FRONTLINE: “POLICING THE POLICE 2020”

Doc airs Tuesday, September 15 at 9pm on Thirteen

From Minnesota to Rochester, NY the issue of race and policing in America has taken on a renewed urgency as protests continue to erupt around the country. But can police departments be reformed? If so, how? In 2016, Frontline and The New Yorker writer/historian Jelani Cobb traveled to Newark, New Jersey for a close look at efforts to change its trouble police department. Today they return to Newark to examine whether reform can work, and how police departments can be held accountable. As part of our Chasing the Dream initiative on poverty, justice, and economic opportunity in America, Jelani Cobb joins us to share their experience.

For more information on “Policing the Police 2020,” click here.

Aired on September 15, 2020.

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Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

TRANSCRIPT

> THE COUNTRY IS ON FIRE AND THEIR ANGER IS DIRECTED AT LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS.

A NATIONAL OUTCRY AND ONE POLICE FORCE TRYING TO CHANGE.

CAN THIS BE DONE IN A WAY TO RESPECT PEOPLE'S RIGHTS?

NEW YORK REPORTER JELANI COBB INVESTIGATES.

THE WAR MUST END.

THEY DON'T WANT TO RUN TO THE TRAFFIC STOP FOR A $20 BILL.

THEY DON'T WANT TO BE MURDERED.

WELCOME TO MARYETRO FOCUS.

I'M JACK FORD.

> RACE AND POLICING IN AMERICA HAS TAKEN ON A NEW URGENCY.

QUESTIONS IN EVERYBODY'S MIND INCLUDE DO POLICE DEPARTMENTS NEED TO BE INFORMED.

INDEED CAN POLICE DEPARTMENTS BE REFORMED AND IF SO, JUST HOW?

IN 2016 FRONTLINE AND HISS TORRIAN JELANI COBB TRAVELS TO NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, TO TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT EFFORTS TO CHANGE A TROUBLED POLICE DEPARTMENT.

NOW IN THE WAKE OF NATIONAL POLICE BRUTALITY, FRONTLINE AND JELANI COBB RETURNED TO NEWARK TO SEE IF ANYTHING HAS CHANGED AND WHAT COULD BE LEARNED BIR THEIR EXPERIENCES THERE.

JOINING US TO TALK ABOUT THE RESULTING DOCUMENTARY ENTITLED 'POLICING THE POLICE: 2020,' AND PART OF OUR CHASING THE INITIATIVE DREAM ON POVERTY AND OPPORTUNITY IN ERK AMERICA, WE'RE DELIGHTED TO HAVE HISTORIAN AND WRITER GEL JELANIB BACK WITH US.

JELANI, THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU.

LET ME START WITH WHY YOU WENT TO NEWARK.

I MENTIONED IN THE INTRODUCTION YOU WENT BACK BUT GIVE US A LOOK AT WHY YOU WENT TO NEWARK.

TWO THINGS.

ONE, THIS IS THE AFTERMATH OF FERGUSON AND THE CONTROVERSY THAT WAS HAPPENING AROUND POLICE AND RACE THEN, ALTHOUGH NOT NEARLY TO THE DIMENSIONS TO THE CONVERSATION WE ARE HAVING NOW ABOUT IT.

NEWARK HAS HISTORIC RESIDENTS.

IN 1967 WAS FAMOUSING TUPRISING IN THE CITY WHERE OVER THE COURSE OF FOUR, FIVE DAYS HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLAR WAS DONE AND IT WAS ALL SPARKED BY AN INSTANCE OF POLICE BRUTALITY AGAINST A BLACK CAB DRIVER BY THE NAME OF JOHN SMITH.

AND TO MAKE IT EVEN MORE CONTEMPORARY, THE CITY OF NEWARK HAD JUST BEEN FOUND BY THE ERIC BE HOLDER DOJ TO HAVE VIOLATED A PATTERN OF PEOPLE'S CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.

ALL OF THOSE THINGS MADE NEWARK A FERTILE PLACE TO GO IF YOU WANTED HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT WHAT WAS HAPPENING WITH POLICING IN THE UNITED STATES.

SO YOU DECIDE TO GO BACK TO NEWARK TO SEE WHAT THEY HAVE DONE.

OBVIOUSLY, WITH THE BACKDROP OF EVERYTHING THAT HAS BEEN TAKING PLACE MORE RECENTLY HERE.

