National Network for Safe Communities Hosts Police-Community Reconciliation Symposium at John Jay

National Network for Safe Communities Hosts Police-Community Reconciliation Symposium at John Jay

National Network for Safe Communities Hosts Police-Community Reconciliation Symposium at John Jay

How do you mend a relationship tarnished by decades of distrust, violence, anger, and fear? That was the question at the heart of John Jay's National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC)  Police-Community Reconciliation Symposium held on March 12. NNSC is a “hands-on, on the ground, applied violence prevention shop, that engages real people, in real places, with history, race, and the reality of the American experience,” says David Kennedy, director of the NNSC. The symposium, #HealingBeginsHere, sought ways to establish building blocks toward the path of healing. The event began with the “Why Reconciliation? Why Now?” panel moderated by Veronica Dunlap, Director of Strategic Initiatives at NNSC. “We’re embarking on this journey that some call trust-building, collective healing, reconciliation, and community restorative justice,” said Dunlap.

David Kennedy, Director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College
David Kennedy, Director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College

“There is a crisis of legitimacy between many American communities and the police. That is a crisis that did not begin recently.” —David Kennedy, Director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College

Part of that journey includes asking tough questions, like, Why now? “There is a crisis of legitimacy between many American communities and the police. That is a crisis that did not begin recently,” said Kennedy, who went on to explain that legitimacy, in this case, meant the public’s faith in law enforcement to be fair, just, and effective in their role. He went on to say the history of policing, specifically in black communities, has been a violent one. “I work primarily in Black-American communities, and the history of the black communities with the power of the state began before there was even a country, because the foundation of the colonies was in the slave trade,” he said “This violence is built into the founding of the nation. It’s in the Three-Fifths Compromise, it’s in the long awful sweep of slavery in which white folks could and did do anything to blacks under the cover of law.” That violence against black communities continued through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era and present day. However, it’s that Civil Rights period where the greatest shift happens in the criminal justice system with a surge in policing and incarceration of blacks. “It is more likely today that the black man will spend time in prison under the current color blind system than before the reforms of the 1960s,” said Kennedy.

Andrea Blackman, Special Collections Division Manager & Director of the Civil Rights Reading Room in the Nashville Public Library
Andrea Blackman, Special Collections Division Manager & Director of the Civil Rights Reading Room in the Nashville Public Library

“The greatest impact that has been ignored, or is not part of our everyday language, is this idea of fear, and this low-grade trauma in communities of color.” – Andrea Blackman, Special Collections Division Manager & Director of the Civil Rights Reading Room in the Nashville Public Library

History’s Role
Noting history’s crucial role in the framework for police-community relations, panelist Andrea Blackman, Manager and Director of the Civil Rights Reading Room in the Nashville Public Library, said, “The greatest impact that has been ignored, or is not part of our everyday language, is this idea of fear, and this low-grade trauma in communities of color.” For the past 16 years, Blackman has led programs that use history to help bring together community members and law enforcement. At the Nashville Public Library, she creates a bridge between 1954 and present-day America, giving new law enforcement officers a chance to look at past injustices, and see how closely they parallel to injustices today. “When the new cadets walk in, we sit them at a lunch counter with oversized black and white images of water hoses being used against civil rights activists, and other images of that time. They’re immersed in this history of the fight for civil rights for three and a half hours during their first session.” Cadets are then asked some tough questions. “We ask them to analyze the police’s role during this time. ‘How did police respond as protector and guardian in 1957?’ Then we ask them ‘What is your personal responsibility?’ What we see is the cadet's attitudes shift overtime. We see these shifts in perception where they go from, ‘That’s not me and has nothing to do with me’ to ‘Okay, this wasn’t me but what is my personal responsibility in this?’” Blackman says law enforcement officials are not the only ones putting in the work to help heal the relationship between the police and community. “We’ve met with community members who were saying they too are coming to the table. The responsibility and burden fall on the community as well. It has to be this idea of a beloved community, this idea that we love each other, beyond ourselves,” said Blackman.

