This commentary was published in partnership with The Marshall Project.
At the end of my 30-year career in policing, I served in the Obama Administration as director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The COPS Office is charged with partnering with police agencies across the country to advance community policing. I worked with thousands of police officials across the country during my time as director and the overwhelming majority of them embraced community policing.
Unfortunately, the current head of the DOJ is turning his back on the model.
Since taking charge of the DOJ, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pursued policies that put more pressure on police-community relations. He has made overtures to end the agency’s use of consent decrees, pulled back on investigations into potential police misconduct, and supported immigration law enforcement policies that push migrant communities further in the shadows. His approach reveals a deep misunderstanding of the challenges of policing in a democratic society. And it ignores ongoing tensions between police nationally and many of the communities they serve.
Sessions could stand to learn something from an unconventional source— “Shots Fired,” FOX’s new police procedural. What the show understands about policing that Sessions seems to miss is that safe cities are only possible through collaboration between communities and law enforcement. Both parties must work together to overcome bias, ignorance, and their internal politics. And it’s the role of the DOJ to help local law enforcement broker that partnership.
“Shots Fired” explores the aftermath of a racially charged police shooting in a fictional North Carolina town. It begins with a traffic stop in which an unarmed white man is shot and killed by a black police deputy and kicks into gear when the DOJ sends an investigator, played by Sanaa Lathan, and special prosecutor, played by Stephan James, to investigate the shooting.
The last episode of the show airs Wednesday, but I’ve been struck throughout the season at how well “Shots Fired” captures the complexity of community policing. As someone who has traveled to cities including Ferguson and Baltimore on behalf of DOJ in recent years, I was impressed by the show’s thoughtful exploration of the roles fear, race, culture, politics and intra-community relationships play in police-community relations.
One particularly memorable scene from the show’s first episode involves a press conference at which local and state officials join the DOJ investigator and prosecutor to announce the federal investigation into the shooting. “What I don’t understand is why you’re here,” a black pastor in the crowd tells the prosecutor. “All the murdering of unarmed black men by police across this country, and this is the one that the government is investigating?” One of the assembled reporters responds sarcastically, “So only black lives matter?” Ultimately, the DOJ prosecutor settles the crowd with promises to seek the truth in the shooting despite the many dynamics complicating the case. And he does exactly that.
Over the course of the season, the prosecutor engages members of the local law enforcement community and discovers internal tensions. He also uncovers a history of police abuse and intra-community conflict that has gone unaddressed for years by engaging the residents of the town. I’ve witnessed these dynamics firsthand in cities across the country. I’ve also seen the positive outcomes achieved when both the police and communities embrace community policing.
The show makes clear something that I saw time and time again as a police officer and during my time at the DOJ: civilians are always the linchpin for public safety and the interaction within communities impacts almost everything done in law enforcement. Further, members of the law enforcement community have a responsibility to uphold the law and that work is inextricably tied to community trust and well-being.
It seems as though Sessions does not understand these important truths and instead is relying on ideology to guide his approach to law enforcement. Maybe if he and his team watched “Shots Fired” they’d obtain a much better understanding of why ending consent decrees, threatening sanctuary cities and reigniting the War on Drugs all have a negative impact on public safety by making community policing nearly impossible.
During my years in law enforcement, I participated in hundreds of training programs, seminars, and meetings designed to address the themes raised in “Shots Fired.” Most were ineffective because they failed to create a safe environment in which all perspectives could be heard. “Shots Fired” does that brilliantly, however, by allowing viewers to break their defensive postures and explore community-police relations through a fictionalized, but deeply truthful, account of an officer-involved shooting.
I know firsthand the advances that can be made when the police truly partner with our communities to tackle issues that affect us all. As Attorney General Sessions continues toward his goal of “making America safe again,” he can only do so if he learns the lessons of the past, embraces strategies that protect civil rights, respects all communities, and provides real support to law enforcement. That cannot happen until AG Sessions learns what he does not know.
If his many years in the criminal justice system have taught him nothing about the delicate relationship between law enforcement and the public, perhaps a TV show can do the trick.
Ronald Davis was the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and Executive Director of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing under the Obama Administration. Davis was the East Palo Alto Police chief from 2005 to 2013. Prior to that, he served more than 19 years with the Oakland Police Department where he rose to the rank of captain.