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NY DAILY NEWS - Juan Williams writes: Active Policing is Vital to Future of Inner-City America

Stop copping out: Despite officers' abuses in Baltimore and elsewhere, we must not forget that active policing is absolutely vital to the future of inner-city America

By Juan Williams
New York Daily News
Sunday, May 3, 2015

When it comes to police reform, we've entered dangerous false-choice territory.

At Freddie Gray's funeral last week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. told the congregation at New Shiloh Baptist Church, "we" — clearly referring to low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods on whose behalf he purports to speak — "don't need more police, we need more jobs."

On CNN, professor and frequent police critic Marc Lamont Hill seconded the sentiment: "It's something about the job itself and the structure of law enforcement in America itself that becomes an occupying force in the hood. That's my issue." Hill added that it's wrong to think of cops as "simply a bunch of good natured people" among whom "there happen to be a few bad apples."

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake earlier delivered a similar call for a decreased police presence in black neighborhoods. During protests over Gray's death while in police custody, she said she wanted to give citizens room to march and express their grievances with the police and also allow "those who wished to destroy space to do that."

Rawlings-Blake was trying to avoid confrontations between police and protest marchers. But other leading political voices, including many in New York City, are making a more general statement: They are calling for far less use of police, even in clearly criminal situations, in poor neighborhoods.

It is a fact that America's big cities, where most minorities live, are in desperate need of better schools, better mental health services and better job training. And it is also a fact that fewer people in poor black neighborhoods vote as compared to people in middle class areas. Nor do they give much money to political campaigns. As a result, the poor are often demonized by politicians and their needs are not reflected in the budget priorities of most state legislatures and city councils.

But even if we fully acknowledge all that works against the political clout of the poor in America, it still leaves people in those communities — who, in our urban areas, are typically black and Latino — in need of police protection.

And not just a little. Cops, when they're doing their job, have an obligation to go where the crime is — where citizens are complaining about not just violence but also chronic disorder.

On Friday, we learned that six police officers are being charged with crimes, including homicide and manslaughter, in Gray's death. They must answer to what they did to Gray inside that van — and the medical help they appear to have failed to provide.

If the prosecutor proves the case or the officers accept guilty pleas, it will be a huge stain on the Baltimore Police Department. Bad cops must be held accountable when they mistreat citizens.

But none of this is any reason to encourage cops to take a step back from vigorously policing poor, predominantly black neighborhoods in Baltimore or anywhere else.

Gray, the 25-year-old who radically died in police custody in Baltimore, had been arrested more than 10 times. He had been convicted for selling marijuana and heroin and spent two years in jail.

Do the critics calling for fewer police and less policing really want to ignore suspicious behavior by a man who begins running at the sight of the police? Do they want to give a pass to drug dealers who sell addictive drugs — and perpetuate the break-ins and muggings associated with drug users looking to pay for their next fix?

On a recent Aspen Institute panel, Edward A. Flynn, Milwaukee's chief of police, told me that the overwhelming majority of calls for police in his city come from poor black neighborhoods.

The population of Milwaukee is 40% African American. Every statistical model available to Flynn shows that murder, robbery, rape and assault is concentrated in those poor black communities. This is true in Milwaukee and practically every other big American city.

In New York, according to a report defending quality of life policing released Thursday by Commissioner Bill Bratton, a staggering 97% of people shot, and of shooters, are black or Hispanic.

"We must never and will never stop coming when people call, especially since many of the calls come from the poorer communities in this city with nowhere else to turn," Bratton writes in the new report.

In Milwaukee, Flynn described poor black people living behind windows covered with bars to protect them from black robbers, not the police. He spoke of people calling police when young men decide to loiter on someone else's front steps, scaring people from even coming out of their homes.

These communities need police. And they need police not just to be present, but to be active in seeking out criminals.

Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, was on that Aspen panel with Flynn. He emphasized that when people in broken neighborhoods call police, they want a strong police response — but they want police who know the people in the community and don't reflexively see every face as criminal. Crump said too often the police enter poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods only to make sure crime and chaos are contained and do not spread to middle-class neighborhoods.

Fair enough. True enough. But critically, Crump did not make the case that there should be fewer police in high-crime neighborhoods.

The remarks of Jackson, Hill and others seem to think the simple presence of police in a poor, black community makes them an "army of occupation." In the process, they suggest that all officers should be looked upon with suspicion by young black men.

That's a corrosive attitude.

Are the critics in denial about the damage being done to poor black communities by crime? Are they unaware that the fear engendered by criminals hurts property values, kills off retail business and lessens the chance for people to find jobs in their own communities?

Do they deny that ordinary families in black communities are often pleading for more cops to come to the rescue and prevent people from terrorizing their communities?

Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement (to the extent it is a formal movement), said at a recent Smithsonian panel that she is pushing the New York City Council away from a plan to fund additional police. She wants the money redirected to mental health services, drug treatment services, social workers and programs to provide more jobs.

Mychal Denzel Smith, a writer for The Nation magazine, supported Tometi. He called for black America to get out of the habit of calling the police when there is trouble.

Smith argued that when black people invite the police into their communities, it inevitably feeds the prison pipeline beginning with arrests that put black youth in front of judges and juries that see them as a problem, and leads to high rates of incarceration for poor black people.

Tometi called for black Americans to extend concern to black people caught in the cycle of crime and jail by supporting programs to help end the cycle rather than supporting funding for added police. She called this "black love."

Smith insisted that a diminished police presence will naturally improve the quality of black lives in high-crime areas because, he said, cops spend most of their time arresting and harassing people for small infractions such as smoking marijuana joints, speeding tickets, broken side mirrors and selling lose cigarettes.

In his view, only a small portion of cops' time is used to combat crime and protect lives. And when police do intervene in criminal situations they use harsh tactics, often with tragic consequences, such as the death of Freddie Gray.

This caricature may produce easy applause among those frustrated with abuses of police power. But it contributes to hopelessness among some low-income black people — and the cynicism that pervades American's urban minority communities.

The vast majority of African Americans and Latinos are law-abiding people. We want police who treat us with respect and do not react out of fear to stereotypes that suggest all people of color are criminals. Not only do we want good police, but we need them and we deserve them. We pay for them with our tax dollars.

Unfortunately, every effort to correct inequities in the criminal justice system is now being used to fuel the idea that there is minimal need for police in poor communities. Sentencing reform, for example, is being lumped with misguided efforts to pull police away from citizens trying to keep order in their neighborhood.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) have supported well-intended efforts to stop locking up people arrested by police for minor offenses; they particularly want to cut down on jail sentencing for drug use and non-violent offenses that in some cities constitute the majority of police stops.

"These sentences disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe," Sen. Paul said in February when introducing a bill to give federal judges the ability to ignore mandatory sentencing laws.

Hillary Clinton gave support to sentencing reform this week when she told her Columbia audience that putting too many people in jail leads to jail time and police records that pull people out of the job market. "Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions of fewer people would be living in poverty," she said.

These arguments are sincere. They deserve to be heard on the merits.

But recalibrating our approach to law-enforcement is one thing; painting all police as hostiles is very much another.

The reality is that people in poor communities want and need a police presence to bring some stability to their neighborhoods, to assure them they can walk to the grocery store and get to work without fearing intimidation. They don't want their children grow up in a society where a blind eye is turned to criminal behavior, excuses are made for criminals and criminal acts become the norm.

Billy Murphy, Jr., a Baltimore lawyer helping the Gray family, told reporters after the Baltimore riots: "If there is no respect for order, there will be disorder. If there is no respect for law, there will be lawlessness. We have to remember that as much of a serious quarrel as we have with the police over there, we still need them to protect the citizens of Baltimore. We don't want this town to become 'MobTown' again."

Amen.

Williams is author of "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — and What We Can Do About It."

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