“Our problems are man-made; therefore, they may be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
-John F. Kennedy Jr.
Policing in our great nation has received both praise and criticism since its inception. With 24-hour news cycle coverage and smartphones, citizens have more access to these opposing views than ever before. Given the police shootings which have become a hot topic in the past years, I’d like to focus on criticisms aimed at the police: specifically, the relationship between police officers and the general public in urban areas.
Social activist groups tend to gather in large cities and protest the police. However, this inadvertently places the actions of all police officers nationwide under one big blanket of discontentment.
I believe activists miss a critical opportunity to focus on the nuances of specific localities prone to police violence against black lives. My goal is not to praise every police officer in America. I’m also not interested in demonizing social activist groups. They are addressing the serious issue of police violence in good faith. However, I do hope to challenge both sides in order to have a more open dialogue.
I am no stranger to police protests as I have been a police officer for nine years. I’ve held the rank and assignment of patrol officer, field training officer, narcotics officer, and patrol supervisor. Currently, I’m proud to serve as a detective in Chester, a small urban river city located in Pennsylvania with a population of approximately 34,000 people. Chester embodies the racial demographics of larger cities like Philadelphia, which is located 14 miles north.
What I have experienced as a law enforcement officer and the narratives I’ve observed on national media outlets – particularly regarding police officers’ extreme use of force – are vastly different. My recollection of events is also supported by nationwide statistics. For example, the 2017 FBI Crime Statistics showed an overall drop in violent crimes nationwide from 2016. However, much like previously released reports, the 2017 statistics showed that the most violent crimes occurred in lower income urban sections of cities across the country. The police officers who work in these areas tend to address violent crimes more often than their suburban counterparts. More often than not, the assailant either gets away or is arrested unharmed. The police officer also leaves the incident unharmed.
Typically, the actor tries to get away while the officer is pursuing. If a fight occurs in an attempt to get away, some actors reach for a firearm or throw a weapon into nearby bushes. Many times this is done all in sight of the responding police officer. Once the situation is resolved, however, both the actor and police officer leave the incident unharmed. Police officers in urban areas encounter and resolve the vast majority of these situations on a daily basis without one shot ever being fired.
Some may view my statement as a bold or inaccurate assumption. So let’s take a look at some statistics.
A 2017 Police Violence report published by Mapping Police Violence (a research organization that collects nationwide data on police killings) states that 27% of U.S. police killings between January 2013 and December 2017 were committed by the police departments in America’s 100 largest cities. The violent crime rates in these large cities did not make the police departments any more or less likely to kill people. For example, Buffalo and Newark had low rates of police violence despite high crime rates, while Spokane and Bakersfield had high police violence rates despite their relatively low crime rates.
The majority of police-involved shootings are not happening in these large, urban areas. Interestingly, the level of police violence in large urban cities is much lower than that of suburban or rural areas where crime is relatively low. In fact, there has been an uptick in the rates of police violence in these suburban and rural areas.
So why have protest groups ignored the difference in policing in these suburban and rural areas in their discourse? Of course, credit should be given to the Black Lives Matter movement. Their massive following, organizational skills, and passion speak volumes for such a young organization. Black Lives Matter created a platform to address social issues important to our nation. However, the locations they choose to stage protests should also include suburban and rural areas.
They’ve held numerous protests announcing their grievances against police brutality in major metropolitan cities. I question, however, whether their efforts would be better served at locations where police brutality is most problematic. For instance, you wouldn’t go to your electric company to complain about a high water bill.
This is in essence what Black Lives Matter is doing: publicizing an important issue where the issue isn’t necessarily at its most prevalent. Unfortunately, major media outlets do not reflect this fact. Instead, protest groups focus their efforts on these large, urban locations taking attention away from the areas where they could potentially see the change they demand.
As President John F. Kennedy said, these issues are man-made and can only be changed by man. We all share responsibility of the optics displayed with police and their interactions with minorities. It’s up to us as citizens to change these optics and have an open dialogue to better understand each other’s views. Social activist groups’ message should not be infringed upon based on their first amendment rights. However, a more detailed look at the areas in which most police violence occurs is critical. This can lead to nuanced training for police officers in these areas.