Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Citizen’s Police Academy: Working for An IPD That Belongs to All of Us

The Citizens Police Academy was one of the initiatives proposed by Chief Barber in the wake of the incident last August in which Black teens on bikes were pursued by an officer in his own car and plain clothes. He had been called in to work because it was a busy night and had been dispatched to talk to the boys about an arson near GIAC. Two of the teens wound up face down and cuffed. A gun was drawn. I applied for the CPA with the intent of asking all of the many questions I had about the IPD, especially related to use of force. 

The planned presentations were often interesting but the things I found most valuable about the course were the chance to meet and interact with a number of officers and the openness with which they addressed my questions. Many of them gave us their e-mail addresses and invited contact if we had further questions.

I had a little notebook with me and jotted down questions as they came to me. Some examples:

-        Are there trainings where fear is factored in to preparing officers?
-        Do officers learn about the rights of the public to protest?
-        How do officers decide who to pursue?
-        Do you have traffic stop quotas? (no)
-        Is there a framework of priorities that you follow?
-        Does the IPD see drug use as a law enforcement problem or a health problem? (both)
-        …and many more

I got to ask almost all of them and the officers answered thoughtfully and with good grace. 
One of the classes focused on the laws that govern police interactions with the public. Though the 4th amendment to the constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure, U.S. and NY State courts have carved out exceptions that allow police to do more than I had realized was allowable. Exemptions from warrent requirements

Also, the police are guided by the Debour Levels (1974) in street encounters. This governs what questions and/or searches can be done when an officer approaches someone on the street.
PDF - Debour Levels

Beyond the actual information presented, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the police perspective on this topic. Since a police officer’s job is to discover possible law-breaking and arrest a suspect, the presenter talked about how good questioning in level 1 can be used to move to higher levels. There is skill involved in this. It occurred to me that this is an interface with the public that can feel like (or actually become) harassment depending on the officer and the situation. This is where profiling can happen. Or it can be good police work. I mentally star this as a place for more conversation.

Another piece that stands out for me was the discussions around fear and adrenaline in police work. Almost all of the officers mentioned fear at least once. I got to see just a small example of that during my ride along when a large, loud dog came rushing up as the officer approached to serve a warrant. The officer’s heart was pounding when he got back in the car and he mentioned that if he were to receive a call now he would already have adrenaline in his system. This is their reality. Making good choices in stressful situations is a part of police training. They do reality-based scenarios to try to prepare officers to think clearly under stress and fear. At the same time, there are some automatic responses that are taught. This raised a flag for me. Last summer I attended a Webinar on the topic of implicit bias – the kind of bias that is below the level of conscious awareness. This kind of bias exists in all of us. So – fear plus adrenaline plus automatic response plus implicit bias is a terrible equation.

Chief Barber and Officer Williamson had attended the Webinar too. At the final session of the CPA I asked the Chief if he thought that implicit bias training should be part of police training. He agreed that it is important and should be included. Mental star: follow up on this.

The Citizen’s Police Academy served to crack open the divide between myself as a civilian and the IPD. I would like to see Chief Barber bring this kind of transparency and information out into the community in a way that allows more and more diverse groups of civilians to have access. The more we know and understand each other, the more we can be allies in creating needed systemic change. Not all the conversations will be easy but they need to happen.

I’d also like to help develop a sister program to the Citizen’s Police Academy that brings police into the realities of our lives here in Ithaca. The IPD got to share with a few of us who they are, what they do and how they feel about it. What do we want them to understand about us – our families, our neighborhood, our community?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Zen of Racism: Microaggressions and Beginner’s Mind

I was a white person sitting in a circle of People of Color and other white people I have known for years. We gathered as potential facilitators for a Talking Circle On Race and Racism, Round 2 (a project of the Multicultural Resource Center). Part of the evening was a trial run of one of the questions formulated for round two participants to be discussed in small, race-alike groups and then shared with the whole group. After decades of anti-racism work in many formats, I did not expect this evening to have the huge impact it had. Though the emotional discomfort has been intense, I am grateful for the opportunity to approach race and racism with a beginner’s mind.

My meditation practice and study of the Dharma help me approach pain in a way that I find useful. Humans have aversion to pain and so we scramble to avoid it using every trick in the book! These include self-delusion, justification, projection, blame and evasion. Sadly, these strategies for avoiding our pain often just add layers of pain and obscure reality.

This dynamic is especially evident when white people are confronted with the depth and breadth of the impact of racism on People of Color and when we begin to understand that we are complicit in the system that perpetuates it. I think somewhere we know that if we let that understanding motivate us, we will have to stand up and fight against it – and risk our own safety.

Meditation practice teaches a way to sit with pain (including fear) without the narrative or “story line” attached. That helps to override the urge to escape the pain and helps me to learn from it instead. Over time this helps me uncover the “truth beneath the pain.”

In response to the group work mentioned above, I am still sitting with the feelings that got stirred up – but some things are starting to emerge:

The People of Color in that room are all people that I have long admired and really care about. Not only did I see how deeply racism hurts them on a daily basis (something that is different as an intellectual understanding than it is when you are looking at the pain in the eyes of a friend), I also realized on a new level that I am an unwilling, unwitting delivery system for some of that pain, even though I have been working hard to be an ally for almost 30 years! I don’t want to hurt my friends, yet I do and I will. This is a heart-breaking realization.

During the Circle one Black man said he would like to ask white people, “When did you learn that if you try to interfere with the racist system, you will be killed?” This question really resonated with me, too.  I think that I grew up knowing that on some level.

I am also seeing some unaware assumptions that I had start to crumble. For one thing, I realize that I had assumed that my advocacy and commitment to learning about and fighting racism could somehow provide a sense of hope for my friends and colleagues of Color. After the recent Circle, this seems self-aggrandizing and not relevant to a struggle for human rights. Yet I still wish that somehow I could lessen the pain I saw in their eyes.

I've heard it said that the language of race is broken. It sure feels like that whenever I try to talk about it. But it needs to be talked about anyway – which means there will be pain. Or rather, it means that the pain that exists will be uncovered and, I hope, used to discover wise action.

I know what I get out of being involved in Talking Circles. It’s not comfortable, but it is extremely useful. I wonder what People of Color get out of them? Why should POC have to hear white people deconstruct their own racism – isn’t this adding to the hurt that POC already carry?

There is so much more work for me to do to unpack and process all that has been uncovered. I am aware of wanting to go into my intellect and design solutions or evaluate and figure things out. Lately, the most authentic discoveries I have made have been out of a very vulnerable, open place where I just sit with and breathe into the pain until I discover the truth that lives there. Then more authentic action can follow.