I WANT TO ASK YOU ABOUT A QUOTE THAT YOU USE EARLY ON IN THE DOCUMENTARY HERE.

YOU SAY RACE IS SHORTHAND FOR A SET OF LIFE PROBABILITIES.

RIGHT.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?

SO, I MEAN, WE KNOW RACE DOESN'T EXIST AS A BIOLOGICAL CATEGORY.

IT'S JUST A CONVENIENT THING THAT WAS MADE UP BY PEOPLE, BASICALLY WE COULD CATEGORIZE BASE ON SKIN PIGMENTATION, WHICH WE THINK ABOUT IT FOR MORE THAN A SECOND, IT SOUNDS SILLY, BUT WHAT HAS HAPPENED IS THAT THIS CATEGORY HAS BEEN REIFIED AND MADE CONCRETE THROUGH THE INTERACTION OF AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS.

SO WE CAN LOOK AT A PERSON'S RACE AND HAVE A FAIR DEGREE OF UNDERSTANDING OF SOME THINGS IN TERMS OF PROBABILITY ABOUT EDUCATION, ABOUT INCOME, ABOUT LIFE EXPECTANCY, ABOUT INFANT IMMORTALITY, ABOUT LIFETIME INCOME, HOUSING, ALL THE KINDS OF THINGS THAT FORM AN INSTITUTION ALIVE AND WE SEE THOSE THINGS HAVE A ROUGH CORRELATION TO RACE, OF WHAT WE UNDERSTAND TO BE RACE IN THIS COUNTRY.

I TALKED WITH YOU ABOUT WHAT YOU FOUND IN TERMS OF THE ISSUES THAT ARE WOVEN THROUGHOUT, THE CRISES WE'RE EXPERIENCING NOW IN TERMS OF POLICING AND EQUITABLE JUSTICE.

AND I JUST WANT TO LET OUR VIEWERS KNOW YOU AND I ARE GOING TO CONTINUE THIS CONVERSATION TOMORROW NIGHT.

TOMORROW WE'LL TALK ABOUT POSSIBLE REMEDIES AND DIFFERENT APPROACHES THAT CAN BE TAKEN.

LET'S FOCUS NOW ON THE ISSUES, WHAT THEY ARE, WHERE THEY COME FROM.

AND ONE OF -- CERTAINLY ONE OF THE ISSUES THAT IS WOVEN THROUGHOUT ALL OF THESE CONVERSATIONS, IS AND YOU TALK ABOUT IN THE DOCUMENTARY, IS THE HISTORICAL MISTRUST OF POLICE ON THE PART OF THE BLACK COMMUNITY.

YES.

TALK ABOUT THAT.

YES.

SO ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I THINK ABOUT THIS IS THAT THERE'S AN ARC OF PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT THIS CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE AND DISTRUST OF THE POLICE HAS BEEN, AND HAS BEEN FACILITATED BY THE USE OF CELL PHONE CAMERAS.

PROO IRTO THIS, PEOPLE LIVED IN TWO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT REALITIES.

BUT WHEN WE LOOK AT THE MAJOR CONFLAGRATION IN AMERICAN CITIES IN THE 20th CENTURY, IT WAS POLICE BRUTALITY.

THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED IN HARLEM IN 1965, HARLEM 1935, AND DETROIT IN 1967 AND WATTS IN 1965.

YOU CAN JUST KIND OF RATTLE THEM ALL OFF.

MIAMI IN 1980.

WE CAN GO INTO THE 21st CENTURY, FERGUSON AND MINNESOTA AND THE WAVE OF VIOLENCE THAT WE SAW OVER THE COURSE OF THE SUMMER.

AND SO I THINK THAT WE HAVE A KIND OF HISTORIC BASIS FOR UNDERSTANDING POLICE THAT IS TO A LARGE DEGREE IMPACTED BY WHAT YOUR SKIN LOOKED LIKE.

AND FOR AFRICAN-AMERICANS, EVEN WHEN WE TALK ABOUT JIM CROW, THE POLICE WERE THE PEOPLE THAT ENFORCED JIM CROW.

SO IT'S HARD TO HAVE A CONCEPT OF THEM AS PUBLIC SERVANTS IS THEY WILL LITERALLY BE PEOPLE WHO ARE TELLING YOU, YOU CANNOT GO TO THIS SCHOOL, YOU CANNOT DRINK FROM THIS FOUNTAIN AND SO ON.

