United Shades of America shines spotlight on police crisis, discussion

Kamau takes a ride with the cops in Camden, NJ, for the latest episode of United Shades of America

Did you know it is National Police Week? Perfect timing for CNN’s latest episode of United Shades of America, which took star W. Kamau Bell for a ride with the police force in Campden, New Jersey, where they are trying to introduce “community policing” in a bid to build trust with residents.

Kamau’s perspective is, of course, obvious and his discomfort in the May 15 episode is palpable, but then so are many of the officers he interviews, including a father/son duo (African American) who seem to be slightly wary of where Kamau is going with his official “black guy’s meeting”.

There are many variables here, of which the most common and identifiable is that poor people of all colors — but especially black — are s*** out of luck when it comes to getting someone to help them in a timely manner.

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Poor neighborhoods are rife with crime, stealing, drug deals, usage, domestic violence and gangland violence.

This doesn’t go down as obviously in a rich neighborhood because a) money, b) access to police and c) lawyers, who are motivated to serve their client and community.

Essentially, poor people in this country just have far less influence, importance, and equity, but that seems to be changing…sort of.

One Camden cop readily admits when the sun goes down and visibility is limited that, even gunned up, he doesn’t want to be there.

Now, think of the old lady in a poor neighborhood calling the police because gang kids are doping and creating mayhem in her front yard. Her emergency call, depending on the time of day, is likely not a priority

Our cell phones have captured a rogue’s gallery of bad cop behavior. It also captures violent teenagers and people doing bad things and making really bad decisions.

There’s a line for a lot of us and it pretty much falls into two categories: “f*** the police” or “Yes officer, no officer” compliance and respect.

Kamau admits in the show that there are layers and complexity to this issue that are compounding the answers and solutions for a lot of people.

When Kamau is given police training, he makes good decisions and shoots the right people and performs very well in this realistic and frightening at-times virtual shoot ’em up exercise.

But at the end of the day, especially inside poorer black communities, people live in a fear sandwich of their neighbors, transients preying nearby AND the cops.

The Camden plan Kamau shows us has the police on the streets more, meeting and greeting people to end the coldness and anonymity between cop and neighbor.

But the problem is we need more people within these communities to WANT to become police, and how THAT actually happens needs to be reinforced.

Camden’s community policing is a great start, but the city’s issues are light years from where I live – a town outside of Los Angeles where the African American community are some of the wealthiest people in the country who live in 10,000+ square foot gated homes and worry more about the Justin Biebers of the world mowing down their kids on the street than a cop beating them.

Again, to quote Cyndi Lauper, money changes everything.

Here TV critics April Neale and Ernie Estrella hash over the latest United Shades of America episode.

April Neale: Ernie, I am empathetic to Kamau’s point of view in this episode, yet my earliest lessons as a white female kid from my dad were that police were to be treated with kid gloves, “yes sir, no sir” and never take hands off the steering wheel.

He said that anyone legally granted a firearm has ultimate (life and death) power and that kind of a job can draw some really effed up personalities.

I also had a few cops in my family and they got beat down by dealing with scumbags day in, day out. After I watched the episode I was like, ‘make it mandatory to hire “x” amount of people from local high schools, get them some community college free of charge and in exchange get them trained to serve in the police force’.

Why can’t that be the plan for these communities?

Ernie Estrella: Those are good thoughts, and like many that seem logical in theory may not have enough supporters to make it a reality.

From what I gather, the police force is just as political as any other field so maybe that plays into it.

You have a valid perspective given your closeness to this profession and I do think a lot of what we’re dealing here is a matter of perspective and varied experiences based on your race and across the board the need to deprogram not only from our own experiences and racial biases, but from what we are bombarded in the media.

We have to be a bit wiser and look beyond what’s being told and what’s being held back and get to the truth of it. And to me, I do think there’s a concerted effort to improve police forces, but everyone needs to buy in for any plan to work.

I do think a lot of what we see in this episode of United Shades are a lot of symptoms and contributing factors that are not unique to Camden.

Places of poverty don’t get the benefit of having policemen living in their city, and investing their future there. Unless you really care about being part of the change, then honestly, why would you?

Community policing sounds great on paper but can also be seen with a side eye, when that trust has been worn down so long.

One year isn’t going to undo decades of mistrust. So these places aren’t attractive pulls, but urban decay is the alternative and it’s winning out in too many places.

AN: I get why Kamau is gun shy of the police, but I think he needs to really embed with an inner-city police force for more than a few rides to see what they deal with.

Black on black violence stats are mental, and there’s more to this story than pointing fingers at the police and saying “change” when most cops are doing a job that is really difficult.

There has to be better monitoring of police behavior across the board and the body cams are a great start. What do you think is the beginning of solving this?

EE: To quote the show, what we see…”it’s a start”. The thing about putting cameras on is never knowing how genuine people are.

So if you’re a cop who does the work the right way, then you shouldn’t fear having to put on a body cam.

