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Black Police Officers Conference Focuses on Better Service - 2001-08-15

Hundreds of African-American police officers from across the United States are gathered in Miami to discuss workplace issues and ways to better serve their communities.

The conference comes amid rising tensions in many predominantly black communities where residents accuse police units of abuse and, in some cases, even murder.

The 29th annual conference of the National Black Police Association began Wednesday with song and prayer. One participant, District Commander William Knowles of the Broward County Sheriff's Department, which covers Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, said prayer is needed. He said these are troubled times for many urban police departments and the communities they serve. He said officers of color have an opportunity and a duty to tackle the problem. "We are trying to get the black officers, the minority officers, to come together in unity to stand up for the community," Mr. Knowles said.

In recent months, fatal police shootings of black suspects under questionable circumstances have been recorded in Miami, the greater Washington area, and Cincinnati, among other locations. In Cincinnati, public outrage over a police shooting led to several days of riotous conditions. Polls show many black Americans feel police officers are eager to wield deadly force against them and rarely held accountable when they do.

That sentiment poses unique challenges for African-American police officers. Commander William Knowles says cops of color must routinely perform a double-duty. "Double in the sense that we are black and we have to be in tune with the community mindset but yet we have to do the job of a law enforcement officer, as well. Sometimes that is not appreciated by the criminal elements in our communities. But we have a two-fold responsibility. That is to represent the black community and enforce the law in the community at large," he said.

Miami Police Lt. Kevin McKinnon said it is appropriate for residents to voice their concerns regarding police conduct, but he added that civilians must also understand the challenges of law enforcement and familiarize themselves with police procedures. "Sometimes civilians just do not know why we do things. But once you explain it to them, they understand. When they feel they have been victimized, you can tell them the process they need to follow to deal with whatever complaint they may have," he said.

To that end, the National Black Police Association has printed pamphlets for distribution in urban areas titled "What To Do When Stopped By The Police." It offers suggestions on the best way to act to reduce the potential for misunderstanding and conflict when approached by officers.

Broward County Sheriff's Office District Commander William Knowles says the pamphlets are a good example of what is needed to reduce tensions between police forces and civilians. "Better and greater communication. Communication is the key to everything. Once communication is established, we take the chips off our shoulders and then we can share common interests," he explained.

But some residents are taking matters into their own hands. In Miami, a coalition of community groups successfully lobbied city leaders to authorize a ballot measure concerning the creation of a civilian oversight board. If approved by voters, the board would investigate allegations of misconduct leveled against Miami's police force.

Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez says, if handled properly, the review board could be a valuable tool. "We in the police department do not oppose any citizen looking at what we do. We just want to make sure that it is fair and impartial. Make sure that the guy I arrested last week and may have an axe to grind with the police department is not on the board. We also want to make sure that, whatever the panel does, that it does not interfere with criminal investigations. I do not think we should trade off criminal investigations for public trust. I think both can exist at the same time," he said.

Many attending the National Black Police Association, NBPA, conference say, to the extent racism has yet to be conquered in the United States, it will continue to exist in every aspect of American life including law enforcement. They say racism can negatively affect both the careers of black officers as well as the overall service provided by police units.

One solution proposed by the NBPA is for cities to recruit, retain, and promote more officers of color. That way, the cops patrolling the streets and making important law enforcement decisions will more closely reflect the diversity of the people they serve and, perhaps, be more sensitive to their concerns.

Photos by Michael Bowman