Title: Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America
Author: Jeff Pegues
Genre: nonfiction, American history, racism, civil rights, African American history
**This review has been adapted from a book review I wrote for my Anthropology and Pop Culture class**
The beating of Rodney King was one of the most infamous police brutality cases of the twentieth century. Police brutality cases involving African American men appear to be on the rise in recent years- between 2014 and 2017, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Keith Lamont Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and Terrence Crutcher died during police interactions or while in police custody. Jeff Pegues, in Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America, brings to light why police brutality is once again making headlines throughout America: the roots of racism in police brutality, the lack of accountability in policing, and the need for reconciliation between the police and the African American community.
The first theme that Pegues tackles in his book is accountability. Members of the police and African American communities were interviewed by Pegues about their thoughts on police accountability. Both sides agreed that police need to be held accountable and punished when they overstep their bounds but each side measured that accountability in different ways. Achieving accountability was on the minds of many Chicagoans after the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald in 2014. After the shooting, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) originally released a statement that the shooting was justified after McDonald had acted in an aggressive manner; when the video was released to the public thirteen months later, the video revealed that “Van Dyke fired the first sixteen shots, and Laquan McDonald was leaning away from the officer. The CPD’s so-called code of silence had been exposed along with other systemic problems going back decades” (Pegues 2017:63).
What is the “code of silence’? It depends on whom Pegues interviewed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the code of silence as “the tendency to ignore. It is the tendency to deny. It is the tendency [to] in some cases cover up the bad action of a colleague or colleagues” (Pegues 2017:46). Dean Angelo, a CPD veteran and president of the Fraternal Order of Police claims the thin blue line “keeps the beast from the door” and is “the line of separation between the good and the bad” (Pegues 2017:54). To Angelo the code of silence is not covering a colleague’s bad behavior but “listening, not talking. Learn by observing, learn by hearing” (Pegues 2017: 190). The police view the thin blue line and the code of silence as the noble concepts of protection and duty while the African American community views it as an “oppressive force” (Pegues 2017:50) of corruption.
In response to the Laqaun McDonald shooting the CPD established the Police Accountability Task Force to “actively seek out, listen, and respond to voices all over this city” (Pegues 2017:63). The Police Accountability Task Force would also be responsible for the thousands of abuse complaints that are lodged against the CPD every year: “From 2011 to 2015, 40 percent of complaints against police officers were not investigated” (Pegues 2017:114). The Task Force also recommended the creation of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability- this agency would have “greater power to investigate alleged police abuse and the use of deadly force…offer recommended changes to both police policy and procedure” (Pegues 2017:222); Unfortunately, the civilian task force was a voter-based ordinance which was struck down by voters, especially voters in white neighborhoods that contained police residents.
The rejection of the civilian-led accountability agency by white Chicagoans sheds light on a dirty secret within the police community (and the second theme of this book): the infiltration of white supremacists in the law enforcement community. Some of this infiltration manifests itself in obvious ways and sometimes racial bias within in police ranks is more insidious. In our class lecture, we learned that some Los Angeles police officers hailed originally from Mississippi and they brought their racial biases with them to California. These LAPD officers were known to cruise African American neighborhoods for the sole purpose of stirring up trouble by yelling racial epithets and acronyms from their police cruisers (Trunzo class lecture, September 5, 2017). Liberal San Francisco was no better in their viewpoints towards African Americans- one police precinct in an African American neighborhood was known to have a picture of a KKK grand wizard displayed on a public bulletin board (Trunzo class lecture, September 5, 2017).
An example of insidious racial bias within law enforcement is the controversial “stop and frisk” policies initiated by the New York Police Department that were later adopted throughout the country. The original purpose of stop and frisk was crime prevention: “officers were encouraged to stop and question pedestrians and then frisk them for weapons” (Pegues 2017:26) but complaints and statistics show that this policy was abused by cops with racial motives and usually only enforced in minority communities. For example, in Baltimore stop and frisk was “concentrated in predominantly African American neighborhoods and often lacked reasonable suspicion” (Pegues 2017:22) and
BPD searched African Americans more frequently during pedestrian and vehicle stops, even though searches of African Americans were less likely to discover contraband. Indeed, BPD officers found contraband twice as often when searching white individuals compared to African Americans during vehicle stops and 50 percent more often during pedestrian stops (Pegues 2017:23).
On paper, this aggressive form of law enforcement appeared to lower crime but there were other repercussions: the breakup of families, job loss, increased prison populations, and the temptation by police departments to turn stop and frisk into a source of revenue.
The final theme in Black and Blue is reconciliation which is repeatedly mentioned in the book by Pegues and by many of his interview subjects. Pegues recognizes that reconciliation will be a long process and hard work for both sides of the thin blue line. Pegues recommends a multi-step reconciliation process: acknowledgement, expungement of bad cops, sessions of open dialogue, and the establishment of positive interactions between civilians and the police.
“This divide in the United States between law enforcement and black Americans shows that our country is still grappling with a troubled past when it comes to race” (Pegues 2017:99). The “troubled past” this quote refers to are the slave patrols in the colonial and antebellum periods of U.S. history and the Jim Crow laws “which set different rules for blacks and whites…based on the theory of white supremacy” (Pegues 2017:100). Because of hundreds of years of oppressive regulations, laws, and policing techniques, the African American community not only distrusts most police departments but has also had to resort self-protection because they knew help would not be available outside their community. Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) points out that acknowledgment of racial bias must also include racism within the police ranks, not just racism between police officers and the community (208).
The cliché “one bad apple spoils the bunch” is also symbolic about bad cops who ruin the reputation of their own police department and the entire law enforcement community. The Chicago Police Data Project found that police officers “with 10 or more complaints- make up about 10% of the force but receive 30% of all complaints” (Pegues 2017:229). Another way to root out bad cops is the prevention of bad hires in the first place. Various entities quoted within this book mentioned that hiring standards for police officers needed to be increased: stricter psychological testing, increased salaries for police officers, and continuous training which includes: “bias awareness, crisis intervention, mental health issues, interpersonal and communication skills” (Pegues 2017:135) just to name a few, and police departments need to acknowledge that not every police academy candidate is mentally capable be a police officer. Local government officials also need to view police as “critical infrastructure… If we don’t invest in our infrastructure, what happens? It breaks down” (Pegues 2017:133). Finally, Pegues believes there must be civil, open dialogue between the police and the local African American community to build trust with one another. This tenuous trust must be sustained through continuous positive interactions between African Americans and law enforcement.