The mass protests growing out of recent killings of unarmed African-Americans by white police officers are focused on the need to end police brutality, but they also present an opportunity for a valuable teaching moment -- a chance for us to begin overcoming our mis-education in human relations and make progress toward handling our problems peacefully.
What needs to be done to change the pervasive "us-versus-them" mentality in urban communities, particularly those made up mainly of African-American residents? On the surface, the answer is simple: mutual respect. Law-enforcement officers should respect the communities they serve as much as they respect the ones in which they live. And citizens should respect each officer's position of authority within the community. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.
The key for law enforcement is that officers commit themselves to appropriately enforcing laws in a fair and equal way and not demeaning or degrading citizens for any reason. But citizens have a responsibility as well, to educate themselves about the laws that govern their communities. By doing this, they gain a better understanding as to when law-enforcement officials are, and aren't, working within the prescribed scope of their lawful authority.
The case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in July after being stopped by police on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, provides an example. Selling untaxed cigarettes in New York City is a violation of the law; no one disputes that. But what is disputed by many is whether police have the right to stop any person at any time. The U.S. Supreme Court case that defines this authority is Terry v. Ohio, dating from 1968. Often referred to as the "Terry Stop," this gives police the right to briefly detain a person when there is a reasonable suspicion -- one that police can clearly articulate -- that the person being stopped is committing a crime, has committed one or is about to do so.
So clearly police had the right to stop Eric Garner, even over a crime as minor as selling "loosies" (loose cigarettes). The real question is what must be done to reduce the risk of such a situation turning into the kind of tragedy that occurred in the Garner case. The answer to that starts with the attitudes and training of police. Officers must always approach citizens in a professional and respectful manner and must recognize their responsibility to explain the reason for the stop in a polite and courteous way.
For their part, citizens must recognize an officer's authority to stop them and not become defensive or irritated -- reactions that will only aggravate the encounter. They must give the officer the chance to explain the reason for the stop and the opportunity to investigate the perceived reason for it. Once the investigation is complete, the officer should explain what it has revealed. This requires that officers know the laws that they are enforcing and are able to articulate the usage of those laws, both orally and in writing.
A fundamental part of being a good police officer is not just being able to identify the "bad people" but also those who do abide by the law and not subject them to the same aggressive enforcement as those who commit criminal acts. Officers should leave behind subjective attitudes and unproven theories regarding the people they serve. And law-abiding members of the community must make officers feel welcome in their neighborhoods. Just as citizens don't want officers to view them as those who are committing crimes, officers don't want to be viewed as enemies. Small pleasantries, good manners and common sense go a long way.