There’s no room for biases in this police union. Don’t like it? Leave.
image via (cc) flickr user clappstar
When it comes to questions of race and bias in law enforcement, many were surprised to hear FBI Director James Comey speak so candidly on the subject while presenting at Georgetown University this past week. There, Comey reportedly talked about the need for police officers to "understand the people we serve and protect — by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement.” It’s a speech that can been seen in part as a response to the growing chorus of criticism leveled at law enforcement following the deaths of unarmed black men like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Mike Brown, and for many concerned about the frequently fraught relationship between police and minority communities, it’s a welcome step in a positive direction. But while Comey’s speech may have been the national headline-grabber, this past week saw another law enforcement leader speaking just as frankly–if not more so–about those same concerns.
In an interview with Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, the city’s Police Union President Ron Smith explained the message he gives his officers in no uncertain terms:
“They hired you because they thought you were going to be able to work in a diverse community. And if you can't, well then, I guess there are still places across the country that aren't diverse, so go work there. But those won't last forever.”
That’s a powerful statement coming from the man tasked with representing over twelve hundred officers in “the largest police labor union” in America’s Northwest. As The Stranger points out, Smith’s is a union with a reputation as having once being particularly hostile towards efforts to combat racial profiling, rendering his message today all the more impressive. Now officers engage in “Bias-Free police training” which Smith calls “the best training he'd experienced throughout all of last year." And his isn’t the only force that’s seen a change for the better, in terms of addressing biases. Just this week as well, This American Life explored the positive effects of recent anti-bias training within the Las Vegas Police Department after a spate of police-involved shootings of unarmed black men in that city.
Whether these efforts are part of a larger movement toward better policing in this country remains to be seen. Still, one can’t help but feel optimistic that perhaps we are on the cusp of positive change. As Smith told The Stranger:
“"I'm going to try to do better on things. I stand firm on the fact that if you don't like... the political environment of the city, then go someplace else... You gotta change with the times. You gotta embrace what we have here."
FBI Director Comey’s speech may have been, as The Washington Post put it, “unprecidented,” but it’s through the efforts of local law enforcement leaders like Smith that real progress is made.