Cops and Cocoa Cinnamon: C'mon, folks, let's give credit when the D.P.D. does something right for a change
I've been trying to make sense of this odd story emerging about Cocoa Cinnamon's recent, and quickly regretted, partnership with the Durham Police Department to reward folks obeying crosswalk rules.
As part of the operation, bike officers gave a coupon for a free coffee from the popular Durham business for those it spotted obeying the law -- a positive reward, instead of the usual warning or citation.
The response was... swift. On Instagram, for instance, many of the comments to Cocoa Cinnamon's partnership announcement were apoplectic.
"This post is problematic," said one. "Disturbing, insensitive, and harmful," said another. "The police are terrifying," said a third. "Get woke. This is supremacy," said a fourth.
And, most unfortunately, a tweet from an Indy Week writer, which manages to use a popular, problematic porcine pejorative in referring to Durham's police, a line I'm surprised to see crossed.
So let me be direct. It really seems worth stepping back a bit from the rhetorical extreme to put this campaign in context.
The Durham community has been extraordinarily vocal, and effective, in expressing its disdain for the D.P.D.'s leadership and behavior in recent cases -- disdain that's driven the City to turn out its police chief, and which is driving moves towards reform in drug enforcement prioritization and conditions for those incarcerated.
And more voices than ever have been calling for genuine community policing and engagement, criticizing outgoing Chief Jose Lopez for the department's failures on this front.
All of which makes the seeming notion that there can be, should be, no collaboration with police -- when the police are doing exactly what the community seems to be asking for -- naive at best, antisocial at its worst imagined extreme.
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There's plenty of understandable reasons to criticize the Durham police, of course. And indeed, those have been the source of plenty of stories in recent years, finally culminating with Lopez's resignation.
Questionable use of force? Check. A teenager dying in custody of a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound? Affirmative. Racial biases in traffic stop and arrest patterns? Sure.
Falling crime rates despite these controversies? Well, er. No. Actually, the opposite.
So all told, it's hard not to be cynical and frustrated with police-community relations.
But seeing Durham Police Department officers -- the District 5 bike squad, no less -- getting out and about to encourage pedestrian and bike safety?
That's exactly the kind of policing we say we want, and say we need.
But it seems to me we're having a hard time separating the logical rationale and benefits of the program from the current, highly-charged emotions around the police.
Let's not forget that it wasn't so many years ago that you couldn't get the D.P.D. to care one whit about pedestrian and bike safety.
I sat in a City Hall office not so many years back with fellow neighbors, meeting with City transportation chief Mark Ahrendsen and since-fired D.P.D. senior officer B.J. Council.
We were there to talk about pedestrian safety on Duke St., where an African-American woman was killed by a speeding car and dragged along the roadway in a gruesome hit-and-run I'm not sure was ever solved.
Witnessing Council barely able to restrain her amusement at the case -- literally, it looked like she found that particular case funny, perhaps due to some knowledge of or assumptions about the deceased's position at the margins of society -- are forever seared into my memory. (Ahrendsen, a civil servant I greatly respect, had a marked discomfort on his face.)
And I remember my own frustration at a Trinity Park neighborhood meeting when another D.P.D. senior officer intimated that targeting speeders in urban neighborhoods was less of a priority than assigning officers for funeral procession duty, with an intimation that that resonated with a broader segment of Durham's population.
Never mind the drumbeat of students, adults, seniors and others killed or maimed as pedestrians in a very pedestrian-unsafe community.
Or the dangers bicyclists -- including one now-deceased Durham friend of mine -- face in just trying to use the roads they're entitled to.
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Yet we have to give credit where credit's due: the whole point of the D.P.D.'s crosswalk campaign, part of the broader Watch For Me NC effort, is to address exactly this problem.
As the most recent (2014) report from the statewide program reminds us, this kind of outreach campaign wasn't foisted on us, but is exactly something our community asked for:
It is important to consider ways of institutionalizing pedestrian and bicycle safety actions and priorities. For example, in Durham, the Inter‐Neighborhood Council (INC) called upon the city’s police department to focus more on pedestrian and bicycle safety enforcement. In response, the police department developed a strategic plan that directly relates to the INC’s petition and explains how the department will continue supporting the Watch for Me NC program.
Digging further, this program seems to hit exactly the kinds of community-oriented policing notes that we're roundly criticizing D.P.D. for not doing:
- The program seems focused on education, not punitive outcomes. Drivers received warnings for failure-to-yield about as often as pedestrians and bicycles received warnings; yet actual citations were given only to drivers (96% of all citations), and even then only one-tenth as often as warnings were issued. (Adam Haile adds an important qualifier to this in the comments.)
- The campaign includes extensive education for police officers on the rules that apply to drivers, pedestrians and bikers, with police showing much greater knowledge/awareness of ped/bike rights, and a statistically-significant increase in their appreciation for and prioritization of focusing on pedestrian safety.
- The effort also focuses on raising citizen awareness of bike and pedestrian safety -- from posters, to earned and paid media, to bumper stickers and informational cards.
In short, this is a case where police are doing exactly what we, as a community, have asked them to do: focus on keeping our very vulnerable non-motorist population safer by changing driver and bike/ped behaviors alike.
And doing it in an area, as the H-S notes, where there's heavy bike/ped activity, the perfect place for focused enforcement and educational efforts like this one.
When we hold police to account for not meeting our community's norms of equity, safety and justice, as so many in this community have done in recent years, I assume that we're doing so in opposition to current practices, not in opposition to the general concept of policing.
It is quite impossible to imagine a community where police do not exist. Law enforcement is a necessary part of society, full stop, and I would challenge the liberals among us (a number within which I count myself) to find any conceptualization of mainstream Western political thought that excludes the use of force by the state for the common good.
(I'm partial to the Lockean expansion on Hobbesian philosophy -- that life is less nasty, brutish and short when we give up any interest in a supposed natural right to self-defense and, with our fellow men and women, imbue that right in a state and its absorption of the use of mortal force. But the concept exists by definition in any state.)
We can, and should, debate and advocate for better policing that reflects our community values.
But the explicit messaging coming out of the activists who've criticized Cocoa Cinnamon in this case are, to me, unrealistic and lacking grounding in civic life.
A categorical claim that all police, and policing, are inherently racist, prejudiced and violent, and should somehow be kept out of "safe spaces" where those suspicious of police may exist, is a bridge too far.
Those activists who have so personally, so loudly, called the D.P.D. to account deserve credit for changing the community conversation on policing.
But when a subset of those voices seemingly call for a negation of the police's role in Durham life, it's a protest we cannot, must not, countenance or accept.