Black and Blue | Sojourners

Black and Blue

In many neighborhoods, police are feared as "occupying forces." Some are working to change that from the inside.
FeyginFoto / Shutterstock
FeyginFoto / Shutterstock

IN DECEMBER 2014, the white police chief of Richmond, Calif., showed up at a local protest against police brutality. The ethnically diverse city is infamous for its violent Iron Triangle neighborhood, but Chief Chris Magnus didn’t arrive at the protest to bust heads, or even to merely “keep an eye on” the assembly. Instead, he held a sign. It read, quite simply, “Black Lives Matter.”

The reaction was quick and intense—even the Richmond Police Officers Association issued a statement claiming Magnus had broken state law by “politicking” in uniform.

“I can understand how it is hard for a lot of police officers, especially given what has gone on in some of the protests,” Magnus said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Nevertheless, he doesn’t regret holding the sign. “I’d do it again,” he said. “[T]he idea that black lives matter is something that I would think that we should all be able to agree upon.”

Like Richmond’s police officers denouncing Magnus, negative national reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement have come quickly and decisively, replete with slogans such as “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” which refers to police officers.

Churches with “Black Lives Matter” signs have seen the word “black” defaced. Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from online donors, as did George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin.

In May, Louisiana took “Blue Lives Matter” to the next level when Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the “Blue Lives Matter” bill that added public safety workers to protected-class status for hate crimes legislation, thereby joining ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. And in July, following the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the sniper killing of five Dallas police officers, protesters in Baton Rouge were met with armored tanks, percussion weapons, and the threat of being charged with the “hate crime” of obstructing police in response to their nonviolent actions.

This is the politics of polarization. Discussions on race in the United States too often behave according to Newton’s third law of motion: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” It’s true within the church as well: While 82 percent of black Protestants believe that police killings are part of a pattern, 73 percent of white mainline Protestants say the opposite—to them, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and the hundreds of other unarmed black Americans killed by police are “isolated incidents.”

But what if “Blue Lives Matter” did not have to contradict “Black Lives Matter”? In other words, what if we saw reform not as a burden to police, but as a boon? Is it possible to have safer officers as well as safer streets for all Americans?

Police officers such as Magnus and others across the country—including Dallas police chief David Brown—are asking the question, and answering in the affirmative: Yes, it is possible.

Learning the value of community policing

Richmond’s own police department website admits that “It is no secret our community has struggled for decades with crime.” Home to a Chevron refinery and a Green Party mayor, opulence and poverty, this small industrial city near San Francisco offers a set of contrasts but also a story of hope, a story in which Magnus played a leading part (after 10 years in Richmond, Magnus became chief of the Tucson, Ariz. police force in January 2016).

In 2006, the year Magnus arrived in Richmond, the city of 100,000 suffered 42 homicides, which peaked the next year at 47. Richmond was considered the murder capital of the Bay Area and one of the 15 most dangerous cities in the U.S. By the time Magnus announced his departure, however, homicides had plummeted, bottoming out at 11 in 2014 and rising to 18 the next year, according to police department statistics. At the same time, the department’s own use of force was relatively slight: After a 2007 fatal shooting by police, seven years passed before another occurred.

While technology such as ShotSpotter (which detects gunshots and immediately notifies police) has improved policing in Richmond, the department’s preferred weapon in their war on crime is not really a weapon at all: It’s a philosophy. Community policing is “the idea of the collective,” Allwyn Brown, Magnus’ former deputy and now his replacement as chief, told Sojourners. “It’s the idea that community safety is not simply or only a job for police, but it’s everybody’s responsibility.”

“It’s not a made-up idea that policing in America against communities of color tends to look different than it does in other neighborhoods,” Brown said. The conversation about police violence that Black Lives Matter has raised is “a conversation that we need to have,” which requires acknowledging “the bad policing of the past,” Brown said.

Chief Brown, an African American who grew up in the neighboring city of Oakland, never imagined himself as a police officer.

“When I was younger, my perception was that pretty much all the police officers were very large and very white males and they all sort of looked the same,” he said. “They weren’t smiling or friendly or interacting with people, they were just looking for stuff, or if there was a call, they showed up for that.” But working nights at an East Oakland convenience store (while studying social science in college) enabled Brown to interact with officers who stopped in for coffee or snacks.

