Helping the police understand racism

March 17, 2018 GMT

Perusing the Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass postcards and photos alongside mugs and refrigerator magnets displayed in the shop of Boston’s Museum of African American History, Daniel O’Leary was struck by a reproduction of an 1851 poster.

“CAUTION!!” read the headline.

“COLORED PEOPLE OF BOSTON, ONE & ALL, You are hereby respectfully CAUTIONED and advised, to avoid conversing with the Watchmen and Police Officers of Boston.”

The poster was created in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, the 1850 federal law that compelled local governments, even in free states like Massachusetts, to arrest runaway slaves and return them to their masters. Its language sounded eerily familiar to Daniel O’Leary, who was then the chief of police in Brookline, Massachusetts, and had just concluded a tour of the museum with his senior staff members.


“I was taken aback,” said O’Leary, who visited the museum last March. “A lot of departments are going through the whole ‘don’t snitch’ thing today. It impressed me that some of the experiences between African-Americans and police that were going on back in the 1800s are still going on today.”

That kind of insight was a main reason for his visit. O’Leary felt that touring the museum — in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, once the center of Boston’s Black community — would be useful for his officers and staff, and all 130 members of his department did so as part of their training.

L’Merchie Frazier, the museum’s director for education and interpretation, watched the reaction of O’Leary, and the interest and questions from his officers during their subsequent visits to the Abiel Smith School, one of two early-19th-century buildings that house the museum. “I was experiencing their awe,” she said.

Andrea L. Taylor, president and chief executive of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, called the joint initiative between the Boston museum and the Brookline Police Department timely and appropriate. (The museum is planning to replicate the program with other Boston area police forces.)

“We know that dialogue and appreciation of the cultural and historical context which people bring with them are critical to positive police-community relations,” said Taylor, whose institution has engaged in similar programming, as have a number of the estimated 300 African-American history, heritage and cultural museums around the country.


Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Over the last decade the institute and the FBI’s Birmingham division have partnered to stage an annual conference addressing topical issues related to race and law enforcement. The conference, which is open to the public, attracts about 150 to 200 participants, and features experts and panel sessions.

In May 2016, James Comey, then the FBI director, was the keynote speaker for the conference. Comey “talked about the rather tortured and tense history between the African-American community and the FBI,” Taylor said. This year’s conference, scheduled for June, will focus on human trafficking.

The Goldsboro Museum

Since its opening in 2011, the museum, in Sanford, Florida, has focused on the history of Goldsboro, which was the second all-Black incorporated city in the United States. A few years after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford in 2012, Francis Oliver, the founder, chairwoman and curator of the museum, began to rebuild strained relations with the local police department.

“Mrs. Oliver welcomed me and the officers of the department, despite the many years of distrust, miscommunication and the events surrounding the Martin case,” Cecil E. Smith, chief of the Sanford Police Department, wrote in an email.

It started with the department’s donating sodas and snacks to a 2014 memorial for Martin at the museum, but the relationship has grown. Seventy new members of the 132-member police department have visited the museum, learning about the history of Goldsboro. It was founded in 1891 and existed as a separate community until 1911, when it was annexed by Sanford (“stolen,” Oliver said).

“Some of the white police officers, especially the young ones, they knew nothing about that history, about the struggles,” Oliver said. “They’re kind of amazed.”

National Civil Rights Museum

Since 2014, the museum, in Memphis, Tennessee, has welcomed new recruits from the city’s police department. Typically, the group numbers about 60 to 65 officers in training. At first they simply toured the museum. “It has evolved,” the museum’s president, Terri Lee Freeman, said, “into being more of a conversation about what they see, and we are hoping to formalize that a bit more.”

Freeman said the tours were not intended to provide only white police officers with a better understanding of the civil rights era. “This is important for all police officers, whether they’re Black or white,” she said. “Understanding the history of the relationships between law enforcement and communities of color is important, and it’s just not well understood. I’m talking about facts, not feelings.”

And what are the feelings of those officers who have learned more about Black history through these museums?

Carlos Crespo, a detective in the Brookline Police Department, visited the Boston museum in the spring of 2017 with a group of his colleagues. Crespo, who is Latino, said he had grown up with African-Americans in the Roxbury section of Boston, but that he had known little about Frederick Douglass, the Underground Railroad or the role of Boston’s Black citizens in the abolitionist movement and the Civil War.

“It was really interesting,” he said of the tour. “And it absolutely helped me to have a better understanding of that community.”

O’Leary, who retired in January, said he hoped his successors would continue to visit the museum, and he was glad that he and his officers took the tour last year.

“That poster took me by surprise and made me think,” he said of the 19th-century warning to Black citizens to avoid the authorities. “I realized right there that we were doing this for a reason.”

— (The New York Times)