Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

April 6, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

Police-Minority Relations


  • Michael White, an associate professor in ASU’s school of criminology and criminal justice talks about how an altercation between a black Phoenix City Councilman and a white police officer might be used to help improve relations between minority communities and the police.
Guests:
  • Dr. Michael White - Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Keywords: race relations,

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
The alleged manhandling of African-American Phoenix city councilman Michael Johnson by a white police officer is raising questions and tensions. Here to talk about relations between police and minority communities is Dr. Michael White of Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Michael White:
Thanks for having me.

Ted Simons:
How has this incident been hand by the city, community leaders and police?

Michael White:
I think it's been predictable. Watching what's happened in the media with the back and forth a little bit. I think there have been positive steps. Certainly, the police department leadership having meetings were residents and community leader dollars a very positive step. I saw, I think last week, that the city manager's office I believe is creating a new taskforce, and I think that's also a very positive step.

Ted Simons:
So that's a positive -- some critics will say we've had taskforces before. They come and go, nothing seems to happen. You think there's an opportunity for something to happen?

Michael White:
There's not a foregone conclusion that it's -- nothing will change. Even if it's temporary, it can produce benefits. There's been many times when taskforces have resulted in permanent committees or oversight of police departments.

Ted Simons:
I know that Phoenix came out quickly with a public meeting and there were critics saying so much was not known. And still early for that public vetting. Is that a valid criticism?

Michael White:
Criticism of --

Ted Simons:
That it was too early for the city to come out with a public meeting or airing without really knowing what happened?

Michael White:
I think the sooner that you are out there and listening and the sooner you're opening those lines of communication, the more positive response you'll have from the community. There was community outrage and people wanted to vent and voice their opinions and that venue offered the opportunity for them to do that.

Ted Simons:
The idea of better communication, how important is that, especially involving police departments and minority communities?

Michael White:
I think it's critical. If you think about community policing, a term that's bandied about for a couple of decades now and still an important principle in American law enforcement, but in general, there's been a recognition that satisfaction with police, that perceived legitimacy of police by minorities citizens is critically important and so anything that kind of fosters that is a good thing. Because what research has been telling us is that people's views of the police and whether they view them legitimately are affected by their personal interactions with the police. Was I treated fairly when I was dealing with a police officer? Was my father treated fairly or other people I know? And what we've seen is that when people believe that they have been treated fairly, they're more likely to view the police as legitimate and more likely to view the police as legitimate, more likely to call the police to report suspicious behavior and more likely to provide information to the police and even more likely to cooperate. Less likely to act defiantly when having a formal encounter with the police.

Ted Simons:
And some say that this is an opportunity for the two sides or how many sides there are, to talk past each other, that no one is really listening. You say that's not necessarily the case?

Michael White:
Not necessarily. There's been plenty of examples of that happening, but when these things happen, there is an opportunity to open those lines of communication, and -- and to create improved perceptions of the police. To improve the overall relationship between the communities that traditionally do not view the police all that positively, whether there's -- where there's been a lot of tension for years and years and years and these type of situations offer an opportunity to remedy that.

Ted Simons:
And seems to offer an opportunity for police departments to look internally for -- for police departments to look internally, correct?

Michael White:
Certainly, allows the police leadership to look at a specific incident and say, ok, how did our officers act in that situation? How did our supervisor act? Are there things we need to change in terms of training? Are there modifications we need to make to the policies so if something did go wrong or officers did not act appropriately, we can make sure it doesn't happen again, or alternatively, they can say everything seemed to have worked as well as it could have.

Ted Simons:
But it seems like transparency in police review would be important to let the public and the community know that this is what's being looked at and this might be a solution.

Michael White:
Of all the aspects of police departments, the aspect that's most closed off is the disciplinary and accountability processes. So again, a situation like this offers a department, in a community meeting, to explain to residents this is what's going on happen. This is how long it's going to take and this is what you can expect and that's a very positive step.

Ted Simons:
Do changes often come out of these kind of internal review mechanisms?

Michael White:
It can, especially if through their review they say see if there was a problem, if it was not an isolated in, the department can uncover the underlying condition or problem, whether it be a training issue or supervisory issue and offers that opportunity.

Ted Simons:
From the police department's perspective, how do they get their message out that, perhaps their police officers working in certain higher crime areas, how do they get that message out that this is what they deal with on a day-to-day basis? We hear from the community on something like this, what does the police department need to make known?

Michael White:
The best way for a police department to communicate is through the line officers, the officers on the street, interacting with citizens and business owners and residents on a daily basis. So work with the line personnel to be good communicators and talk to people and just kind of advertise what you do.

Ted Simons:
That's the whole feedback aspect.

Michael White:
Yes.

Ted Simons:
Are you surprised that this particular case did not raise tensions any higher than it already has?

Michael White:
I don't think that's surprising. It is one incident. You know, I've heard in the media and read there's been some underlying tension among residents and those areas but, you know, it's not all that surprising to me.

Ted Simons:
In other parts of the country, they were saying if this happened there, you'd have serious problems and concerns. Does this indicate it's been handled pretty well so far?

Michael White:
I think so far, it has. Like I said, the almost immediate opening of communication through the public meeting and creation of the taskforce shows that the department is willing to listen and that goes a along way, I think, with residents. In certain communities. They just -- they want to know they're -- that their opinions matter and someone is listening knowledge.

Ted Simons:
Just make sure the feedback is there and make sure the community leaderships are involved. The police, everyone is involved and transparency the key.

Michael White:
Yes.

Ted Simons:
Very good. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

Michael White:
My pleasure.

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