What Every Police Department Could Learn From the #Black Lives Matter Cop

Scott Lucas | December 12, 2014 | Story Politics

It’s the tale of two pictures. In Oakland, late on Wednesday night, an undercover California Highway Patrol officer pointed a firearm directly at protestors. Earlier in the week, just miles to the north in Richmond, police chief Chris Magnus held up a black-and-white sign reading "#Black Lives Matter." Both moments were captured by photojournalists and spread rapidly around social media, both lead to recriminations for their subjects, and both tell wildly different stories about how law enforcement can and should respond to protests.

On the face of it, the two moments could not be more different: a daylight photo-op in Richmond versus a tense, chaotic night-time protest in Oakland. But the time of day doesn't entirely explain the divergent outcomes of the events, one of which has only inflamed protestors, while the other has (mostly) allowed calmer heads to prevail. Rather, the crucial difference lies in the transparency of the authorities: One officer stands, smiling, in broad daylight, in uniform, for all to see. The other wears plain clothes, holds a gun instead of a badge, and looks terrifying. (Was he an agent provocateur, planted by the cops to incite violence? Was he goading protestors to loot and destruct property? How culpable was he in the gun-waving and arrests that followed? We may never know—and that's the problem.)

We asked criminologist James Jasper, a professor at CUNY, to help explain why one police force seems to have got it so right, and why one got it wrong. He pointed to a simple difference: Whether the police see their role as to listen—or to control. "The main issue is respect, and this may be on both sides," he said. "Police like to feel that protestors, and all civilians, respect their authority. But more to the point, communities that feel the police are taking them seriously will be calmer. This can consist of listening and talking with people, rather than just staring at them from behind shields, masks, and vehicles."

This isn't to say that the CHP officer didn't have a good reason to pull his gun. According to Michael Short, the photographer who took the picture, the officer and his partner had just been unmasked by protestors, with his partner taking a punch to the head. Short told NBC that he thought the reaction, and the gun-waving, was justified. “Yeah, it was an appropriate response,” he said. “I would have been scared if I saw my partner get knocked to the ground. He was justified. I felt threatened by the protestors, too.” (One man has been arrested on suspicion of felony assault on a peace officer in connection with the incident.)

But it's worth asking, what if the CHP hadn't embedded undercover cops in the first place? What if they'd taken an approach more like Magnus's, communicating some level of empathy and understanding for the protestors' grievances? This is something Magnus himself talked about to the Contra Costa Times: “I spoke with my command staff," he said. "We agreed it would be nice to convey our commitment to peaceful protest and that black and brown lives do matter."

That's a simple statement, and it doesn't solve anything really, but it's potent to hear from a white police officer in uniform. The question of establishing respect between protestors and police was brought up by CityLab's Kriston Capps, who pointed to Nashville as another example of a forward-thinking police department. When protestors there stormed onto a freeway last month, police blocked traffic in both directions, treating the gathering more like a parade—albeit an unplanned one—than the sparks of a revolution that required mass arrests.

Guess which city hasn't had violent flareups like Oakland's and Berkeley's since then? Often, a more forceful police reaction can have unanticipated—and radicalizing—consequences. That's what happened with Oakland's response to the 2011 Occupy demonstrations, for example.

It's a difficult line for police to walk—but can you imagine if the head of the CHP had shown up in Oakland a week ago holding up a sign that said "Black Lives Matter"?

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