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The Relationship Between Blacks And Cops: It’s Complicated

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

The deaths of African-Americans Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Tyrone West in Baltimore in confrontations with police have rubbed raw emotions in the black community and again raised questions about trust, or lack of trust, African-Americans place in their police.

The Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Northwest Baltimore, tied the two incidents together in a town hall meeting at his church Tuesday.  He referred to the West case as “our own Michael Brown story [from] the streets of Baltimore.”

Brown was shot six times by a Ferguson police officer, sparking riots.

West died after he struggled with police during a traffic stop.  An independent review board has found that police did not use excessive force in that case, but they didn’t follow the rules, either.  The West family continues to protest.

The riots in Ferguson and the reaction of the West family illustrate a long standing distrust of police that was evident at the forum.

Abdul Salaam had a short answer when he was asked if he trusts police officers; “No.”

The 36-year-old was beaten by Officers Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz during a traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore more than a year ago.  Chapman and Bernardex Ruiz were not charged with a crime in that case and would be involved in the West case weeks later.  Salaam and West’s family have filed separate lawsuits against the police department over those incidents. Police have refused to comment on the suits.

Leroy Wilson Jr., leader of Empowerment Temple’s mentoring program for boys – MANTLE, said he has issues with police as well. He’s 49, closing in on 50, and still “[feels] kind of funny” if an officer is following him. 

He said one of the original members of his group, 17-year-old Christopher Brown of Randallstown, was killed by a black off-duty Baltimore County Police Officer, James LaBoard, who placed Brown in a choke hold.  Brown was accused of throwing rocks at LaBoard’s front door.

Wilson said that incident makes talk about trusting cops tough for his group.

“It still brings about pain and sadness and anger and frustration,” he said.

Mistrust from childhood to adulthood

Lorie Fridell, associate criminology professor at the University of South Florida, said controversial incidents involving police violence are widespread.

“We have had incidents such as these across the country for many years.  What varies is the response from the community,” she said.

Mistrust that stems from those incidents become ingrained; even in children.

Ray Winbush, director of the Institute of Urban Research at Morgan State University, points to different reactions of black, brown and white children shown a picture of a boy being helped across the street by a police officer.

“When they show it to white children, they say he’s helping them across the street,” Winbush said. “When they show it to black children and Latino children, they say he’s taking them to jail.”

Other research has shown low income people in general have a negative view of police. The lowest ratings of police are “amongst low income African-Americans,” Fridell said.

“Picture a continuum and the higher you go up on the economic and the more white you get and the more positive view.”

Not All African-Americans Don’t Trust Police

The Rev. Mike Jensen of the New Carmel Star Church had past bad experiences with the police.  Jensen said he was convicted of a crime he did not commit when he was 15; stealing a boy’s coat in school.  He served six months probation in that case.

Jensen said he has family members who pursued law enforcement careers.  He adds his working relationships with officers while he was a city fire fighter were positive.

“You’ve got good and bad on both sides and you have to make the best of it,” said Jensen.

Those on the panel of Tuesday’s forum agree not all officers are bad and that the relationship between officers and the community needs repair.