Recently, the Affiliate News Wire team had the opportunity to speak with Urban League of Nebraska (Omaha, NE) President and CEO, Thomas Warren, Sr. about the events surrounding Ferguson, MO. He provided insight as to how other Urban League Affiliates can be proactive in handling similar situations in their respective communities as having served 24 years with the Omaha Police Department and the last 4 years as Chief of Police until his retirement in 2008. Also, he currently serves on the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) as well as serving as an Urban League Affiliate CEO. Below are excerpts from our conversation:
Affiliate News Wire (ANW): When it comes to relations between communities of color and police forces throughout the nation, do you think Ferguson and what has lead up to the protests represents the norm or represents an anomaly of what these relations look like throughout the country, and why?
Thomas Warren (TW): In general, most urban police departments that serve in communities with significant minority populations are more progressive in the manner in which they interact with the public. They employ “community policing” as their primary philosophy, which places more emphasis on establishing relationships with the law abiding citizens that they serve. The police department’s leadership and line officers will communicate routinely and work cooperatively with the public and take a proactive approach to problem solving.
What is happening in Ferguson is indicative of what can occur when you haven’t established these relationships in advance of a crisis. As Police Chief, I realized that it wasn’t a matter of if you were going to have a controversial incident, it was when. So you wanted to have what I would describe as a “kitchen cabinet”, which consisted of representatives from the different ethnic communities and those respective neighborhoods where they had been a history of poor police-community relations.
These relationships were built on mutual trust, respect and confidence, and if or when you had an incident, you could convene a meeting or communicate directly with these advisors to keep them informed on the status of an investigation. In turn, they would shed some insight from a community perspective on what occurred and would make suggestions on how the agency should respond. They would be your tentacles in the community and you could count on them to convey accurate information to reduce speculation and to control rumors.
ANW: One of the issues that have arisen since the death of Michael Brown is the diversity of the Ferguson police force with an overwhelming majority of its officials being white. How might diversifying the police force affect or benefit police-community relations, if at all, especially in communities of color with an overwhelming white police force?
TW: It was blatantly apparent that the composition of the Ferguson Police Department did not represent the community that it serves. Ferguson’s population is 67% African-American and the police department only has 3 black officers or 5% of the sworn workforce. It is extremely important that the demographic make-up of a police department is representative of the community that it serves. When I retired from the Omaha Police Department, we had one of the most diverse organizations in the United States of America for an agency our size (800 sworn, 200 non-sworn personnel), based on race, gender and ethnicity. It was also important that the command structure was diverse and that there were more minority officers in key leadership positions. This provided me with different perspectives as they were involved in the decision-making process. This also enhanced the public’s trust as they felt that there were individuals within the agency that were sensitive to their needs and concerns. Case in point, an African-American who is a native of the City of Ferguson, Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police was called in as the Incident Commander in Charge of the law enforcement response.
ANW: Aside from perhaps, recruiting a diverse police workforce to reflect the diversity of a community, how else can the training of police officers be altered or improved to prevent the killing of unarmed black citizens by police officers?
TW: Police officers have to be trained on how to diffuse potentially volatile situations and they have be properly supervised to ensure that they are complying with departmental policies and statutory law. Police officer cannot abdicate their responsibility to adhere to the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution that prohibits unlawful search and seizure, when conducting a “Stop and Frisk”. They must have articulable reasonable suspicion that a crime had been committed, the person being detained was responsible and they should not engage in racial profiling.
Statutory law provides police officers with the guiding principles on the use of force and departmental policy instructs officer to use the minimum amount of force necessary to effect a lawful arrest. Officers are also allowed to use deadly force, only when they feel they are in imminent danger of losing their life or someone else’s life is in danger. That is the threshold that has to occur to justify the use of deadly force and officers have to be able to exercise proper judgment when assessing the threat level and make a split second decision as their response must be appropriate in order to mitigate these situations.
