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After anti-police protest, Rutgers professors talk U.S. race relations

<p>September 2016 | Students at The University of California&mdash;Irvine held an anti-police protest on Oct. 7, but Rutgers professors said campus police is necessary for school.</p>

September 2016 | Students at The University of California—Irvine held an anti-police protest on Oct. 7, but Rutgers professors said campus police is necessary for school.

Students at the University of California—Irvine called for an end to campus police in a recent "Blue Lives Don't Matter" protest.

A discussion on the issue of police brutality and police-community relations on Oct. 7 at the school was interrupted by Black Union Students chanting, marching and holding banners that read “Police Kill the Mentally Ill" and selling "F**k the Police’ T-shirts," according to lifezette.com. .

The protest at the University of California—Irvine is reflective of the national debate, said John Cohen, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, which he categorizes as "hyper-polarized and intellectually dishonest."

“The fact that members of the community were willing to express their anger so quickly is reflective of a broader problem in the community,” he said.

The opposing sides on the issue of criminal justice reform have such fixed beliefs that not only will they do not care to hear the views of others, Cohen said.

Individuals are unwilling to move beyond their own position to the extent that they are standing in the way of progress being achieved in dealing with the issues they are fighting for, he said.

The protest is a perfect example of this issue, he said. 

When the protest occurred, a diverse group of community leaders, academics and police professionals were having an open discussion on criminal justice reform, police bias, police community-relationships and the erosion of trust in local law enforcement among minority communities.

“Those discussions were undermined by a group of individuals who are so angry and so entrenched in their position that they were actually promoting things which were not only factually and intellectually ignorant but they had no hope of ever being accomplished,” he said. “In a sense they undermined a discussion that could have been an important step toward addressing the very issue they were allegedly concerned about.”

But the claim that "Blue Lives Don’t Matter" would not be widely supported, said Lisa Miller, a professor in the Department of Political Science.

An individual does not have to be anti-police to be pro-black lives, she said. In her research, Miller has found that residents of high-crime communities, which are disproportionally black, are willing to work with police.

“I would argue to say that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is not to say other lives don’t matter,” she said. “It is simply calling attention to the fact that historically African-Americans have been granted police protection much less frequently than whites and sometimes subjected to abuse by police, which is a historical phenomenon as much as a contemporary one.”

It is not that these communities do not want police, they simply want fair police, she said.

But there has been a recent increase in anxiety over the proliferation of policing, Miller said, with campus police, sheriffs and private security.

“I understand the concerns of over-policing,” she said. “Whether every campus needs armed police is a different question and I think a legitimate one.”

Black communities have a long history in the United States of being over-policed but under-protected, Miller said.

This protest is potentially damaging because police are a necessary part of modern life and those who live in areas with a high amount of crime know that more than anyone, she said.

But this is not simply a policing issue. Society has not confronted racial discrimination beyond policing, including education, employment and politics, she said.

“Police are just one tool. They can't be expected to solve these larger problems that we have arrived at because of our long legacy of racial hierarchy and our refusal to make amends,” Miller said.

Cohen said the issue will change depending on how soon people will be willing to have an open, honest and respectful conversation. In order to do that, there needs to be an agreement on foundational facts.

“Law enforcement in this country have to engage in their day-to-day job that’s legal, ethical and free of racial bias,” he said.

Officers should only use appropriate force when necessary to legally and lawfully carry out their responsibilities, Cohen said. Law enforcement should also focus their attention and resources where the crime is occurring.

“To sit here and say we should take police out of neighborhoods of color is unrealistic and unfair to people living in those communities,” Cohen said.

Cohen said individuals also must accept the premise that resisting a police officer, who is lawfully carrying out their responsibility, with force is inappropriate and wrong.

There has been a recent increase in the number of people willing to resist police officers, he said, which makes encounters difficult for police officers and increases the likelihood that these events will lead to violence.

“This is a conversation we need to have in this country in regard to how the criminal justice system can change its behavior so that it is not in a sense driving a wedge between the men and women who work each day to protect our communities and the people who live in the communities,” Cohen said.

Anger is present on both sides of this issue, Cohen said.

“It’s a hyper-charged, polarized environment,” he said. “And its an environment where people aren’t willing to learn the facts of a situation before jumping to conclusions and reacting.”

This is particularly important in university or college environments where there often is a reliance on acquiring information via social media. But news communicated quickly does not necessarily mean it is accurate, Cohen said.

College students have an opportunity to have their voices heard and be “catalysts of change,” he said.

“It’s important they take on that opportunity with responsibility,” he said.

Students should be passionate and willing to lend their voice to create change but refrain from weakening their own position by being intellectually  dishonest, Cohen said.

“I would hope that this activity from a small group of people would not undermine the integrity of the larger movement, which is to really draw attention to the challenges that African-Americans have and continue to face,” Miller said. 

Noa Halff is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. She is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum.

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