I spoke with state Rep. Paul Tucker, who in addition to being our representative is also a former Salem police chief. (I’d like to be clear here that I am going to do my best to quote Tucker accurately, but all opinions contained within this letter are entirely my own.)
“There is responsibility on the part of elected officials and police administrators to properly select police candidates, train them, recognize them when they do something right and come down swiftly when they do something wrong,” Tucker said. “We have an obligation not be afraid to stand up for marginalized communities in housing, jobs and policing, even if doing so is unpopular.”
Tucker was responsible for a number of reforms during his tenure on the Salem police department, including the establishment of the civil rights officer position, currently held by Fred Ryan and originated by current Salem City Councilor Conrad Prosniewski. He offered powerful examples of how peace-centered police practices can have a transformative effect on a community.
“When I was chief, there was a year when there were widespread incidents of vandalism on the night of the Fourth of July. I told the mayor that I would not stand for the police being on every corner like an occupying army,” Tucker said. “The next year we had a public cookout and music program, and the number of incidents dropped dramatically. Community starts with trust, and the police have a duty to maintain and uphold that public trust.”
What follows are some concrete steps you can take that came from my discussion with Rep. Tucker and additional research.
1. Educate yourself on the history of racism in law enforcement and how we can move forward. A great place to start is “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, available as an e-book, audio book, and in print from the Salem Public Library.
2. Be an engaged watchdog. Rep. Tucker offered the following information:
-- All Americans have a right to request information from police chiefs and training officers about training and internal regulations.
-- If you want to report a police incident or follow up on an information request, you can call the police department business line. In Salem, that’s 744-0171.
-- All police reports except for those regarding open cases or minors are subject to FOIA requests. “Sometimes, departments will claim an exception and hope the person making the records request just goes away,” Tucker said. “If that happens, the Massachusetts Secretary of State has a hotline just to follow up on cases like this.”
-- You can reach out to the Community Impact Unit for information about upcoming community outreach events or to ask how the Salem Police Department is working with minority communities to foster trust and safety.
-- All citizens have an absolute right to film encounters with police officers in the performance of their duty. Tucker warned anyone filming a police incident to stay at a safe distance. “Videotapes don’t lie. If an officer is filmed engaging in improper behavior, they should be held accountable. Let the chips fall,” Tucker said.
3. Have an uncomfortable conversation. Social media has pulled the scales from many of our eyes when it comes to the opinions of friends and relatives, and sometimes it’s tempting to write those relationships off. But when we do that, we surrender the opportunity to teach our loved ones to be better. To begin the conversation, remember the following tips:
-- Talk in-person or over the phone or Zoom if possible, rather than on social media.
-- Remind yourself and the person you’re speaking with of your friendship and care for each other.
-- Avoid cliches. What a bias really gives us, more than anything else, is a script, a way to avoid engaging with nuance when it makes us uncomfortable. If you revert to a script, so will they.
-- Use open-ended questions, rather than yes-or-no. If, for example, the person you’re talking with says that there’s no proof law enforcement has a race problem, ask them what they think such proof would look like.
-- Don’t assume that one conversation will be enough to ‘fix it.’ Think of your best teacher. They didn’t make a lifelong impression on you in one day. Their lessons grew out of each class, with new revelations and ways of thinking building upon each other.
-- Make a donation. There are many organizations working for equality and justice. Consider starting with the Equal Justice Initiative, the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter, or the NAACP.
-- Look to the state and federal government to take a stand. Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley introduced a resolution last Friday condemning police brutality. If you think that U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton should sign on, let him know. His phone number is 531-1669. More concrete initiatives will surely come from Congress in the coming weeks, and we should be ready to mobilize in support.