Police Fight Racial Bias With Introspection, Training, Public Engagement

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News

Sgt. Bill Massey (left) and Chief Mark Pawlina of the Chatham Police Department were hosted by the Rev. Brian McGurk of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church last week for a discussion about police race relations. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM When there's a vacancy on the department, Police Chief Mark Pawlina hires people, not robots. And because police officers are human beings, there's a risk of racial bias.

The key, Pawlina said, is to be aware of that risk, to train officers to use their authority sensitively and judiciously, and to make sure the general public understands how law enforcement works.

Speaking with a small group of citizens at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church last Thursday, the chief said that before coming to Chatham 11 years ago, he served in Hartford, Conn., a city where members of minority ethnic groups are literally in the majority. He remembers a few veteran officers who had an “us versus them” approach to non-white citizens, and said that attitude still persists in some departments.

Effective policing requires officers to build partnerships in the community, which can sometimes be difficult to do while fighting “this very violent scourge of crime,” he said. “It's a big problem.” Officers need to enforce the law responsibly, without bias, and in a way that doesn't upset or offend citizens.

“It's a very tall order,” he said. In many respects, Pawlina said the tension between police and non-white citizens is less than it was decades ago, at least so it seemed until the string of high-profile incidents in places like Ferguson, Mo., that started a few years ago. “We still have a long way to go,” he said.

Pawlina said his focus in Chatham has been on improving customer service by taking steps to ensure that citizens are generally satisfied with the service provided by the police department.

“I think that can go a long way toward trying to reduce racial tensions,” he said. Treating all of the department's “customers” with respect, including suspects who are under arrest, is the focus of much training. After Ferguson, Pawlina said he started doing research on de-escalation training for police officers.

“I couldn't find any,” he said. He looked outside the sphere of police training and started examining protocols for mental health workers. “About 38 percent of violent encounters between police and citizens involve a mental health issue,” he said. Pawlina attended a college seminar given by a mental health clinician who had practical techniques for de-escalating conflicts, and has shared those insights with his officers.

The chief said he also knows that some aspiring police officers overreact to stressful situations, and all people have some implicit bias. “The key thing is to recognize that and try to overcome it,” he said.

Answering a question by one person at the forum, Pawlina said he doesn't know why the Boston police union has resisted having officers equipped with body cams. The Los Angeles police have been using them for some time, and has a much improved reputation when it comes to minority relations, he said. “If I'm doing everything right, what do I worry about? I'd rather have that camera on,” Pawlina said. Likewise, research shows “that citizens behave better and different when they know there's a body camera on them,” the chief said.

Resident William Sissell, who was pastor of the Chatham Methodist Church for years, said police uniforms – like clerical collars – are an expression of power by one member of society over others.

“We live in a community with a white police department, an entirely white clergy and a white city government,” he said. “Which one of us is going to give up some of our power in order to avoid conflict?”

A resident of town since 1977, Marie Williams said she knows Chatham embraces citizens who are in trouble. “I'm just totally amazed about what kind of compassion there is here,” she said. “We need to figure out how to direct that compassion so we don't have a problem.” Though she's lived in Chatham many years, Williams said she doesn't know any of the police officers in town. “And that bothers me.”

Once active in the Civil Rights movement, resident Karen McPherson said she would've attended the March on Washington, had her parents allowed her to do so. “I haven't always had good feelings about policemen,” she said. At the urging of her husband, she attended the Chatham Citizens' Police Academy, and found the experience enlightening.

“That has been a really good way to understand how the police are interacting with the community,” she said. “I didn't agree with everything they said,” McPherson added, but taking part in the academy gave her a better grasp of the challenges and requirements of law enforcement.

Chatham Police Sgt. Bill Massey said the academy serves another purpose: it allows the department to get public feedback on the way it does business, and that helps the department to improve itself over time.

Most of those at last week's forum were light-skinned. The exception was Orlando Hemmings, a Chatham resident and a sous-chef at a local restaurant. Pawlina invited him to share his thoughts with the group.

Hemmings said he was impressed by the dialogue and has always felt like he's been treated fairly in Chatham.

“I've never been racially profiled,” he said. “It's good to know that you guys are actually on my side, on the population's side, rather than wondering, where's this guy from? We need to check him out.”

There is a measurable nonwhite population in Chatham, but you won't find them at public meetings, Hemmings said. “They're always working.” That could be a reason why there haven't been many racial problems in town, he added. Hemmings said he's interested in attending the next session of the citizens' police academy.

Another person at the meeting asked why the department doesn't have more racial diversity in its ranks, and Pawlina said it is a struggle to recruit candidates of color on Cape Cod. When positions become available in Chatham, they are advertised broadly, “trying to get the best mix of candidates we can get,” he said. Still, those searches often fail to attract non-white applicants.

“Could we do a better job? Yeah, absolutely,” Pawlina said.