Gary Potter, Ph.D., professor emeritus, appeared on the CBS News program “Sunday Morning” in a segment about the relationship between law enforcement and the African American community in the United States. Potter, who is known for his research on crime and the history of policing, provided insight on the connection between the development of our modern day police departments and the current Black Lives Matter Movement.
Correspondent Jeff Pegues noted that In the 1800’s, law enforcement agencies grew out of colonial watch groups in the North and from slave patrols in the South. Potter explained that proponents of slavery established a culture of fear. “Slave patrols were designed to perform three functions: To apprehend runaway slaves; to provide deterrence against a possible slave revolt; and also to create a kind of atmosphere of terror around plantations, so that there were no disorders . . . no uprisings,” he said. The next century was marked by segregation and eventually led to movements for racial equality and examples of social change that led to landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Current calls for change are broadly addressing needed improvements in the criminal justice system, rather than specific individuals. Reforms that could move society closer to racial equality are being discussed nationwide. “What we’re really saying is ‘All lives won’t matter until black lives matter’, ” said Patrisse Cullors, a social justice advocate and co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
Terrence Cunningham, a former police chief and former president of the International Association of the Chiefs of Police explained that an officer in today’s police force may not knowingly be impacted by racism or implicit bias. It’s also important to take into account how much they know from a historical perspective. If an officer lacks understanding about the relationship between blacks and law enforcement over the last 200 years, he is at a disadvantage. “If we don’t understand that history, then we are doomed to repeat it,” said Cunningham.
Research shows that black Americans are five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites due to a multitude of factors. Police, too, face challenges that might not be immediately obvious. All three experts pointed to the changing roles of police in society. Law enforcement officers, whose job descriptions once focused on the prevention and solving of crimes, are now on the frontlines dealing with homelessness, addiction and mental health. Pegues cites the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to point out that there are more police in the United States than social workers and provides examples of how some communities are bridging that gap.
“We need to fully fund . . . education, mental health services, drug rehab and education, and simple health services,” noted Potter.
Watch the full report here.