Jesse Jannetta, Senior Policy Fellow at the Urban Institute
Jesse Jannetta, Senior Policy Fellow at the Urban Institute

“So it’s not a matter of restoring relationships, it’s a matter of creating something these communities have never had.” —Jesse Jannetta, Senior Policy Fellow at the Urban Institute

Creating Change
To learn more about what the early stages of reconciliation could look like Dunlap turned to Jesse Jannetta, Senior Policy Fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. An evaluation partner for the NNSC, the Urban Institute has observed the reconciliation process implemented in six cities across the country. “One of the things we did in all six of the cities was to go deliberately to the communities that we identified as having the highest levels of crime, concentrated poverty, and in many cases, the most vexed history with law enforcement. And we asked them what their view of the police was, and what their levels of trust were,” explained Jannetta. “What the researchers learned was that 50 percent of the population believed that police act based on their own personal prejudice or bias, and just 24 percent agreed that police were honest. The same 24 percent agreed that police departments hold officers accountable for wrong and inappropriate conduct, and just 30 percent of residents surveyed agreed that police treat people with dignity and respect,” said Jannetta. Those numbers were not a surprise to the community, but they were to law enforcement officials. “We reached out to police leadership with these findings, and the fact that those problems existed was not news to them,” said Jannetta, “but they found the extent of the mistrust and skepticism about policing that we reported, pretty shocking.” Those findings led to leadership going to their officers and setting reconciliation as a goal.

“The reconciliation began with the public and deliberate acknowledgement of harm by police leadership talking about history and the specific history of those communities. That was tremendously important to the people in these communities,” said Jannetta. The work led to a plethora of questions, particularly, What do we mean by reconciliation? Jannetta answered that question by saying, “It contains this idea of restoring a past state. Many people have said, ‘We have never had in our community a correct relationship with law enforcement, where we feel protected.’ So it’s not a matter of restoring relationships, it’s a matter of creating something these communities have never had.”

Evan Lewis, Development Consultant and Descendant of Lent Shaw
Evan Lewis, Development Consultant and Descendant of Lent Shaw

“In order for it to be real reconciliation, there has to be truth telling.” —Evan Lewis, Development Consultant and Descendant of Lent Shaw

Personal Connection
This question of what reconciliation means, especially to communities that have felt their relationship with police was never in a good place, was one Development Consultant and final member of the panel, Evan Lewis attempted to answer. Over the last decade, he has worked with developing and supporting educational institutions and communities of color. But his personal connection to the work comes through his great grandfather, Lent Shaw, who was lynched in Colbert, Georgia in 1936, by a mob in his community that included an officer who was later named Chief of Police. Lewis provided the audience with an overview on how Shaw’s tragic death and the history of lynching, has had major implications for police and communities of color. “As I discovered, through years of exploration and research, his lynching was just the beginning,” said Lewis. “In the aftermath, my great-grandmother and all of her 11 children were told never to return to Colbert. Shaw’s sons were taken to his mutilated body, and told, ‘Lent Shaw is the last Shaw to live in the area.’” Lewis’ great-grandmother and her kids left Georgia, never to return. “My family went from being a land-owning family in rural Georgia to living in the projects in Chicago,” said Lewis. He added, “When I got accepted into Morehouse College, my great aunt, one of Shaw’s daughters, told me ‘Morehouse isn’t an option for you because Georgia isn’t an option for our family.’ That is the legacy of historical terror.”

Lewis then offered a possible start for reconciliation. “It does, at the very least imply public and an affirmative acknowledgement of lynching and all that happens in the aftermath of that lynching.” He continued, “One of the things that’s always striking to me, when we talk about reconciliation, is that it often feels deeply impersonal, and for that reason, it feels less than satisfying,” said Lewis. “In order for it to be real reconciliation, there has to be truth telling. So we must all muster the strength not just to speak of the truths of historical and present day horrors, but to also be willing to deal with what is surely coming after that truth is revealed.”

In closing the panel, Kennedy reiterated Lewis’ point. “There has to be an honest acknowledgement of what is real and what it meant,” said Kennedy. “There has to be an opportunity for those who have been harmed to speak of their experience and be heard.”