You don’t have to like it, and I get that no one wants to have an extra layer of being scrutinized, but you shouldn’t fear it if you’re doing your job right to begin with.

As for what Camden Police are doing, you hope that’s the case; you hope that what these officers and officers in training are saying is truthful, but generations of mistrust have created that wall.

I know he only got to be in Camden for a few days but I thought it was important for both the citizens of Camden and the police force have a meet-and-greet on camera, because it allowed both Kamau and the residents to voice their concerns and not have that initial fear of “what does the police want with me?” taken away and also take the worry of an honest discussion from escalating.

There has to be an open dialogue and right now the tension is at the point where no side will give the other the benefit given all of the open wounds.

I think both sides need to be willing to see both sides are in it to help, but I think the opening man-on-the-street questions in Philly sets the tone.

Blacks across the country can rattle off stories of being treated differently and that conditions you to mistrust, especially if they’re supposed to protect you.

I’m not saying that criminals shouldn’t quiver, but when you have innocent people mistrusting officers, there’s a problem and what this episode showed me was that there’s a desire to turn that around, and time must pass and trust needs to be restored over the long haul.

There also needs to be accountability for those who skirt the law and realize they’re part of the problem too. Absolutely.

AN: That one guy says to Kamau he was angry he was asked to take his hands out of his pockets because he was the one who called the cops.

Excuse me, do what they say! They ask that of everyone, not just young black men. I believe the good people in Camden have nothing to fear, regardless of the stories.

Like that older woman who stopped her car to talk to the police and Kamau. She wasn’t afraid, she saw the big picture and she communicated with the police and made it clear she has her eyes on everyone.

When you act like there’s something to hide – hello! Energetically you are inviting trouble, right or wrong.

People who are working, who have homes and are not up to any illegal doings are not going to have the same reaction as some group of guys/girls hanging out on a corner all day doing nothing except winding each other up with hearsay and cop conspiracy theories.

EE: I found the high pressure virtual-reality training illustrated how difficult it is to imagine the stress and conditioning an officer can undergo, especially working in these neighborhoods.

Can an officer live with the consequences that may occur in choosing in a split second to act one way or the other? I don’t think it’s right to judge an officer so hard but, and this is a big BUT, there is a threshold one can pass where the adrenaline of the moment takes over and enforcement becomes severe and brutal punishment in a hurry.

Once a guy gets taken down and subdued, or is even knocked out, does he deserve two additional dozen hits with the night stick?

I can almost forgive shooting someone twice to gain control or diffuse a hostile situation but to empty a clip into someone?

I don’t know and I’m not saying I’m prepared to do better but the cops are supposed to be.

Yes, bad apples fall from the tree, but as Kamau says, “a few” bad cops is still too many especially when you put a license to carry an open weapon in their hands.

Perhaps cops should be rotated out like air traffic controllers. It would be understandable given the stress and harrowing situations one can absorb, but at the end of the day, an officer of the law needs to make the right decisions and know when the line is crossed and how to avoid crossing it before a situation escalates.

What did you get out of the VR training? I’m sure if I did that exercise I would’ve shot anything that moved.

AN: One of the reasons I do not own a gun is that I know I would overreact in stressful moments. I have never been comfortable with guns, didn’t grow up in a home with them, we didn’t hunt and the few times I was exposed I did not like holding one.

The fact of the matter is our law enforcement is issued firearms. They have the leeway to use them if they deem the situation is warranted.

For that fact alone, our collective behavior with the police needs to be extrememly respectful and communication needs to be crystal clear.

Now, is THEIR behavior across the board consistent? Obviously not. But this episode of United Shades showed that communication is the key to unlocking this door.

At the end of the day I still feel money buys a lot in this country – it shields you from doing time, it protects privacy and property and it is an invisible moat that buffers you from those who commit crime by plucking the lowest available fruit.

No person with a mansion is going to let a dilapidated crack house stand in their neighborhood! That scene was crazy, why doesn’t Camden plow that drug house down?

EE: It’s like that in all of these blight-ridden cities. Everyone’s looking to get paid so if the bulldozer guy isn’t getting paid from a city that probably is in the red, it’s not a priority.

But that’s just me guessing, because you see eyesores like that in every metropolitan town and you hope someone would demolish them. I was thinking the same thing.

They could probably tear down half the city but then you are just pushing drug addicts and pushers to a different part of town.

Only part of the problem is solved with destroying a crack house. So much more work has to be cleaned up, starting with the DEMAND for the drugs, money, prostitution, illegal arms, and whatever illegal activity falls under the sun – and the cops can’t solve any of that.

AN: I hear what you are saying, but the good people of the neighborhood could tear it down themselves under cover of night – band together.

I have seen poorer people do this, post-hurricane and tornado, in small southern towns. People are always going to want to get high, or hire a prostitute, the trick is making it crystal clear you won’t tolerate it in your backyard, regardless of how rich or poor you are.

People have more power than they realize, and sometimes you have to take the initiative to create or force changes to happen.

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