Monday, December 8, 2014

A moment of truth for conservatives

True conservatives should be at the forefront of demands for changes in law enforcement recruiting and training methods and in procedures by prosecutors in the wake of controversial police actions and decisions by grand juries.

Rand Paul is one of the few leading Republicans who are speaking out unequivocally against flagrant examples of abuse of government power. Instead, some Republicans have focused on condemning the violent protests or, as in the case of Matt Willis, the executive director of Missouri Republican Party, denouncing efforts to channel community anger into voter registration.  This is short-sighted. Conservatives should use this moment to affirm their core belief in individual liberty and equal protection under the constitution.     

I am reminded of an event at the National Press Club in 1996. Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities and several national other national organizations including the Faith & Politics Institute and Study Circles Resource Center (now Everyday Democracy) hosted a forum to encourage honest dialogue on race relations. Believing that all voices needed to be at the table, we assembled an unusual combination of national leaders from diverse political views to speak to the theme.

We took a calculated risk in inviting such polar opposites as Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Paul Weyrich, to take part in a panel discussion. No remarks had been vetted. As the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Free Congress Foundation and National Empowerment Television, Weyrich was known to provoke strong responses as one of the most influential figures in the conservative movement. As I describe in my book, Trustbuilding, when he rose to speak many in the audience held their breath.  

Surprisingly, Weyrich began with a personal confession that for a long time he had simply ignored protest in the black community about prejudice and racism, particularly among police. “My attitude was, ‘Well, this is just a bunch of criminals probably trying to evade their just dues.’ I simply didn’t hear those cries. But I must tell you that one of the most profound events in my political life was the revelation of the comments made by the detective Mark Fuhrman during O. J. Simpson’s trial. I was astounded and outraged... And so I began to look more closely, and I’ve taken a particular interest in Philadelphia where certain bad white cops have targeted a lot of innocent black people to advance themselves by enhancing their record of arrest.”

As Weyrich continued, there was complete silence in the room. “I now find that in many cases these cries have a great basis of legitimacy, and they are cries that the conservative community….needs to take seriously… And because of our own view on the subject of government power, and the need to keep government in check, we conservatives should have a natural sympathy for these cries and be able to start a dialogue…My own experience is that once you begin a dialogue and you earn the trust of people… although you may come into the conversation on a very narrow basis, you will end up expanding that conversation and will continue, hopefully, to build trust on both sides.”

The national crisis of trust in our core institutions exposed in recent weeks is a moment of opportunity. Conservatives should call on their own best traditions to stand alongside those who are experiencing bias and sometimes brutality by the very people who should be protecting them. And they should press for reform of grand jury procedures that are unfairly weighted in favor of the police even in the case of apparently unjustified killing of unarmed people. 

They could also support an increase in funding for community policing programs which has fallen significantly as the federal government focused more resources on fighting terrorism. From 2000 to 2007, the number of full-time community policing officers nationwide fell by more than half, to 47,000 from 103,000.

There are some positive models of police-community trustbuilding.  As city manager of Cincinnati, Valerie Lemmie (who now  serves on our Initiatives of Change board) was responsible for overseeing landmark agreements in 2002 with the Department of Justice and Community representatives regarding police-community relationships, and police policies, procedures and practices after the shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old black man by a white officer.

Such measures will not resolve the larger issues of poverty and segregation in our cities, but they will be an important first step.

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