In conjunction with Black History Month, the first Hot Topics event of the semester featured three panelists who debated the subject of police and the African American community. The event, held on Feb. 24, took place in a packed Lenfell Hall and was called “I Can’t Breathe,” the phrase that Eric Garner repeated while police had him in a chokehold in New York. Those words became a rallying cry for activists protesting Garner’s death and other cases of debated police brutality.
Meghan Sacks, associate professor of criminology at FDU, was the moderator for the event.
The first panelist was Greg Donaldson, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the author of books and articles about subjects such as crime, police and gangs.
When Donaldson made his opening statements, he discussed the point of view of both the police and the African American community. He explained that the police believe they have helped the community, which used to be much more violent. Donaldson said that, while the police now feel the “community is turning on them,” the African American community wonders why the police need to continue to use harsh strategies, such as bright spotlights in residential neighborhoods, if crime has gone down. He compared the situation to the Charles Dickens novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.”
The second panelist to speak was Jason Williams, assistant professor at the Metropolitan Campus’ School of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies. He has also been involved in public research and information forums relating to criminology, race and other subjects.
Williams opened by saying that people need to look at the “historical context” when it comes to the issue. He discussed five stages that led to the current situation, including slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the war on drugs and what is taking place now – mass incarceration.
He mentioned the convict leasing system after the Civil War. According to pbs.org, it was a system that certain states adopted of leasing out prisoners to do labor for private planters and industrialists. Williams explained that, unlike the slave owners who had more of an incentive to keep their slaves alive to profit off of them, the private lessees did not have that same investment, so the prisoners could actually be worked to death.
He went on to discuss the estimated 5,000 lynchings that happened throughout American history, and said the real number may be three to four times that. He also said the war on drugs targeted people of color and that, with numerous incarcerations of black people, children were left to grow up without parents.
He stated that “all of these experiences together explain why there’s this tumultuous relationship” between the community and the police.
Additionally, Williams talked about his field research where he learned that community members have a “distrust” in the police and feel that they have no input. He concluded by saying that “over-surveillance is what creates the context” for cases such as Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo. Brown was an unarmed black man shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.
For a third perspective, event organizers reached out to different police departments, but were unsuccessful in getting a representative, said Geoffrey Weinman, dean of Becton College.
A student stepped up to fill the role of the final panelist. FDU junior Frank Dades is part of the criminology program on the Florham Campus who aspires to join the Fire Department of the City of New York.
He said that “cops are the ones being watched,” with devices such as dashboard cameras. He said that the police are “scared to do their own jobs,” as they worry about being accused of using excessive force. Dades added that the men being discussed, including Garner, were doing something against the law at the time, such as resisting arrest.
Dades also said that “people are out to get” the police for situations that are being perceived incorrectly.
A question-and-answer session began after each panelist made a statement.
The first question from the audience regarded police supervision in the community. The person asked if the police supervision caused crime to go down, then how would removing it take the crime away. Donaldson said that the police believe taking away their supervision would cause crime to rise, whereas it wasn’t just their supervision that made it go down in the first place. He added that the way the police refer to the community with words such as “mope” is a way of characterizing them as “other” or “less than.”
Williams responded to the question by saying that crime was going down in all major cities at the time period, so we don’t even know for sure if the police and their supervision were the cause of the decrease in crime.
Dades said that he thought it was “hypocritical” of people to complain both when the police are present in the community and when they are not.
Another student asked if the media only shows us what we want to see. Williams said that he is a little against “scapegoating the media.”
Donaldson, however, was more wary, saying “don’t trust the media.” He added that media gatekeepers are now circumvented by the Internet, where people can post their own videos of police actions, rather than having to go through producers or editors in the media.
In the subsequent discussion, Dades said that people want to get out of trouble by putting the spotlight on the police.
Williams said that African Americans don’t have the “presumption of innocence” when these situations happen, since people “rush to verify the charge” and prove that they did something wrong.
Donaldson discussed training courses he has led for police officers and said that, while there is a “huge range of police officers,” the “one constant is that they fear black men.”
Williams mentioned the way Wilson referred to Brown as a “demon” and how it goes back to the view of black men as the “quintessential rapist.”
Another student asked a question regarding the connection between police stress, self-preservation and race. Donaldson said that the police are more stressed when they encounter black people and asked where to draw the line of self-preservation.
Williams said the police are socialized by society to see people in a certain way and that they have never really taken the time to get to know the community.
In response to a student’s comments about her difficulty with making sense of the Brown case, Dades said that the Ferguson eyewitnesses could not be trusted. Williams said Ferguson was “already plagued with racial problems.”
Garner’s death was discussed at length. When a point was made about a black officer being present at the scene, Donaldson responded that the police “become a team” and stick together. The fault of the police or EMS responders in Garner’s death was also debated.
A detective in the audience joined the discussion, saying that there were times during the incident that the police had the opportunity to get medical attention for Garner and should have, but did not.
When Dades asked questions such as, “what if” Garner had a concealed weapon, it prompted freshman Tyasia Rose, an audience member, to say that people should stop focusing on the “what ifs” of these situations.
It was during this conversation about Garner that arguments became especially heated and certain statements elicited audible reactions from the audience.
Other questions included one about whether police instigated riots in Ferguson. Williams spent time there and said he witnessed several instances of police calling people “monkeys” and “idiots.”
When the panelists were asked why there isn’t something being done to create understanding between the police and the community, Williams said that African Americans “don’t need more policing, they need opportunities,” such as jobs.
Dades discussed police officers’ wariness around black men after two officers were shot in Brooklyn in a possible revenge-killing over recent deaths.
Donaldson made the point that no matter how frequently he has argued with police officers while “fiddling” with his waistband and taunting them to arrest him, they have never pulled a gun on him because he is white.
After the event concluded, the panelists told The Pillar why they wanted to be a part of the panel.
Dades explained that he is from the area where the Garner case took place and that, although he believes some police officers are wrong in certain situations and there are some who are nervous around black people, he feels the spotlight is being put on them. He also wanted to be on the panel to hear different opinions and see if he would change his own.
Donaldson said he wanted to be a part of the panel because he believes there’s a lot of ignorance about the subject and that the police position is widespread among white people. Although he believes the Brown case had its issues, he thinks that race and class are huge issues in this country.
Williams spoke with several students after the event about different subjects. He wanted to be a part of the panel because he saw it as an opportunity to educate people about the issue. He believes that his approach of looking at the history is unconventional for criminologists.
Williams said he is passionate about the subject and hopes the conversation continues after the event.
Rose said the event was managed well overall and she was happy that students were able to voice their opinions on the matter during the Q&A portion.
Her concluding remark was that the “what ifs” have to stop.
Kristen Ordonez contributed to this article.