Cara Hackett

D.C. police struggle to bridge gap in minority communities

Cara Hackett
D.C. police struggle to bridge gap in minority communities

Washington D.C’s Metropolitian Police Department wants to build trust in the community, but cultural and generational divides are proving to be difficult for some officers.

Terrance Sterling, unsolved murders, the War on Drugs, and stop and frisk could arguably be  a few reasons why black and brown communities view law enforcement with a skeptical eye.

Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department is facing an uphill battle in correcting biases in communities impacted by law enforcement misconduct and policing tactics while training culturally aware officers.

Tactics Breed Mistrust

Policies like stop and frisk have historically affected minority communities more than whites. Last year, 89.3 percent of people stopped by MPD were black while only 10 percent were white, according to the city’s stop and frisk data.

“We all want to keep our communities safe, but there needs to be some additional training, some additional tracking of this information to ensure police officers aren’t stopping someone based on the color of their skin,” Janice Iwama, assistant professor of justice, law, and criminology at American University said.  

From a young age, minorities are often surrounded by police and that can enforce the mindset of “police are for bad people and I’m one of them,” Dr. Charles Curtis, school psychologist and restorative justice coordinator at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School said.

Ron Brown is the only school in the District centered around boys of color. Cultural discussions are held every morning during the “community circle” to foster conversations between students and faculty about social issues. Negative interactions with police are often a topic of discussion.

Video footage of police shootings were shown throughout the Fall 2016 school year to show students that these weren’t isolated cases of police brutality.

“That event could have been any one of us and that event is definitely related to, if not premised on, his blackness,” Curtis said.

Curtis noted that police actions are sometimes found acceptable based off of violent or dangerous characterizations of victims of color.  

“It’s white officers that are afraid, not black cops and black kids,” a MPD officer said who asked not to be named because of department policy. “Black cops are more apt to fight hand-to-hand than shoot.”

Changing the Mindset

Police are stuck between one age bracket that experienced Civil Rights Era policing where dogs and high powered water hoses were used to disperse protesters, and another age group that uses social media to convey their encounters with law enforcement.

“We are here to help” are written on the exterior of all Metropolitan Police vehicles. Photo credit: Cara Hackett

“We are here to help” are written on the exterior of all Metropolitan Police vehicles. Photo credit: Cara Hackett

Widespread views of police are passed down from one generation to another, stifling the bond between officers and younger minority communities.

Officer Erin Satterlee, a 24-year-old white police officer who has served in the predominantly black seventh district for two years, has faced opposition from some residents while on duty.

“I try to get out and talk to people, but they walk away from me,” she said as she recalled instances where parents have physically steered their children away from her.  

Perhaps one of her community policing success stories is when she spoke to school children and one third-grader asked, “why do I think police officers treat black males differently?” Satterlee relayed to the student that “everyone deserves respect, regardless of their skin color” and that there are officers that treat people differently.

Black youth report the highest rate of harassment by the police at 54.5 percent, nearly twice the rates of other young people, according to a 2014 study by the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago.

For some students, she said “they were used to police not speaking to them or it being a negative experience. It was their first time experiencing positive police officers.”  

Satterlee noted there is an issue between the community and the police and said that one of her main goals is to bridge that gap. She’s experienced older women inviting her into their homes for an on-duty bathroom break to a group of kids yelling “f--- 12” as she drove by.

“I want people to feel comfortable enough to approach me,” she said. “I’m a human in a uniform.”

Efforts to Bridge the Gap

30-year-old Tyrell Holcomb, chairperson of the Advisory Neighborhood Council’s 7F district, acknowledges the strides MPD are making with the community.

“There have been improvements that have been made by the city to get some sensitivity training and cultural awareness for officers,” Holcomb said.

Each district holds police service area meetings, or PSAs, once a month with where residents have the opportunity to have a discussion on crime and solutions for their neighborhood.

Holcomb said that other events, like the annual “Coffee With a Cop” held earlier this month was so successful that nearly 100 residents attended, and MPD would like to repeat the event on a quarterly basis.  

Despite these efforts, the fourth generation D.C. native recognizes that there is room for improvement.

“It is not a myth that the police haven’t necessarily hit the mark at all times,” he said. “I think for some community members, that’s what stands out more to them.”

Holcomb had his own experiences with MPD in 2009, where he and his pastor were  stopped by police about his license plate in the northeast neighborhood of Deanwood. Holcomb, a passenger in the Mercedes-Benz S 65-AMG, and his pastor were instructed to get out of the car by officer who questioned the car’s ownership.

“It was really bad,” Holcomb said. “It was just the occurrence that was bad...the insinuation of ‘where did you get this car from?’ and ‘how do you have the money to afford this car?’”

Holcomb said personal experiences with MPD continues to shape his advice provided to young men as the encounter the police.

MPD has several initiatives geared toward younger populations including the Junior Police Academy, Youth Advisory Council, and regular activities at the Boys and Girls Clubs.