3 police chiefs on race and policing

Incidents of police-involved shootings of African-American men have drawn criticism from the U.S. public and onlookers around the world.

ShareAmerica brought together the police chiefs of three American cities to address the perception that U.S. police are enforcing the law unfairly and to tell us what their cities are doing to make sure police play a role in improving their communities.

Map of U.S. showing police chiefs' pictures near their cities (© AP Images/Tucson Police Dept./State Dept./J. Maruszewski)
(State Dept./J. Maruszewski)

Do U.S. police have different standards for white and black Americans?

“People watch television and they think it’s all about the gunfights and the car chases. They don’t understand that 90 percent of what we do is providing service to people in need.”

— Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole

Chief Kathleen O’Toole of Seattle:
We have to acknowledge the history in this country. And I do think in many neighborhoods people were treated differently for a long, long time. We have 18,000 police departments [across the U.S.] and no two are the same.

Chief Chris Magnus of Tucson, Arizona:
We can’t get around the fact that some of our past, in terms of how police have been experienced and perceived — particularly the black community — has been a problem. We really are working hard in big and small departments around the country to make sure that the folks we hire are representative of the people that live in the community and that, in many cases, they’ve grown up there. We’re trying to get them back into some of the same neighborhoods that they lived or worked in. That makes a big difference.

Police Commissioner William Evans of Boston:
In Boston, back in the ’60s and ’70s, race was always an issue. We’ve worked hard. I’m out there a lot. I’ve probably gone on 40 peace walks this summer. I think the perception of the police here is that most people appreciate us, but there’s always a small segment that no matter how much we try, it’s hard to reach. But those are the people we’re really working on, trying to get to. And it’s difficult right now given what’s going on across the country.

Bar chart showing confidence in police among whites, 75%, and blacks, 35% (State Dept./J. Maruszewski)
(State Dept./J. Maruszewski)

Is there an epidemic of unjustified killings by police in the U.S.?

With the number of encounters the police have every year, the number of those that go bad is such a small, small fraction. One is one too many, but I think the data just don’t bear out the perceptions. But I think that with today’s social media and traditional media, the message takes off and it’s tough to get the horse back into the barn.

“I think our cops are more aware that everyone’s watching them all the time. In 2011 we had 78 complaints of use of force in arrests. Last year we had 16.”

— Boston Police Commissioner William Evans

We’ve had one shooting so far this year and we’re 10 months in. Over the last 15 years we’ve averaged one a year here. And we’re a big-city police department. I think good officers use a tremendous amount of restraint.

There may be a perception — particularly in other countries that are seeing American police portrayed in the movies — that cops are just ready to use their guns at any moment under any circumstances. The reality of that is so different. If you can give police more tools to avoid using force, deadly force in particular, they want to take advantage of that.