How Police Culture Affects Alexandrians

by Jonathan Krall

On Wednesday January 6, the Capitol Police allowed white nationalists to invade Congress and, perhaps worse, to leave without being arrested. The racism of policing was on full display. Compared to the common, almost daily scrutiny and arrest of social justice protesters, the deference showed by police to white nationalists was shocking. The problem, as a former FBI agent has documented, is that police culture is intertwined with white nationalist culture. Historically, they are one and the same. Police deference to white people over Black people isn’t just a problem in DC, it is a problem in Alexandria. Because police fealty to police culture is stronger than police fealty to the public, no one is safe.

During the November and December protests in DC, as reported to me, police were disinterested in arresting violent white nationalists, including one that knifed a Black Lives Matter protester. BLM protesters witnessed Metropolitan Police Department cops physically separating BLM protesters and white nationalists. Again and again, BLM protesters were arrested while white nationalists were not. As on Capitol Hill, white nationalists were allowed to go on their merry way.

Here in Alexandria, unlike in DC, police culture has not been lately put to the test. Police culture is evident but, for white residents of our city, it is largely hidden. Describing encounters between police officers and people of color, my friends of color tell me that they experience disrespect. They tell me of instances when officers seem to have decided in advance that they, the person of color, are breaking a rule, even while the police office cannot or will not articulate what it is they are doing wrong. In Alexandria Police Department data, racial disparities are certainly evident. Black people, 21% of the population, received 36% of traffic tickets in 2017 and 2018 and 37% of tickets in 2019. Because police officers are not required to record ethnicity, we cannot provide similar data for Latinx Alexandrians.

Police culture affects public policy. For example, when Tenants and Workers United, NAACP Alexandria and Grassroots Alexandria came together in 2017 to ask the Alexandria Police Department for increased transparency in their reports, we reached out to APD Chief Michael L. Brown. In initial conversations, we were told that police would refuse to obey expanded reporting requirements. Chief Brown has slowly relented, by degrees, but the idea that disobedient police officers should be tolerated instead of fired hints at a culture of impunity.

That our APD officers are somehow dangerous might sound ludicrous to white Alexandrians. I myself, a white man, am always treated with respect. At peaceful Grassroots Alexandria protests, APD officers have been consistently cooperative. However, my whiteness and my experiences do not excuse ignorance of the very real experiences of people of color. I am grateful that they have been kind enough to share those experiences with me.

The reason I am writing this is that a friend of mine, a person of color, lamented that Alexandrians might be blind to the basic reality that the police officers on Capitol Hill and the police officers in Alexandria are, for all practical purposes, one and the same. It is up to all of us to support policies that reduce the intersection between police and people of color, even if doing so means giving up our own beliefs about the value of policing. Black Lives Matter is not just a yard sign, it’s a promise to act.

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