Racial Bias and Community Investment Discussed at GW Policing Forum

Stakeholders said bias training and national policing standards are needed to build bridges between law enforcement and African American communities.

Policing forum
Director of Progress 2050 Danyelle Solomon, Prince George’s County Police Chief Henry P. Stawinski III, GW Professor Vanessa Perry and National Urban League’s Donald Cravins Jr. participated in the forum on race and policing. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
September 30, 2016

By Kristen Mitchell

As chief of one of Maryland’s largest police departments, Henry P. Stawinski III said he understands why people in the African American community are concerned about officer bias and law enforcement tactics in the wake of reported officer-involved shootings nationwide, most recently in Charlotte, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla.

“Those concerns are valid,” Mr. Stawinski, who oversees Prince George’s County police, said at a George Washington University forum Thursday evening.

It’s important, he said, for police departments to acknowledge the disproportionately high numbers of unarmed African Americans shot and killed during encounters with police and to develop training methods that acknowledge problems and take steps to correct them. Part of that includes implementing bias training, using virtual reality training and developing national uniform policing standards.

“No single training will be the resolution,” Mr. Stawinski said. “We do policing differently across the country. There is a way to make it more codified.”

The event, “Finding Common Ground Forum: Race, Community and Policing Discussion,” was held at Jack Morton Auditorium as part of a series hosted by the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

The forum, moderated by GW School of Business Professor Vanessa Perry, included National Urban League Senior Vice President for Policy Donald Cravins Jr. and Director of Progress 2050 at American Progress Danyelle Solomon.

Mr. Cravins said the disconnect between police and African American communities boils down to a lack of opportunity and investment in urban America, which has led to high unemployment and distrust.

“When it comes to investing in urban America there are some on Capitol Hill who would tell you it’s not in the budget,” he said. “We can yell at the police, we can blame the community but when it comes down to it, we have failed to engage some of our best assets: the people who live in urban America.”

Unemployment among white people living in Washington, D.C., is 4.3 percent, Mr. Cravins said, compared to 11 percent in the African American community. For African American men alone, Mr. Cravins said he suspects the rate is much higher.
“You can’t just start blaming people or blaming police,” he said. “You’ve got to wonder what is causing that.”

Ms. Solomon said the public has been given a false choice that they can either care about police or about African Americans, and that it’s important to recognize the contentious history between law enforcement and the African American community that dates back to slavery to understand where things are today.

Ms. Solomon said federal, state and local governments need to collect better data on policing to get a full picture of the problem. She also said a universal standard around the use of force needs to be implemented, as well as uniform protocol for investigating officer-involved shootings.

Police are handling a wide range of issues they aren’t trained or supported to handle, Ms. Solomon said, often dealing with terrible crimes or societal breakdowns. It’s important for communities to invest in the wellness and mental health of officers who deal with trauma.

“If we’re not investing in our law enforcement officers, it’s not a surprise they don’t know how to handle stress,” she said. “If they don’t have a resource and somewhere to go, that will wear on them and how they react in the field.”

Mr. Stawinski said officers go through extensive training in other aspects of police work, but young officers in particular need help developing best practices and processing what they see in their work.

“We must also give them the psychological tools,” he said.

For change to happen people need to do more than just talk about the problem, Ms. Solomon said. They need to engage local governments and look at how they are funding what’s important in the community. Mr. Stawinski said change can be a long process, but people with good ideas have to be prepared to stick it out for the long haul.

“Reject the notion that ‘I’m just one person and I can’t make a difference because that’s the fundamental lie,” he said.

The next event in the Finding Common Ground Forum series is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 13  and will focus on cybersecurity policy priorities.