfair because other people were left alone. When an officer explained that it was one particular street which they just couldn’t allow people to stop to wait for spots to open because the traffic flow was just that bad 3. This kind grandmother seemed to understand the issue.

Another man highlighted a time when he backed down the street a short way to make room for a friend to park an officer told him he couldn’t do that 4. He was upset that the officer “talked down to me” and “she didn’t have to give me a citation.” When it was pointed out he wasn’t given a citation, but a warning required by law to give 5, he was mollified somewhat.

While both these instances represent misunderstandings, they highlight this very real expectation that interaction with the police means being mistreated. Far too many interactions between police and the African American community are negative.

A huge portion of this rift is relational. Time and time again people pointed out times where Black men were questioned because they were hanging out on a front yard or listening to music in a car. These young men are subjected to questions like, “Where do you live? What are you doing?” Now, on the surface, these may seem like perfectly ordinary and fair questions to ask. In fact, I was asked these very questions when I was confronted 6 by the Bridge Police during my Tacony-Palmyra Bridge photo walk. When you combine the cultural expectation that to interact with police is to be mistreated with the fact that these youths are in the neighborhood in which they grew up, however, the questions take one another tone. When I was confronted on the bridge, I was the interloper. When the young people in Palmyra’s neighborhoods are confronted by a police officer they do not know or have ever seen close-up, it’s the officer who is the interloper. Parents and grandparents highlighted this in the meeting by pointing out, “He grew up in his town. He graduated from the high school. He played football here, and just graduated from college.” When you’re a space mentally marked as “where I belong” and a stranger in uniform seems to challenge that notion, it’s not going to be perceived as anything other than mistreatment.

The Palmyra police have begun taking some significant steps trying to amend this lack of relationships, but it’s going to take time. I’m also of the opinion that, in our culture, the group which does the inviting holds the more powerful social hand, even with the most sincere of invitations. We saw that inadvertently last night where the setup of the room had police, council, and the NAACP moderator seated at a single table facing opposite the rows of people who came from the town. This wasn’t an intentional desire to elevate one group over another, but it did separate out the “official” people from the “attendees.” The fact no one questioned the set up reveals how we instinctually accept the notion that the “inviter” holds the social cards. If this particular rift is going to be healed, it might be necessary for our neighborhoods to do the inviting and allow the police to be guests in a social situation they control.

All in all, it was a good meeting. People were able to vent in an appropriate setting, which is good, and I do hope Palmyra will continue to pursue proactive healing among all segments of our community. I was also very glad, for all parties, that Palmyra has been recording police interactions with people since the 80’s — I’m also impressed how our police are actively pursing grants for body cameras, and that our council is going to get them even if a grant fails to come through. As Chief Pearlman pointed out, “Everyone behaves better when they know they are on camera.”

  1. And not publicized at all. 
  2. Worse, we may be legally prohibited from setting up our own solution to certain dispatch problems. 
  3. Having picked my own children up on that street, I can attest to that truth. Also, I’ve witnessed parents stop in the middle of the street, roll down a window, and scream for their children to run out into the street and get in their car. So they not only stop traffic, they endanger a whole lot of people. 
  4. It’s a one way street. 
  5. It legally documents the interaction, actually, it can be a protection for the population, as well as the police. This is one instance where bureaucracy can make sense. 
  6. For doing absolutely nothing wrong, I might add. 

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