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Two Americas: A look at a black community policed by a white department

Posted at 1:18 PM, Dec 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-01 13:18:48-05

Devante Lewis lives in East Baton Rouge. His view of the police who serve and protect his city is the result of decades of conflict between officers and people of color.

“I know that any interaction I have could be the end of my life," he said.

Not just in his hometown of Baton Rouge, but across the country.

“As a Black man, police scare me. To the point where I don’t want to call them, because even if I call them for an incident I think I am justifiably right in, I’m afraid of what would happen to me," he explained. "If someone else alleges something because of the bias we have built-in and the stereotypes about Black people and particularly about Black men,” said Lewis.

That’s something Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul is trying to change.

“There are systems that we talk about that direct us in certain areas, that we need to have those courageous conversations on how could we police better," Chief Paul said.

Chief Paul was hired in 2017 in the wake of the Alton Sterling killing. Sterling was selling CDs outside a gas station when a confrontation with two white Baton Rouge police officers led to his death. The incident sparked protests in the city and around the country.

While he wants to make sure citizens feel safe when they interact with police officers, the chief has some hurdles to overcome, with one being the makeup of his department.

Data from 2013 shows 55 percent of the people who live in Baton Rouge are Black, but Black officers only made up 29 percent of the police force.

Researchers from the University of New Mexico found that when government and police diversity match its community, crime rates fall.

Chief Paul says the number of Black officers has grown closer to 36 percent now, but the racial disparity is still an issue. One the chief says is much bigger than just skin color.

“Our focus is on diversity, and not just diversity in race. We’re speaking on diversity in thought, diversity in religion, we want other minorities. So, we’re focusing on areas in recruiting in that way,” said Chief Paul

“Systemic racism and white supremacy isn’t just a white cop with his knee on the neck of a black man," said Edward Goetz.

Goetz studies race relations at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s the system that creates that cop, it’s the system that tolerates that cop, and it’s the system that allows officers like him to escape punishment," Goetz explained.

Almost 2,000 miles away from Baton Rouge, the effects of a mostly-white police force have taken an emotional toll on some of the people who live in Compton, California.

“The sentiment was that the police were an occupying force,” said Dr. Keith Claybrook.

Dr. Claybrook has lived in Compton his whole life. Now, he teaches African American studies at California State Long Beach.

“When you can’t get basic needs met in the community, it’s not your community, When the businesses in the community are not owned by you, it’s not your community. When you do not control the schools in your community, it’s not your community,” said Dr. Claybrook.

All these factors create feelings of distrust, and that distrust often gets aimed at the men and women paid to keep order in the community.

Chief Paul says has implemented a number of policies to try and rebuild that relationship, including a six-month body camera review of officers if there is a complaint of misconduct, a community board to advise the department, and retraining police academy teachers to include implicit bias training.

“So, it’s part of that evolving and listening to the community, listening to their concerns on how we police specifically in communities of color, how we’ve done that over the years, eliciting concerns on how we can be better,” said Chief Paul.

But it’s not clear to people like Lewis and Dr. Claybrook if changes like this are enough.

“Things have gotten better, then why are we having the same conversations with our children that our parents had with us that they’re parents had with them? But things are getting better?” asked Dr. Claybrook.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not you are Alton Sterling at a gas station, whether or not you are Eric Garner outside of a convenience store or you’re Philando Castille, a school employee being responsible and respectable. In that sense, they all lost their lives,” said Lewis.

They wonder how long will communities like Baton Rouge, Compton, and others have to wait before they feel safe under the watch of police.