Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
In two cities, police have treated #BlackLivesMatter protesters as citizens to be protected, not threats to be confronted. We should demand the same all over.
If your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, then it's overwhelmed right now by the story of William Stacy. The Tarrant, Alabama, police officer was called to a Family Dollar after a woman was caught shoplifting food, but instead of arresting Helen Johnson, he bought her a carton of eggs.
Maybe it's the photos of police delivering food to her home, or the details of the crushing poverty that Johnson endures. Maybe it's the holidays coming up. Or maybe it's the fact that the headlines have been dominated by wretched stories about police violence. The story is heartwarming.
Those headlines about police-involved shootings belong front and center, above the fold, no question. Still, it is important to highlight the police departments that do their jobs well and treat the communities they serve with respect. Not because police deserve flattery. Rather, because residents deserve fairness from police officers—at a bare minimum—and the examples set by several law-enforcement agencies are what leaders everywhere should be demanding.
Consider two police departments, those of Nashville, Tennessee, and Richmond, California, whose conduct has been exemplary during national protests over the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police.
On November 25, the second night of nationwide protests following a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, protesters in Nashville decided to block a highway, as protesters did in cities all across the nation that night. While this may have been an unprecedented protest action in Nashville (and everywhere else), Metro Nashville Police chief Steve Anderson didn't flinch.
Instead of responding with arrests or tear gas, Anderson shut down I-24 to allow the demonstrators to stage their protest safely. As he told reporters during a press conference, it was his duty: "We have to safeguard life, even if people put themselves in some peril." Anderson further noted that arresting protesters one by one would have taken hours; instead, after about 25 minutes, police reopened the highway, and protesters continued on their way.
Not all of Nashville agreed with Anderson's decision. "I know that people were inconvenienced," he told reporters. "I had one person call and say they didn't get home from the Predators game until three in the morning." (He questioned that account.) Anderson's response, and I'm paraphrasing here, was "deal with it." He likened closing the highway for a protest to any time police have to momentarily block the road due to weather or traffic accidents. (The Tennessean reported this week that Anderson has said that protesters who block traffic in the future could face arrest and prosecution.)
In essence, Nashville's police department made a decision to treat the protests like a parade, an event at which the law enforcement role is to provide security, not confront danger. Officers even greeted protesters with hot chocolate when they showed up at the police department. When the protesters went off script, taking to the highway unexpectedly, the police response didn't vary. According to Anderson, a group of ministers showed up the following day, "bright and early, just to tell us how proud they were of what went on last night"—a response that he attributed to the close relationships between the department and community groups.
“In Nashville, if you want to come to a public forum and express your thoughts, even if they’re against the government, you’re going to get your First Amendment protection, and you’re going to be treated fairly by the police officers involved," Anderson said. "That’s what we do here in Nashville."
In Richmond, California, police chief Chris Magnus went further: He actually joined protesters this week. When about 100 demonstrators assembled downtown on Tuesday, Magnus stood with them, in full police gear, carrying a sign reading #BlackLivesMatter. "I spoke with my command staff, and we agreed it would be nice to convey our commitment to peaceful protest and that black and brown lives do matter," Magnus told the Contra Costa Times.
Magnus wasn't alone: Deputy police chief Allwyn Brown described the protests as "an opportunity for all police departments, including ours, to look inward and examine our approaches and get better."
While it might be tempting to chalk it all up to sunny California liberalism, the Richmond protests were a world apart from the violent clashes with police in Berkeley, just miles away. That's no accident, according to the Contra Costa Times, which reports that Magnus has "drawn acclaim for his community-policing approach and helping drive down both crime and use of force by his officers in recent years."
Richmond Mayor-elect Tom Butt reportedly sent the protest organizers a message questioning their decision to hold a protest over police violence. Although he was won over by the event, his criticism in fact reads like praise for Magnus's approach. "Everybody has worked really hard to make Richmond a different place than Ferguson or New York City," Butt told the newspaper, "and I think we need to show people, 'Look, be like us,' rather than trying to appear like we have the same problems everybody else does."
In Nashville, Anderson said something similar. "I think last night's event went very well," he said. "I hope that all of Nashville is proud of not only the law-enforcement response, [but] the response of the citizens involved, and that we've set an example for the nation."