As black men and women seek to move from outrage to meaningful activism in the wake of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths, Dallas Police Chief David O’Neal Brown has offered a somewhat unpopular course of action for black men: join the force.
Asked during a press conference what advice he has for young black men protesting, Chief Brown stated with no hesitation:
“Become a part of the solution, serve your community, don’t be a part of the problem. We’re hiring; we’re hiring. Get out that protest line and put an application in and we’ll put you in your neighborhood and we will help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.”
That response is simplistic and practical enough to encourage some black men to follow suit, but will it really make a difference? The statistics suggest it should. Last spring the New York Times found, according to an analysis of a government survey of police departments, “In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve. It would reason then that lack of familiarity with said communities is what leads to the mistrust and fear that has caused civilian murder after murder, but how much change can we expect to come from a handful of additional black faces being employed to enforce the rules of a system that thrives on white supremacy? We’d argue not much.
Black men and women are a part of the force now and, except for Warrensville Officer Nakia Jones, they have all adopted a practice of being seen and not heard on matters of police brutality. We can only assume the gravity of politics that colors these officers’ silence, but we have little reason to believe that standard will change with the presence of a few more brown faces, particularly in lower ranks, and so long as practices like Stop & Frisk are widely employed. While there has been much talk surrounding the idea that white cops have no business being dispatched to police communities of color whom they fear, what should be a greater reality is a fear of consequence for over-zealously policing black men and women. So long as that behavior is encouraged, it doesn’t matter how many African-American officers are on the force.
While it’s not a wholly bad idea to encourage black men to be the change they want to see, so to speak, it’s unrealistic to expect our brothers to become a part of a system that has brutalized them since their birth and continues to belittle their concerns and distract from them with rhetoric like “All Lives Matter” or the increasingly popular sentiment, “Blue Lives Matter.” Being a part of the force may be one part of the solution, but it’s by no means a catchall, nor should it be mutually exclusive from protesting — especially when other factors are at play when it comes to prosecuting murderous police officers. As Alternet pointed out in a 2015 piece on why police brutality is so hard to end: “If police brutality were just a matter of a few bad apples, it would be a lot easier to solve. But it isn’t. Protecting bad cops is built into the fabric of police culture, and is a structural issue that has to be corrected with structural solutions.”
So yes, more black cops might be able to impact police culture, but not dismantle powerful police unions that often protect theirs by any means necessary. For instance, unions in the Freddie Gray case were able to stop several bills proposed to the Maryland General Assembly that would have allowed the police commissioner to fire bad cops and suspend them without an internal administrative review. Police unions argued this measure would prevent cops from having due process; nevermind how that hindered justice for their victims.
More than simply having more of us on the force, we need elected district attorneys that will bring charges against these officers and see them through; that means we need to vote and that also means we need to have black men on the streets encouraging others to exercise that right. That’s another part of being a part of the solution.