Challenge biases, policies in wake of Ferguson

Karen Aroesty

By Karen Aroesty

For decades, structures have existed that created and sustained Ferguson’s damaged relationship with its police.  They have quietly worked their magic and brought about the shooting of Michael Brown. They are the structures that create unequal and overwhelmingly disparate outcomes between black and white. They are screaming for attention now, not just in St. Louis County but around the United States. Anger and frustration has its place, but this moment cannot be underestimated for its power to transform.  How do we implement long-term change?

Structural racism exists even when individual racism does not.  Well-meaning people often put policies and practices into play that have unintended outcomes. We can judge that in anger, or we can reform those policies and practices.

First agreement: We all have bias. It’s always present, and when it negatively affects our interactions with people, we are utterly unaware of it. 

Second agreement: We want to brag about our good police colleagues and departments. We want to feel safe where we live. When we need protection, the police will be there for us.  

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Third agreement: This is a two-way conversation. We have individual and collective responsibility to help our police do the best job they can.

I call on our regional police chiefs to consider their general orders, departmental policies and personal interactions that maintain uneven outcomes. Some of these areas have been mentioned this week. What are your policies around arrest?  How do your officers exercise discretion? How can you influence bonds for varied offenses and prevent residents from being caught up in the debtor’s prison of the justice system?  How can you think out of the box when penalties are not always about fines or jail, especially for youth?  How do you train your officers to truly recognize when their bias becomes unlawful discrimination?  How often are you meeting with minority community leaders to talk about their concerns?  How often are your officers in schools or at community-building events?  

I ask all minority community leaders to call your police chiefs, sit down, talk, debate and learn.  It’s about partnership. Community oriented policing succeeds when police and residents are allies who share a common goal: enhancing the quality and safety of our neighborhoods.  What does your department really need to know about your community’s rhythm, its temperature? How can you support officers in your schools? How will you help your local department understand the shifts and concerns that affect your community? 

Before the events of this week, regional departments faced accusations not only of bias but charges of civil rights violations. Jack Plummer and Aaron Jimenez, police chief’s, respectively, of Kirkwood and St. Ann, have forcefully addressed the structures that maintained unequal and unlawful outcomes. They talked with community leadership. They increased anti-bias education for their officers. They changed departmental policies that resulted in disparate outcomes for their black and Hispanic residents, respectively.  

It’s not a short-term fix for Kirkwood and St. Ann, it’s the work of everyday policing. The same is necessary for Ferguson.

The structure of racism exists within policies and laws, in institutional practices, and in our own unintended biases.  There is a statute in Missouri that addresses racial profiling in policing. It is flawed. The Anti-Defamation League of Missouri/Southern Illinois pledges to amend that statute in the coming year, and while legislating away bias is a fantasy, we can adopt those measures that will improve policing in this state for minority communities. 

We will look to our partners in policing, in education and in community development to define and publicly identify the institutional practices that will improve community relations and rebuild trust.  

Finally, we ask that our brothers and sisters join together as allies to challenge the biases we share, subconscious or open. St. Louisans are impressive beyond the surface of color, gender, ethnic background or attire. We have something to learn and, now, something to offer the world.

Karen Aroesty is Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri/Southern Illinois.