Views on race: Ferguson doesn’t need to happen in Sacramento

By Kevin Johnson - Special to The Bee

September 28, 2014 12:00 AM

I shuddered when I heard about the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., last month. I’m pretty certain nearly every black man in America had a similar reaction. Like many of them, I am tired of hearing of instances in which racial profiling and excessive use of force against black men ends in senseless bloodshed. The difference is that I’m in a position to do something about it.

It’s because I’ve had too many Michael Brown experiences to count that I ran for public office. When I graduated from UC Berkeley and was drafted into the NBA, my grandfather instilled in me that I needed to plan for my exit from the league before I joined it.

So I lived in a modest condominium and maintained a low-key lifestyle, spending my offseasons in Sacramento focused on community service. My one splurge was a used black Porsche. Little did I know how driving an expensive car in an underserved community would make me a target.

Like the time I was driving in Oak Park and was pulled over by police officers who made me sit in the back of the squad car until they confirmed the car wasn’t stolen. An elderly neighbor on her front porch shook her head and lamented, “You’ve made a grave mistake. You have no idea who that boy is. He’s the pride of our neighborhood.” The police paid her no mind.

Or when I sat in front of the rundown Woodruff Hotel and Guild Theater on 35th Street, pondering whether to buy and redevelop the property to begin the renaissance of Oak Park. Still water sat 3 feet deep on the bottom floor, and the top floor was inhabited by prostitutes and drug dealers.

Could an investment make this the jewel of our community? I mused as I sat in my car, only to be interrupted by a police officer rapping on my window.

Clearly, the sight of me disturbed him, and he promptly gave me a ticket. He said I was violating the ordinance that stated I had to be within 18 inches of the curb. I was about 24 inches away. Really what I was violating was his sensibilities.

I never allowed those experiences to define me, but they fueled my ambitions and desires to see the next generation of African American kids in this country not be judged and treated according to the color of their skin.

We’re so far from that reality. I know that every time I hear about a Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.

Instead of lamenting the way the world is, I believe we must focus on ways to make it the way it should be. As mayor of Sacramento, I am in a position to lead this effort. No, I can’t give direction to the police chief and department, but I can use the bully pulpit I’m afforded. From that position, I want to outline the things our community must do.

Vote

This is particularly relevant to communities of color, but it applies to all of us. We cannot complain about the actions or inactions of elected officials if we are not willing to take the most powerful action we have.

Do your civic duty. We cannot bemoan injustices heaped upon us if we are not willing to choose our judges and serve on juries. We cannot protest against a government that we have not duly participated in.

It is up to us to create the justice system we desire, or else we will sit idly by while one is created for us.

End racial profiling

We do not live in the post-racial society that so many profess we do. Stereotypes, prejudices and biases plague our nation in a way that frustrates and at times enrages communities of color.

Instead of shying away from these issues or shirking responsibility, we must tackle them head-on. The unfortunate reality is that we’ve not made enough progress on that in Sacramento.

In 2000 and 2006, the Police Department undertook a comprehensive study on traffic stop data. Analyses of these surveys indicated that African American and Hispanic drivers were stopped at disproportionate rates.

In 2004, the City Council approved the establishment of the Community Racial Profiling Commission to address these issues. In 2013, a report from the commission showed that while there was a decrease in misconduct complaints filed against police, there was an increase in complaints filed against the fire department, resulting in an overall mixed bag on this incredibly important issue after nearly a decade of work.

We must set concrete measures for how public safety departments can win the trust and confidence of underserved communities. As elected officials, we must hold ourselves accountable for meeting them. This is not an indictment of our public safety departments or current leadership. Rather, it is a clear admission of what we can and should be doing, and a clear directive for the kind of city we want to be. The racial profiling commission must be rechartered to be more effective as a first step.

Create a diverse police force

In Ferguson, a community that is nearly 70 percent African American, only three of 53 police officers are African American. Though that statistic alone cannot account for the death of Michael Brown, it is problematic, to say the least.

In Sacramento, “America’s most diverse city,” according to Time magazine, only 3 percent of police officers are African American, compared with 14 percent of the population. These statistics will not change unless and until we put resources and efforts to fix the imbalance so the department better reflects the diversity we take such pride in.

Engage kids in activities and avoid gang violence

People have cited the lack of opportunities for youths in Ferguson and how that may have played a role in how this event unfolded. Several years ago after a shooting in Sacramento, tension between the African American community and the Police Department heightened. To address the problems, we formed a gang task force. But like too many initiatives, it faded away without producing much change.

The African American community asked me to lead the charge on this effort. We met with community and faith leaders, police and others to chart out a plan. Funding, about $1 million, never materialized.

When horrific events like the Ferguson shooting grip the nation, every community asks itself, “Could we be next?” The simple answer for Sacramento is that we don’t have to be. We can avoid race-based conflicts. Our steps are clear. We need to ask ourselves if we’re ready to face the tough realities, dedicate the resources and make the hard decisions required. Who’s with me?