Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for many things that still resonate in our country today — issues of war and peace, the rights of women overseas, the future of civil justice in this country. But here, I would like to focus on an area of Dr. King’s teachings that sits especially close to home for many Americans.
I know that when you send your children, your grandchildren out into the world, you worry about them. Will they be safe? Will they be treated fairly? Will they be respected? Can I trust the world with this person I love?
It’s the prayer of every parent and grandparent. When your child walks out the door you have enough fears to contend with — the possibility that they will get into a car accident, or fall victim to an act of crime, or be hit with a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting.
But in too many neighborhoods in this country, that fear is compounded by the fear your child may be presumed to be a gang member, or a suspect — the fear of someone in authority looking at that child and seeing only a profile, not an individual.
Dr. King wrote, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” We have to bridge the separation between the police and the community.
In an interview on “Charlie Rose,” New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton used an expression that I think should be the guiding principle for every effort to rebuild that trust. It is an expression from the Maasai tribe. The expression is simply, “We see you.”
But the question is: Do we see one another? Does the danger they face prevent the police in your neighborhood from seeing the people they serve? And does fear prevent the community from seeing and engaging with the person behind the badge?
I served in these communities as a public defender, and for 36 years as Delaware’s senator. I know, and I see, the goodness and decency in communities across the country. And I have also worked with thousands of honorable and decent police officers, some of whom I grew up with and worked with my entire career. And at times I’ve seen reflected in their eyes the uncertainty and fear that comes with being asked to put their lives on the line when it’s unclear who has their back.
I had the honor of speaking at the funeral of New York City Detective Rafael Ramos. I didn’t know him, but I knew him. He’s like the most courageous and compassionate guys I grew up with in Claymont, Del., the ones who were always there to help. Rafael was an active member of his church, about to be ordained as a chaplain. He didn’t just keep a Bible in his locker, he lived his ministry as part of his job, reaching out to all people. He was a former school safety officer, who joined the NYPD at age 37. He was a father, a husband, and a son.
I was welcomed into the home of his partner, Wenjian Liu. A seven-year veteran of the force. He came to these shores from China as a 12-year-old and spoke several dialects. He was a newlywed.
Both were minorities. Both were the product of the community they lived in. Both knew the sting of stereotypes, of prejudice. They had families. They had stories. They had a humanity that was denied by an assassin, who judged them by the color of their uniform, and not by the content of their character.
We have to start seeing each other. We have to recognize that the black male on the corner is also a kid who likes to draw, and maybe has a future as an architect. We have to recognize that the cop on the beat is also a mom who plays basketball.
It is the responsibility of every community to recognize the humanity of the men and women who volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way, to answer the urgent call in the night, to do the best that they can. And it is the responsibility of every officer who takes an oath to protect and serve to respect the dignity of every person that officer encounters, young or old, male or female, black, white, Hispanic, or Asian.
We need to agree as a nation on two basic statements of truth. Number one, cops have a right to make it home to their families tonight. And number two, all minorities have a right to be treated with dignity and respect. Because all life matters. And the fact that all life matters is the reason most officers became cops in the first place. And no one, no matter what their position, what badge they wear, no one is above the law. There can be no notion of impunity for any individual in society, regardless of their position.
There are changes that President Obama and I believe can and should be made that can help change the way police patrol their often dangerous streets without jeopardizing the safety or security of the community, which is the whole reason to patrol the street in the first place.
One of the things we’re looking at is genuine community policing. In some ways we’ve lost the meaning of that term. I helped institutionalize the idea, in the 1994 Biden Crime Bill, to have community policing. When there’s criminal activity, the older lady living on the corner knows what’s going on but may be afraid to call the cops because she may become the victim if the offenders find out she called them. But if she knows the cop and has his name, she can call and say, “Johnny, they’re outside my door.” And Officer Johnny can take care of it without exposing her. That’s what community policing was supposed to be about.
When it started, it worked. But it’s really expensive. It takes a lot of cops. In the beginning we had adequate resources. The 1994 Biden Crime Bill at the time was a pretty expensive operation. It put another 100,000 cops on the street, and it cost $1 billion. But because crime was rampant, everybody signed on. And it worked. Community policing costs a lot of money. It’s more expensive to have individuals patrolling the neighborhood than relying on technology, or up-armored vehicles, or jump squads, which every city in America now has.
But since 1998, states, as well as the federal government, in large part because crime dropped, have started to slash budgets. We acted like the problem was solved. Crime was not at the top of the country’s agenda anymore. As a result, since 1998, funding for community policing has been cut by 87 percent. That means fewer cops on the streets and in neighborhoods, building recognition and trust.
The result is more separation, less communication, more hostility, and a place for crime to thrive in a neighborhood full of decent and honorable people. That needs to change. A lot of other things need to change too. Ultimately, there’s no overnight way to make that happen. It has to happen neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, person by person. And there’s nothing certain about it.
In his final sermon, Dr. King said: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be coworkers with God.”
Through the persistent work of so many Americans we’ve seen progress come rolling down the tracks on a host of issues that once seemed insurmountable. If we remember that, we’ll recognize that we can solve this problem too. Let’s not forget who we are. Let’s not forget what we’ve done. Let’s not forget that although there’s much more to do, we have come very, very far. And we have come this far because of the spirit and hard work of the American people.
Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.