Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A Pew report shows that nearly a third of white Americans under the age of 30 have “cold” feelings for the police. Recent court rulings and decisions made by the Trump administration this year might help explain why.
Less than a year into the post-Obama milieu, yet another major police shooting trial—the Jason Stockley case in St. Louis—produced a widely denounced verdict that reminds us how difficult it is to hold police officers accountable when they murder African Americans. Then-St. Louis police officer Stockley shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith as he fled off in a vehicle. This happened in 2011, almost three years before the police killing of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Which means it happened years before the 21st Century Policing reforms that followed the outrage and national outcry behind the Ferguson police killing.
The verdict in the Stockley case, however, arrived last week, well after the installation of those reforms, which were an attempt at a policing reconstruction era of sorts. Those reforms are currently being starved out by the Trump administration, though, before they even had a chance to kick in.
Which might explain why attitudes toward police haven’t changed. On the same day as the Stockley verdict, the Pew Research Center released survey data showing that there is still a wide divide between how African Americans and white Americans feel about the police. Roughly 40 percent of African Americans view police “coldly,” or unfavorably, compared with 73 percent of whites who have “warm,” or favorable views of police, according to Pew. Such wide racial divergence in attitudes toward police are consistent with what Pew picked up in past studies on the subject, going back to 2007.
It will be interesting to see how long that racial gap will hold, though. White people are increasingly found on the frontlines of protests against police violence. That has definitely been the case in the current street protests happening in St. Louis, in response to the Stockley verdict. It’s bad enough that St. Louis police were heard during those protests chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets,” but now businessowners are starting to feel the economic impacts of poor police-community relations in various ways.
In one case, Chris Sommers, owner of the popular Pi Pizzeria in St. Louis, and who is white, has been sounding off on Facebook about police antagonizing him and his patrons. For speaking out against the police force’s militarized formation during the protests, he’s been doxxed and harassed by Blue Lives Matter-affiliated police officers, he told Riverfront Times.
The national NAACP says it’s precisely this kind of police behavior that compelled it to issue a travel advisory against people visiting Missouri this past August and to support the St. Louis boycott.
“We share the St. Louis community’s outrage about Stockley’s acquittal,” said Derrick Johnson, interim President and CEO of the NAACP. “This type of policing has no place in modern society. We need police that feel that they belong to communities not that they can demonstrate their ownership of communities through displays of force.”
A more modernized policing strategy that better connects police with communities is exactly what the Obama administration was trying to do with its 21st Century Policing agenda, which was spurred by the 2014 Ferguson fracas. Part of that agenda was bolstering up the federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office in the U.S. Justice Department, to help strengthen those neighborhood ties, especially in communities of color.
However, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to gut one of the key components of the COPS program, the Collaborative Reform Initiative, described as a voluntary “partnership between the Department of Justice and local law enforcement to help agencies be more effective in their crime fighting and public safety mission.” Some of the assistance applied under that initiative helped police departments troubleshoot problems of police use of excessive force.
This is far from the only program under the Obama administration’s attempt at police reconstruction that Sessions has dismantled this year. For those keeping score:
- Sessions recently restored a program that supplies local police departments with military-grade weapons and equipment—a program that was tamped down under the Obama administration after the Ferguson riots.
- In July, Sessions announced that he was bringing civil asset forfeiture back, the much-criticized policy that allowed police to take the money, cars, and even houses of people suspected of crimes. The practice was curbed under the Obama administration, and conservatives and liberals alike have rejected it as unlawful. Just last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to restrict police from participating in civil asset forfeiture programs.
- Sessions has decided the Justice Department will no longer conduct investigations into police departments that exhibit patterns of misconduct and excessive force against African Americans. In that vein, Sessions tries to scuttle the consent decree forged between Baltimore city police and DOJ after one such investigation surfaced numerous examples of misconduct within the department.
- Sessions also announced that the Justice Department would not be prosecuting any of the Baltimore police officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015, which prompted violent protests. A few months before that, Sessions closed the investigation into the police killing of Alton Sterling, an African American, in Baton Rouge, despite camera footage that appeared to show Sterling laying prone and detained when police shot him.
- Four years after a judge ruled stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional in the New York Police Department, Sessions came out saying more police departments should be stopping and frisking. These aggressive police search operations on pedestrians don’t even do anything to reduce crime.
- Sessions decided in recent months to hold additional funding for local police departments hostage, for cities that have not fully cooperated with his demands for detaining suspected undocumented immigrants. But a federal judge decided last Friday that the Justice Department can’t do that. Sessions has been ranting about the judge’s denial ever since, most recently in Portland, where he told police: ”We all know law enforcement is not the problem. The problem is the policies that tie your hands.” To which the former attorney general responded:
Prove it. Not with alternative facts or ideological BS. With valid statistics. You can't do it. https://t.co/pBxmdplu0h— Eric Holder (@EricHolder) September 20, 2017
This was all done at the command of Donald Trump, who has been transparent about his hopes of resuscitating old police tactics that have led to police violence and mayhem. In August, he joked about how police should be able to rough up suspects, using imagery that resembled how Freddie Gray died in police custody. That same month, Trump referred to the multi-racial gathering of Boston protestors who showed up to overpower a white supremacist rally as “anti-police agitators.” This was just a week after he blamed the violence in Charlottesville on “many sides,” including the mostly white “antifa” crowd. Trump continues to defend this position.
The recent Pew survey indicates that only 14 percent of whites have “cold” views of police, which is far below the 40 percent of African Americans with the same frosty attitudes toward police. However, Pew points out that “there are significant age differences within racial and ethnic groups,” notably the whites younger than 30, 28 percent of whom have cold views toward police. That’s twice the rate of whites of all ages. This could be an indication that a winter is coming, and that police are slowly losing favorability among whites of a more “woke” generation who are increasingly seeing the injustices of the policing system with their own eyes.