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“Intersections of Race and Policing” gives perspective on modern policing

Billy Welsby

People of color have to live every day in utter fear simply due to having a skin tone that is a darker shade than what our criminal justice system tends to favor. 

While plenty of good cops do exist, there has been an undeniable issue of unarmed Black individuals being shot by police officers, often times as unprovoked responses to non-dangerous situations.

On a Thursday afternoon, many individuals of the Springfield community eagerly tuned into the virtual “Intersections of Race and Policing: Past and Present” SEAT at the Table event held via zoom. 

Four speakers attended the event to discuss the history behind the development of police departments and how that has transitioned itself to modern day policing. As the screen quickly filled with over 90 fresh faces connecting to the call, each guest speaker began to introduce themselves. 

The event kicked off with graduate student Marcelino Diaz, who had graduated last year from Springfield College with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. Senior Tyson Jones then introduced himself by discussing his involvement as the Treasurer of the Black Student Union at Springfield College. 

Once passing the unmute feature off to Springfield College Professor Roberto Gallardo, he shared his focus and research on “minority police officers and their experience within large municipal departments.” Finally, United States Marshal of the District of Massachusetts John Gibbins welcomed the crowd, and introduced himself by giving his background as an individual who has served within law enforcement and policing for over 45 years.

Diaz started the conversation by diving deep into the history of policing. Back in the 1700s, policing “first started as a slave patrol in South Carolina,” he stated. The goals within slave patrol were to “chase down, apprehend, and return slave owners,” while providing a form of “organized terror” and “maintain discipline” to deter any type of rebellion.

Post-Civil War, Jones explained how people of color still suffered from black codes and Jim Crow, rather than having any type of freedom added to their lives. “Essentially, black people were still enslaved, but didn’t really have that title. These individuals still couldn’t vote, still couldn’t have a well-paying job to sustain a family, and were still stuck working sharecropper type of jobs.”

Gibbons added to this history by pointing out that blacks weren’t allowed to become police officers. “It’s not until the late ‘50s that one or two individuals were allowed on police departments,” he said. Even then, those few police officers “had difficulty” due to having a skin tone present in the department that wasn’t white. 

Once covering the history, the questions “how does implicit bias play a factor in police departments” and “what goes into an officer’s mind when going into a low income neighborhood” were hypothetically asked by Diaz to the audience. 

Gallardo took the two questions as a segue towards covering the main topic of the event, bias. When individuals picture a criminal, most individuals think of “drugs, minority males, and minority individuals in urban environments,” rather than “a white male in a suit carrying a briefcase” or “white collar crime.”

“It’s not one particular officer or very overt things, but it’s things that exist in a contemporary way that may not appear as obvious,” said Gallardo. 

Going forward, Gibbons stated that there is in fact implicit bias training occurring in all departments. “It just has to be continued on an annual basis,” he said. There is also training that covers “de-escalation training, as well as health wellness and mental wellness training.”

Tragedies, such as George Floyd’s death, “have caused a whole problem of mistrust.” The issues have always been there; however, this was a time when the disturbing act was caught on tape and published to the media. Gibbons explained that law enforcement has to “sit down with the community,” and collaborate with “how we should police.” Listening is one of many first steps that has to occur. 

“Bottom line is we have to work as a team in the community,” said Gibbons.

Gallard touched on perspective by explaining that if an individual has only had positive interactions with police officers, then one “will view them as very positive”; however, if one has only experienced or heard of negative experiences with officers, then he or she will “probably have a different perspective.” 

“Each perspective is essentially valid with their own experience, but it could be something else very different from what someone else is experiencing,” resulting in a large disconnect, said Gallardo. 

“I was reading a poll about different perceptions of police brutality based on race.. with minority members of society not having as much confidence in police officers as white males and females in the country,” he said. 

There are many steps that can be taken, both short term and long term, that will result in an improved construct of race and policing. Gibbons explained that there has to be “an increase in diversity and inclusion.” This includes: “minority officers, black officers, female officers, Hispanic, oriental, and Asian officers.” 

“Recruitment is key” and “continuous training is key” said Gibbons.

Once gaining inclusion in the police force, individuals need to work on “stepping in” and “intervening if something doesn’t seem right.”

Finally, the simplest and most effective step towards solving this racial issue is to “check your own bias, check your own privilege,” and make sure that every individual is doing his or her part by “making the world a better place,” said Diaz. This can be done through self-educating, by attending events such as SEAT at the table and “all the other events that are being held this week.”

After an hour of powerful and deep racial conversation, event moderator Ben Morales, turned the discussion into a Q&A format. Student Nicole Bowman used this as an opportunity to ask if the Springfield College faculty or individuals that manage the criminal justice department program had thought about integrating the subject of policing being inherently racist into the major and minor that is offered at Springfield.

Speaking from personal experience in his classroom, Gallardo brings in such racial issues to start up conversations in each one of his classes. “Some of these conversations can be uncomfortable for many people… But it is a conversation that needs to be done,” he said. There are individuals in the classroom who many have different opinions than the person next to them, but for Gallardo, “that is the best part.”

Racial issues in the police force have always been present. What is in the past cannot be changed, but the future is truly in the hands of each individual and those around them to break through the barriers of race. 

One step at a time.

Photo: Office of Multicultural Affairs

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