Dozens of studies confirm that blacks are more dubious about police than whites; for instance, a 2008 article from George Washington University shows these doubts exist even toward a majority black force in a majority black city, Washington.
Locally, this latent fear is being fanned by a councilman, Ben Little, who is seeking re-election.
Councilman Little initiated a City Council investigation of so-called police corruption, which failed to discover any evidence and descended into name-calling, shoving matches, lawsuits and counter suits.
If this were the same police force as it was in the 1950s or in the tense fall of 1971, when the city teetered on the edge of a mini Watts-scale riot, Little would have reason to be concerned. He’s just a half-century too late.
Fortunately, back in the early 1970s, we had black and white leaders who wanted to talk to each other about reform of a rebellious, unprofessional force, and there was an amazing black statesman who spread calm in all directions.
But before telling that happy story, it is worthwhile to examine real evidence of the differences in the way whites and blacks perceive the police.
For instance, the George Washington study revealed that “Blacks were about twice as likely as Whites to believe that the city’s police stop too many people without good reason, that they are too tough on people whom they stop, and that they are verbally or physically abusive toward citizens.”
The same perceptual gap also existed for better-educated blacks: “Blacks with more education were hardly immune from police scrutiny: 26 percent of Blacks with a high school education or beyond, compared to 18 percent of similarly educated Whites, reported being stopped either while driving or on foot.“
Obviously, not all blacks have surface or subliminal anxieties about the police, but that number in my hometown would have been higher, with good reason, in the late 1950s as I was to discover as a summer intern reporter.
Riding for adolescent excitement with a police patrol one night, I had the boring routine broken when we stopped at a house on the west side. The police entered — without knocking. In the bedroom, a small black woman lay on a rumpled bed; she had been asleep. The officers casually talked to her, addressing her by her first name and soon left.
“This is wrong,” I thought, but I squelched the thought when we went back to the patrol car. The memory still haunts me.
Unprofessional behavior characterized the Anniston Police Department in 1971 when a minor incident sparked demonstrations and shots were fired into the home of a civil rights leader, the Rev. John Nettles, barely missing his wife and child.
Armed blacks cordoned off south Anniston and the police staged a sit-down strike to protest actions of the city manager, ignoring his and the mayor’s pleas to return to their posts.
State troopers were brought in to restore order under the command of Maj. Bill Jones, a respected officer who was persuaded to stay on and reform the department.
The near-riot of that autumn inspired the creation of the city’s biracial crisis committee, the Committee of Unified Leadership (COUL). The committee found a prosaic reason for the contemptuous attitude of police for civil leadership.
Police nominated members of the Civil Service Board, the only body that could discipline the force. With the judicial arm of city government in its pocket, a badge and a gun, they were a virtual small-town junta.
Despite the reforms of Maj. Jones and restoring civil-service authority, the inevitable day came when a younger black member of COUL made an accusation of police brutality.
Two sets of egos, one black, one white, met with barely concealed anger in the middle of the table. It was a moment for the statesmanship of the late Mr. James Tinsley.
He began his parable with the ritual, “Now, I want you to know I say this with love, but you white folks never been black and seen the po-lice coming. It puts me in mind of the day the dogs declared a moratorium on chasin’ rabbits. For three months, all the dogs agreed they wouldn’t chase any rabbits.
“Well, one day a couple of rabbits was sittin’ by the side of the road, just visitin’, when over the hill come a pack of mean-lookin’ dogs, a-runnin’ and a-hollerin’. One rabbit turns to the other and says, ‘I think we better be movin’ out through the woods.’ But the second rabbit says, ‘Naw, brother, don’t you know about the moratorium.’
“Then, the first rabbit says, ‘Yeah, I know about the moratorium, but from the looks of them dogs, they don’t.’”
Everyone laughed, and a tense moment passed. Mr. Tinsley had gently guided white listeners outside themselves so they could see life as blacks did. Councilman Little could learn from Mr. Tinsley.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.