WHAT'S AGAIN WE'RE TALKING ABOUT JELANI COBB, HISTORIC WRITER OF THE DOCUMENTARY TITLED 'POLICING THE POLICE: 2020.'

AND YOU TALK ABOUT THE VISUAL ASPECTS OF SEEING POLICE INVOLVED WITH PEOPLE OF COLOR, THAT THE SELMA BRIDGE, IF YOU WOULD, WE SAW THE POLICE WITH THEIR BATONS AND YOU TALKED ABOUT ALL OF THE OTHER SCENES.

RODNEY KING, PEOPLE DON'T REALIZE, IF IT WASN'T FOR A NEIGHBOR WHO HAPPENED TO HAVE A CAMCORDER, ONE OF THOSE OLD, BIG BOXES YOU PUT ON YOUR SHOULDERS, WE WOULD KNOW NOTHING OF RODNEY KING AND HE PROBABLY WOULD HAVE BEEN CONVICTED OF ASSAULTING POLICE OFFICERS AND THERE HAD NEVER BEEN A RODNEY KING CASE.

AND YOU MENTIONED SO MUCH OF THIS NOW IS THE RESULT OF THE AVAILABILITY OF VIDEO.

RIGHT.

LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SOME OF THE OTHER ISSUES.

ONE OF THE THINGS WE TALK ABOUT AND YOU TALK ABOUT HERE IS THE NOTION OF A LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE POLICE DEPARTMENTS.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT THE ABSENCE OF ACCOUNTABILITY OR LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY?

THERE ARE A LOT OF WAYS IN WHICH THIS PLAYS ITSELF OUT.

ONE IS ON THE LOCAL INTERMEDIATE LEVEL.

IN NEWARK WE SAW THIS.

VERY OFTEN THERE WOULD BE INSTANCES IN WHICH PEOPLE IN THE 2016 DOCUMENTARY PEOPLE COMMITTED ACTS OF VIOLENCE THAT WEREN'T CATALOGED AND WEREN'T RECORDED.

THERE WERE NOT REPORTS ABOUT WHAT THE POLICE HAD ACTUALLY DONE.

IN OTHER INSTANCES THE MECHANISMS OBVIOUSLY WENT TO MAKE A COMPLAINT TO INTERNAL AFFAIRS, EXTERNALLY OR FROM WITHIN THE POLICE DEPARTMENT ITSELF WERE DIFFICULT AND NOT LIKELY TO CULMINATE IN ANY ACTUAL DISCIPLINARY ACTION BEING TAKEN.

BEYOND THAT YOU HAVE THINGS LIKE QUALIFIED UNITY THAT MAKE POLICE ESSENTIALLY INVULNERABLE, REGARDLESS --

TALK ABOUT THAT A LITTLE BIT.

I KNOW, I'M A FORMER PROSECUTOR, FORMER DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE ATTORNEY.

PROSECUTED POLICE OFFICERS AND DEFENDED POLICE OFFICERS.

I KNOW PEOPLE DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT NOTION OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY.

THEY WILL SAY, THE POLICE CAN DO WHATEVER THEY WANT AND THERE'S NO LEGAL REPERCUSSIONS?

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

THIS IS ESSENTIALLY A DOCTRINE THAT LOOKS AT THE NATURE OF POLICING AS BEING SUCH THAT WE'RE ASKING PEOPLE TO USE FORCE ON BEHALF OF A SOCIETY AND THEY'RE IMMUNIZED FOR THE CONSEQUENCES OF IT IN A WAY OTHER PUBLIC SERVANTS WOULD NOT BE, OR RAISES THE BAR TO WHICH PEOPLE CAN BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE.

AND THERE'S BEEN A LOT -- THERE HAVE BEEN OTHER KINDS OF LEGAL MECHANISMS, OR, EXCUSE ME, EXTRA LEGAL MECHANISMS LIKE WHAT THE POLICE UNIONS HAVE NEGOTIATED IN MINI CITIES, WHERE AN OFFICER IS INVOLVED IN A SHOOTING, YOU SHOULD 48 HOURS BEFORE YOU HAVE TO ACTUALLY SAY WHAT HAPPENED.

AND THAT'S CERTAINLY NOT A LUXURY THAT'S AFFORDED TO THE PEOPLE BEING ARRESTED FOR SHOOTINGS.