“And it struck me in those moments, like a slow-motion epiphany, that the cops looked different,” he said. “They were people of color. There was a female [officer] who used to come through, and I thought, ‘Wow! That’s different—it has changed.’” Brown subsequently entered Richmond’s police academy at age 20, and his rise to the top began in earnest in 2008 when Magnus promoted him from sergeant to captain, something that left him “humbled and honored,” he said. Now, as chief, he wants to build on the progress the department made during Magnus’ tenure.

“We created more open access, more transparency, which had the effect of raising trust in most neighborhoods, which is powerful because that’s the engine that drives policing,” Brown said.

The Richmond Police Department has the data to demonstrate the value of community policing, and it also has a record of working against the ideological polarization common to so many U.S. cities. Magnus’ support for Black Lives Matter is one example; his efforts to oppose the growth of mass incarceration is another.

When Contra Costa County (which includes Richmond) received $19 million in 2012 in a program called “realignment” to address California’s prison overcrowding, Magnus publicly faced off with the county sheriff over whether to expand jail facilities. Sheriff David Livingston campaigned to add 150 beds to a local jail, while citizens’ activist groups, joined by Magnus, successfully opposed him.

While budget battles with the sheriff may seem ill-advised for a local police chief, expanding programs for those re-entering society from prison can reduce the desperation that leads to crime. As an added bonus, partnering with local activists improves trust between public and police.

“And raising trust means that you increase participation in the whole public safety process,” Brown told Sojourners. “If we’re able to do that, it makes us more effective. That’s the secret right there.” For Brown and the Richmond Police Department, “community policing is not a program or a project or a special unit.” Rather, it is a “philosophy” and a vision: Safety is built not on further militarization, but on deeper trust.

A different way to look at Salinas

Similar efforts to transcend polarization have been unfolding two hours south of Richmond in Salinas, Calif., where government in the majority-Latino city has committed to a program called Healing-Informed Governing for Racial Equity. This commitment emerged out of meetings and trainings between city staff and community leaders following a six-month span in 2014 that saw four officer-involved shootings.

Kelly McMillin, chief of police in Salinas, met with MILPA (Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement), one of the main organizing groups of the local police-accountability movement. “Often, cops have come to me and said that they feel like they are in a low-level war,” said Chief McMillin, “always going from bad guy to bad guy.” This is due in part to how officers are introduced to the city. “The police training officer will drive new recruits around, and say, ‘Okay, here is this shopping plaza, this is where you will get shoplifters, burglars, vehicle accidents’—and that is how you start to look at Northridge Mall,” McMillin said. But what if community leaders provided an introduction to the city instead?

“So with MILPA, I wanted a group that could give my officers a different tour of Salinas; I want [the officers] to see Salinas through their lens,” said McMillin. “This plaza, this market, a packing shed, and what it is like to live and work here day to day.”

Beyond ‘kick ass and take names’

If Richmond and Salinas demonstrate the ability of leaders to resist systemic polarization, Anthony Campbell—an assistant chief in the New Haven, Conn. police department—demonstrates how that approach affects the heart as well. Campbell grew up in Harlem, in New York City. His father was a drug dealer and career criminal, while his mother was a Rikers Island corrections officer who sometimes worked shifts while Campbell’s father was incarcerated there. While Campbell grew up at-risk in the inner city, he managed to matriculate into Yale—it looked like the beginning of a classic “American Dream” story.

But after finishing school, Campbell watched his fellow graduates go off to the lucrative positions available to so many Ivy Leaguers, while he stayed in New Haven. Before falling in love with his now-wife, Campbell had hoped to become a Jesuit priest. With the priesthood out of the question for a married man, Campbell still felt the call to ministry, a call he followed—strange as it may seem—into the police academy. Having watched his father get straight (at least for a while) after jail stays, Campbell had considered becoming a prison minister or a corrections officer like his mother.

“You’re talking about addressing people once they are already part of the criminal justice system,” Campbell said of his mother’s reply. “Why not do something where you can touch their lives before they get involved?” she asked. “And lo and behold,” he told Sojourners, “right around [then], New Haven was starting community policing.”

Like Chief Brown in Richmond, Campbell sees community policing not as a supplemental program but as “a mindset that each officer has to have that ‘I’m not different than this community, but I’m part of it.’” As the assistant chief who oversees recruiting and training, Campbell said that this begins before a recruit even enters the academy.

