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Harvard scholar versus Cambridge police

July 30, 2009

What ensued from this point on is what many of us are talking
about in the U.S.  The arresting Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James
Crowley, attempted to investigate the possible break-in. Much is not clear
regarding who said what and how. But what is clear is that race in America and
how law enforcement treats those individuals who are under suspicion is real.
And it’s something we must discuss.

The accompanying link from National Public Radio is a interesting commentary worth listening to.

No matter how you view this incident, or whose side you’re on
if you have taken sides, the reality is that we have a problem.  It’s not a
new problem. It’s been around a very long time. But it is troubling. Is it all
about racial profiling, which is what we call it now in the U.S.?  The
definition of racial profiling in my view is when law
enforcement make assumptions about a potential suspect based on race.
 I would say this is not all about racial profiling. But it is
certainly something that many people of color still very much fear.

What does this have to do with restorative justice? I think
quite a bit. President Obama made a public comment about this case last week
igniting a fire storm because of it. He said that the Cambridge Police had
acted “stupidly” in its response to Henry Gates by arresting him after he had
shown two sets of ID. No matter what you think of the president’s comments, and
his subsequent comments, saying in essence that he could have perhaps chosen a
better word to describe what he thought., the president weighed in on a
very real problem facing the U.S. criminal justice. That problem underscores the
fact that our criminal justice system, which includes law
enforcement, has a credibility problem. I would say, and many research
surveys would back me up, that much of that distrust is coming out of
communities of color. Do people of color have a reason to distrust the justice
system? I would say they sure do. Are people of color often treated
differently by the justice system? I don’t think there is question that that is
indeed the case.  So where do we go from here?

The president in recent days reached out to both the officer
and to the Harvard scholar. President Obama not only made contact but he has
invited the two to join him at the White House for a chat, we’re told.

I think that ‘s great. It might seem a little odd, but at the
same time this is an explosive issue as we have learned in the last week. It’s
explosive and Obama is the first black president of the United States. I think
his actions reflect the fact that he knows the current criminal justice system
has flaws.  But what Obama has done is introduce
the idea of victim-offender dialogue. You might question which person plays
which role, but regardless we have conflict here that has ramifications perhaps
nationally.  The president is right. Let’s have a dialogue: a very simple
and basic form of restorative justice includes bringing the two parties together
to talk often with a trained mediator. This certainly is a different
kind of mediator but I like the concept.

Could law enforcement and race relations between police
departments and the public they are sworn to protect improve by better
communications? I am sure it could. And it has in the U.S., depending where you
live. We know that the concept of community policing is very much reflective of
restorative justice principles encouraging better communication between law
enforcement and community members. It also encourages more direct
participation by community members in their local criminal justice system. Some
cities need must more of this “hands-on” involvement that provides more
transparency between those who have the power to protect, and arrest, and those
who live in any given community. But most of us doing restorative justice would
argue all communities need active involvement by community members. Doesn’t
matter where you live.

The fact remains though in the U.S. that race is a factor in
arrests and convictions. You need only look at the numbers of those in our jails
in prisons. They are disproportionately people of color.

Are some arrested and convicted because of the color of their
skin? Yes. Have we at times convicted and sentenced a person for a crime he
has not committed based on the color of his skin? I believe there is no doubt we
have.  I think that is what first stunned me by
this case. I have had a hard time with this news story since
it appeared and each day as more detail has emerged.  It’s hard to say who
was right and who was wrong or if both parties are to blame.  But I like
the idea of examining how we administer justice in America and expanding our
evaluation of the justice system to the community level. That takes you to law
enforcement and how those who are first arrested, or interviewed, as possible
suspects are treated.

I believe that we all need to be aware of assumptions we make,
regarding guilt and innocence, based on racial identity. The expansion of
the use of victim-offender dialogue is wise. If we used restorative justice
processes to resolve conflicts, or attempt to, we would improve relations
between people of color and law enforcement. But hopefully President Obama would
not be needed as the mediator and the location of that first dialogue would not
be the White House.


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