ANW: With you having the experience of being a former police chief and now an Urban League CEO, what tips would be useful to other affiliate CEOs in helping to deescalate racial uprising and police/community tensions in their urban league communities?
TW: Urban League affiliate CEOs are leaders in their respective communities and by virtue of their roles, most have clearly established relationships with their elected and appointed officials and the law enforcement command personnel that serve their jurisdictions. As I previously mentioned, it is important that Urban League CEOs meet periodically with Police Chiefs and Sheriffs to communicate their concerns and suggestions on how to make our communities safer.
Their input must be candid and valuable to the law enforcement personnel. Their opinions must be respected and their mere presence cannot be perceived or construed as a tacit endorsement of police tactics and strategies. The dialogue must, at its foundation, be based on mutual trust and respect, so at times of disagreement there is a willingness to continue working together to find common solutions.
Then, when you need to respond to a crisis, the community knows that it has a credible voice representing their interest. We hear their concerns and we convey their sentiments. We also serve as that liaison to the community to provide accurate information in a timely manner.
ANW: What can the Affiliates do within the communities themselves, to productively address how communities deal with and experience racial tension between communities of color and the police force in order to be proactive in preventing another shooting of an unarmed black male or any minority?
TW: Through our advocacy efforts, Urban League affiliates need to work proactively to ensure that their constituents understand their constitutional rights and know what to do when stopped by the police. We can share information and brochures on police complaint procedures. We can serve on citizen review boards and panels that ensure police accountability. Also, Urban League affiliate CEOs have to be familiar with legitimate police responses to ensure that they are complying with departmental policy and procedure. It is imperative that the public is educated on police tactics and strategies.
ANW: What are 3 ways you would recommend bringing the police and the community together?
TW: We must encourage law enforcement agencies to employ “community policing” as their primary philosophy. It is a strategy and approach that places equal emphasis on crime prevention, effective intervention and enforcement of the law.
We must insist that the personnel composition of these police departments are reflective of the communities that they serve. This requires targeted recruitment efforts of minority officers and we (UL affiliates) have to assist by identifying individual candidates who are willing and interested in serving in a law enforcement capacity.
There must be periodic, ongoing dialogue between law enforcement officials and community leadership. There should be regularly scheduled meetings to discuss crime trends and patterns and officers must be present to listen to any concerns that the residents may have. Restoring the public’s trust and confidence must be the primary goal of the law enforcement executive.
ANW: In the particular case of Ferguson, moving forward what steps need to be put in place?
TW: Regarding the incident in Ferguson, there must be an independent investigation conducted to establish what actually occurred and a Grand Jury will need to be convened to determine if any criminal charges will be filed. Also, the U.S. Department of Justice will need to intervene to determine if there were any Civil Rights violations.
However, the civil unrest is symptomatic of the underlying problems that many of our affiliates deal with in urban communities all across our country: poverty, under education, high unemployment and disparities in health and housing. We have to deal with these underlying causes that contribute to the social and economic conditions that exist in communities like Ferguson. These issues serve as a powder keg waiting to ignite when you have a controversial officer-involved shooting incident.
ANW: Do you see this community coming back from this and mending relations with police and vice versa?
TW: The one fact that we must all acknowledge is that when we have civil unrest, “nobody wins”. Unfortunately, in the aftermath, there has been more damage to the infrastructure of these communities. Building have been damaged and businesses have been destroyed as a result of these incidents. Peace and sanctity need to be restored and there has to be a willingness to re-invest in these communities.
There needs to be a complete review of the Ferguson Police Department’s response to this incident and specific recommendations on how they can address some of the criticisms that they have received. There has to be a commitment from the City of Ferguson to address the underrepresentation of minorities on their police force. In order to improve police-community relations, the agency has to enhance the professionalism of their officers and the competency of their leadership. The perception of the “us vs them” mentality must be changed in the manner that law enforcement services are delivered and tactics are deployed. That is the only way that the community’s trust and confidence in the agency will be restored.