AND SO THERE'S A WAY IN WHICH ACCOUNTABILITY FOR POLICE LOOKS VERY DIFFERENT THAN IT WOULD FOR PEOPLE IN OTHER WALKS OF SOCIETY.

HOW ABOUT THE CULTURE OF POLICING?

AGAIN, LOOK, PEOPLE HAVE SAID THIS BEFORE, AND IT'S NOT AS IF THE MOVEMENT, THE CURRENT MOVEMENTS ARE TRYING TO CONDEMN ANYBODY WHO HAS EVER SERVED AS A POLICE OFFICER, OR ANYBODY WHO IS CURRENTLY SERVING AS A POLICE OFFICER.

BUT THE ISSUE HAS BECOME MORE THAN ARE WE JUST TALKING ABOUT A FEW BAD PEOPLE IN A PROFESSION, UNDERSTANDING ALL PROFESSIONS MIGHT HAVE A FEW BAD PEOPLE.

OR IS IT SOMETHING THAT'S MORE CULTURALLY IMBEDDED HERE?

FOR INSTANCE, YOU SAW WITH GEORGE FLOYD, THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO USED TO THINK -- AND I INTERVIEWED SOME OF THEM, A FEW BAD PEOPLE, NOT EVERYBODY.

BUT MAYBE YOU WATCH THAT AND SAY MAYBE IT IS A CULTURED PROBLEM BECAUSE YOU HAD THREE OTHER OFFICERS JUST STANDING THERE, RELUCTANT TO DO ANYTHING.

RIGHT.

DOES THAT SUGGEST A MORE EMBEDDED CULTURE PROBLEM HERE?

AND YET YOU'VE GOT THE COMPETING SIDE IS THIS, YOU'VE GOT A POLICE OFFICER SAYING WE'RE THE ONES OUT THERE DOING THE JOB.

IF YOU REMEMBER THE LINE JACK NICHOLSON'S LIVE FROM A MOVIE 'A FEW GOOD MEN' WHERE HE SAYS, YOU WANT ME ON THAT LINE.

YOU NEED ME ON THAT LINE.

WELL, YOU'VE GOT THAT PART OF THE ARGUMENT FOR POLICE TOO.

AND THEN THE OTHER PART OF THE CULTURE IS, WE'VE GOT TO CIRCLE OUR WAGONS TO PROTECT OURSELVES BECAUSE WE'RE THE ONES OUT THERE DOING THE JOB.

HOW DO WE CONFRONT THAT?

THE PROBLEM WITH THE ARGUMENT, YOU WANT ME OUT THERE, YOU NEED ME OUT THERE, THAT IS MUCH MORE APPEALING TO PEOPLE WHO ARE RELATIVELY SAFE.

THE PEOPLE WHO ARE THE HIGHEST PROPORTION -- CHRONICALLY THE HIGHEST PROPORTION OF HOMICIDE VICTIMS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE LEAST LIKELY TO ENDORSE THAT KIND OF POLICING.

IT'S NOT THAT PEOPLE DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT'S GOOD FOR THEM, IS THEY'RE MAKING A CALCULATION ABOUT AT WHAT COST?

SO IN NEWARK WE WOULD SEE THINGS LIKE POLICE IN THE NAME OF PROTECTING COMMUNITY DOING STOP AND FRISK THAT ENTATELED STOPPING PEOPLE ON THE STREET AND PEOPLE AND PULLING THE WAISTBAND OF THEIR PANTS AND UNDERWEAR AWAY FROM THEIR BODY, LOOKING DOWN THE FRONT AND LOOKING DOWN THE BACK.

I THINK MOST PEOPLE WOULD BE AGHAST, CERTAINLY IF YOU WENT TO A SUBURBAN COMMUNITY.

IT'S NOT WHAT YOU WOULD EXPECT TO HAPPEN AND IT'S NOT WHAT YOU WANT ON THE LINE.

JOHN, WE HAVE A LJELANI, WE HAV TO TALK ABOUT HERE.

I WANT TO REMIND PEOPLE THE DOCUMENTARY IS CALLED 'POLICING THE POLICE: 2020.'

CAN YOU GO TO METRO FOCUS.ORG.

YOU AND I ARE GOING TO CONTINUE THIS TOMORROW NIGHT AND FOCUS ON WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS NOW?

JELANI, THANK YOU FOR JOINING US AND WE WILL CONTINUE THIS CONVERSATION REAL QUICK.

TAKE CARE NOW.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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