“More often than not, if you look at many police department websites on recruitment and hiring, many of them have a ‘kick-ass and take-names’ type of attitude,” said Campbell. By contrast, “we make sure that they understand that they are going to be integrated into the community from day one.” They are exposed to multiple trainings and experiences designed to do this, including working at homeless shelters, training in implicit bias, and arranging family potlucks to expose recruits to cultural diversity. In addition, new officers are all required to spend one year walking a beat, where community members get to know the new officer, learn their names, and eventually begin calling them on their cell phones to report neighborhood problems directly.

Campbell also aims to instill in officers a concern for systemic injustice. “The last resort for us is the arrest,” he told Sojourners. “In many ways we try to instill in the mindset of our officers that it is a failure of the system—of which we are a part—when we have to make an arrest.” It is a stunning admission of humility on the part of a senior police officer. After all, in the minds of many, the arrest is the signature activity of the police. How is that a failure?

Turns out, it all depends on how you view the ultimate aim of the police. Campbell explains that an arrest signifies “that we either had gotten there too late or we weren’t paying enough attention to hear the cry. Most of the time there are so many cries and signs before a crime occurs, that if we simply have our eyes and ears [open], often we would have picked up on.”

Raised in a broken system

Campbell’s own philosophy of systemic injustice was put to the test at a deeply personal level in 2006. When approaching a stopped car that other officers had cornered, the driver hit the accelerator and rammed Campbell, launching him 15 feet into the air and nearly killing him. Campbell was partially paralyzed as a result.

“It was heavy for me to go from a position of making $90,000 a year to falling basically below the poverty line in the two-and-a-half years when I couldn’t work and was going through rehab,” he said.

Eventually, Campbell returned to the force, but then he did something even more impressive—he forgave his assailant.

“He didn’t have the same type of loving environment that I ultimately had,” Campbell said of the attacker, a man named Mark Andrews, “and he chose to try to find that in the form of a gang, and that led to our paths crossing and him almost taking my life.”

And whatever the cost was to Campbell, “those things don’t change the reality that 2,000 years ago a man named Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, for the ways in which I am deficient, for the ways in which I fall short, and that he forgave me,” Campbell said. So he limped into Andrews’ sentencing, told Andrews that he forgave him, and asked the judge to reduce Andrews’ sentence, a request the judge honored.

“Why are you giving this piece of garbage your mercy?” Campbell remembers the furious prosecutor asking. But Campbell does not regret it.

“I think it was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Campbell said. “[Andrews] was raised in a system that is already broken, that already has him pegged as a lost person to begin with. I may have been his victim, but in many ways he’s already a victim of our society and its failures. So it only made sense to forgive him.” The judge then allowed Andrews to reply. He apologized to Campbell.

“You’re a good man and I see that,” Andrews said, according to Campbell.

“That to me meant a lot,” Campbell said. “It really did. It really meant a lot to me that he understood what I was doing and he appreciated it.”

The ultimate proactive measure

Campbell’s act of forgiveness went far beyond normal expectations, but it does lend a level of legitimacy to his view of systemic injustice and the impacts for policing. Even without this, however, for Campbell community policing is at minimum deeply pragmatic.

“Community policing is the ultimate proactive measure,” he said. Just as someone who exercises and eats well doesn’t have to worry about blood sugar and cardiovascular disease, if you look “at the totality of the system,” you will see an increase in safety for everyone: community members and police officers together. Ways of doing this can be remarkably simple, even if unexpected.

“We instruct our officers, when they go on calls, especially if those calls involve children, to check the refrigerator—check to make sure the kids have food.”

If we don’t think of police officers’ role as checking in on childhood nutrition, handing out their cell phone numbers to community members, partnering with police accountability groups, and standing in the way of mass incarceration, it is a failure of an imagination deadened by the sadly familiar logic of polarization.

The affirmation that “Black Lives Matter” should not be cheapened with chiding calls to say “All Lives Matter”—after all, this country has demonstrated a particular inability to care about black lives. But the slogans arising out of Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere are not threats to blue lives or to effective policing. In point of fact, these calls can make for safer cops and safer streets. We’d be fools not to pay attention.

This appears in the September/October 2016 issue of Sojourners