The crisis of ineffective and occasionally murderous policing


— On Wednesday a federal grand jury indicted former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager on charges of violating the civil rights of Walter Scott. Scott was a 50-year-old black man who had been pulled over in North Charleston by Slager for a broken tail light last April. Apparently at some point after Slager pulled Scott over, Scott ran.

The officer fired eight bullets at Scott, while the unarmed man ran away. Slager hit Scott in the back five times, killing him. To my mind, Scott probably ran because he was afraid of getting killed by a cop. Irony is nowhere near deep enough a word for this.

Let’s be clear. Michael Slager is being charged with a federal crime, after already being charged with murder by the state of North Carolina. And without a doubt much of the reason for these charges is the fact that the incident is easily seen on cellphone video. Without that video Slager’s initial story of fearing for his life because Scott had taken the officer’s Taser would have certainly been believed. But we all know that video evidence of police killing (or assaulting) unarmed, non-threatening people rarely leads to those officers doing any significant prison time.

So while a part of me wanted to be happy that Slager was indicted, another part of me knows that indictments — even as rare as they are — often mean nothing. Which means I — and people who look like me — walk around generally feeling like we are just one seemingly innocuous exchange with a police officer away from ending up a hashtag.

All of this was going through my mind when I re-watched the latest episode of “United Shades of America.” This episode focuses on policing in America, and not surprisingly, it was really not fun to make … and even less fun to watch again. I’m a comedian, therefore this show is sorta, kinda supposed to be a comedy show. And while there are certainly funny moments in this episode — I’m especially proud of my joke comparing cops to mountain lions — the material is not funny at all.

When we taped the episode last year, it felt like America as a whole was in the middle of actually talking about the crisis of ineffective, oppressive and occasionally murderous policing in this country and how that kind of policing especially affects the black community. A year later we are still in the middle of that conversation. And this is a conversation that the nation has seemingly been having forever in various ways.

The only thing that makes it regularly front page news now is the advent of cellphone video. But I’m old enough to know that video evidence of police wrongdoing doesn’t always make a difference. When video of the LAPD beating Rodney King into the ground was released, there was a feeling in the black community of “FINALLY! AMERICA WILL SEE WHAT WE’VE BEEN TELLING THEM FOR YEARS! THE POLICE ARE NOT TREATING US FAIRLY!”

OK, yes! The black people I knew said things much more explicit than, “The police are not treating us fairly,” but I figured CNN wouldn’t want me to quote the entire NWA song “F— tha Police” in this article.

By the end of the episode, I just felt cold. “Protect and Serve?” is about policing in America. And we talk about it by spending time in Camden, New Jersey, a city of slightly under 80,000 residents just across a bridge from Philadelphia.

Camden is like a lot of American cities, in that the police force and the community do not have the best relationship. But unlike in a lot of American cities, the Camden police force is actually trying to do something about it. And in the wake of community actions against police brutality like #BlackLivesMatter, protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the hunger strike by my hometown’s Frisco 5, I am happy to finally see a police department openly admit that they can do a much better job and to also hear them promise they will.

Law enforcement in Camden is turning back the clock to a style of policing that I’ve seen only in black and white movies. It’s called community policing. The idea is that the cops walk the beat, get to know the residents and therefore (hopefully) feel connected to the community. It used to be that in this situation, police actually had to live in the community. And while many officers do live in Camden, many don’t.

The idea behind community policing is that if the police force are members of the community — or at least spend lots of time in the community before the s— hits the fan — that maybe a future officer Slager isn’t just pulling over a random black guy. He’s pulling over Walter, a guy he knows or is at least familiar with enough to know that he is a good guy who is maybe going through some rough times. And maybe Walter knows this fictional officer enough not to freak out and run from him. Seems like a crazy dream … but a necessary dream to dream.

Many residents in Camden seem hopeful but tentative in fully turning their trust over to the cops. And on the other side, the cops seem equally tentative. By the end of the episode, I feel like I don’t know if this is going to work. It’s too soon. In the episode, I say it is a good start, but sitting here watching it a year later, I don’t know what “a good start” even means.

Camden seems like it could be Ground Zero for changing the way police operate in black neighborhoods, but it also seems like Ground Zero in that there are blocks and blocks that look like they were set designed for the sequel to “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

All that means is that it is critical that good things happen in Camden. There is a lot of civic pride in Camden. And, if anything, that is why I feel like Camden could return to being the healthy and thriving city that it once was. It is, however, going to take a ton of help to bring Camden back. And a lot of the help is going to have to come from the police department. I appreciate that, unlike most police departments, the Camden police understand that improving the relationship with the community starts with them.

My question in this episode is, “Are these the right cops?” When I walked the streets of Camden everyone felt tentative. The police were trying to connect with the residents, but I could tell that it was a directive from on high as opposed to a natural instinct. And many of the residents reacted the way you might react to a poisonous snake who says, “I promise. This time I won’t bite you.” “WHY SHOULD I BELIEVE YOU? AND WHY ARE YOU TALKING?” I understand that this is a process, but since lives are at stake I am nervous it won’t move quickly enough.

I sincerely hope for Camden that these are the cops for the job, but after watching the episode again, I honestly don’t know. If they are, we can use them in North Charleston; New York City; Ferguson; Oakland; Cleveland; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Waller County, Texas; Beavercreek, Ohio … and honestly, every city in this country.

A few years ago, when I was in New York City working on a TV show, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and saw a police officer. I must have jumped a little, because the cop looked a little surprised and said, “I … I just wanted to tell you that I like your show.” I smiled quickly and said thank you, and the officer left. Meanwhile my heart was still doing a Lars Ulrich-style drum solo in my chest. A person nearby who saw the whole thing go down observed, “I think he wanted a picture, but he changed his mind.”

Weirdly, I felt bad. I love taking pictures with people who like my work. I’m happy to do that easy thing for anybody; at least that’s what I thought until that moment. Apparently, the officer saw a TV star, and I saw nothing but blue. In that moment, I forgot that I was even a comedian. I just knew I was a black man, and cops (especially ones from New York City) have reputations for taking more than black people’s pictures. I felt myself tense up. I was preparing for the worst in that moment. Which seems crazy to me, but it’s not, because plenty of black people have been killed at the hands of cops in situations not much different than that.

W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on Kamau Right Now! on KALW in San Francisco and CNN’s “United Shades of America,” airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.