Retired Dayton police major: ‘Racism is in the groundwater’

“Civil rights are not pie. If you have some, it does not mean that I have less,” Wendy Stiver, a former Dayton police major.

(NOTE: This guest column appeared on the Dayton Daily News’ Ideas and Voices page Sunday, June 6, 2020. Community Impact Editor Amelia Robinson asked a diverse group of people with ties to the Dayton area how our black community’s relationship with our police can be improved. Columns from other participants are linked throughout this piece.)

There are no simple solutions to complex problems.

Humans are reactionary and tend to seek out quick and easy solutions. That’s why we all love duct tape. But duct tape is hardly a permanent solution, just a reminder that whatever lives beneath it is broken.

Black lives matter.

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Please note that does not say, “black lives matter MORE.”

Civil rights are not pie. If you have some, it does not mean that I have less. Several years ago, I met with a Black Lives Matter leader and we had some honest conversations, which led to a friendship and mutual respect. She asked me why the police felt that sentiment meant that people devalued the lives of police officers.

We talked about the tragic murder of police officers in Dallas. We talked about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. To equate the murderous intent of the killer in Dallas with the entire movement was no different than to translate the murder of George Floyd to the behavior of all police officers. We had uncomfortable conversations at the time, but as any marathoner can tell you, with discomfort comes growth.

Racism is a complex systemic problem that often lurks beneath the surface where we cannot see it. It lives in all of our systems: in health care, banking, education, employment and housing.

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It lives in subtle comments, behaviors and beliefs. It lives in fears and anxiety. It lives in laws, baked into our concepts of public safety and justice. There are racist individuals among us, but they operate in systems so that even when we remove the individuals, the problems persist.

The foundation of our laws is the United States Constitution, signed in 1789, more than 75 years before slavery was abolished. It is fitting that we have this conversation in a census year because Article 1, Section 2, of the very document that guides our freedoms and rights directed that only free persons were counted as human at all. All others were to be counted as 3/5ths of a whole person. All others are the Americans who today — 230 years later — are still asking to be counted as human. If the foundation of our entire system of justice was written at a time when racism was boldly codified in it, then we continue to operate a system founded in racism. We have made changes and will continue to make changes.

The Racial Equity Institute teaches that racism is in the groundwater, that we live in a racially structured society, and that that is what causes racial inequity. Black Americans are two or three times more likely to experience negative outcomes across multiple social and economic systems than white Americans. We are deeply flawed and the problem is indeed in the groundwater.

As Charleston (South Carolina) Police Department’s new procedural justice and research director, my primary responsibility is to implement recommendations from a comprehensive racial bias audit. The audit was the result of a community demand for change in policing, driven by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. The audit was embraced by Chief Luther Reynolds, who is deeply passionate for fairness, equity, respect, policing and progress. His heart is open and he’s comfortable with the kind of vulnerability that comes with transparency. His mantra is that he just wants to leave this city in a better place than he found it. I walked in the march in Charleston on Saturday and the first police officer I encountered was Chief Reynolds.

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So what can we do? Here in Charleston, we are starting with data and asking tough questions. We need to know where the disparities are and we need to dive deep into the root causes. Frank Baumgartner studied 20 million traffic stops in North Carolina over 20 years and published the results in his book, "Suspect Citizens." In the Washington Post he explained that, "traffic stops are far and away the most common interaction that people have with law enforcement. They therefore play a central role in forming our perceptions of the police and show us in turn how the police view us. Do we look like full citizens, or do we appear as suspects?" Are we counted as whole people at all?

Baumgartner found that blacks are almost twice as likely to be pulled over as whites and are more likely to be searched following a stop. Black people are much more likely to be searched after a stop than white drivers, but less likely to be found with drugs, guns, alcohol or other forms of contraband after discretionary searches.

So we need to look closer at the laws we enforce and why we enforce them. Which ones are producing disparate outcomes and what would be the consequences of changing them? For decades, we leveraged a heavier penalty for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine and throughout my career as a police officer, no reasonable explanation was ever offered for the discrepancy.

We need transparency in data. We need collaboration and consent. The Vera Institute for Justice worked with police departments and communities, to include representatives of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, to collaboratively write new policies for the use of force. We need collaborative models for problem solving that center the sanctity of life and many police departments in this nation have worked very hard in recent years to do exactly that with the road map of 21st Century Policing. Charleston Police adopted a program called EPIC (Ethical Policing is Courageous). EPIC is a bystander intervention training developed by the New Orleans Police Department to train police officers in active bystandership. Officers are trained and expected to intervene to prevent misconduct. Much work is being done to improve this police department and all of policing. We need to keep working and we welcome anyone who wants to work with us.

It is fitting, now more than ever, to leave you with some of the best words of West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, because it’s often the most Dayton thing on Netflix. For context, the discussion was about a book on race reparations and the fictional candidate for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights offered his explanation for endorsing the book. He urges Josh Lyman to take out a dollar bill and examine it with the words, Take it out. Look at the back. The seal, the pyramid, it’s unfinished, with the eye of God looking over it, and the words ‘annuit coeptis’ — he, God, favors our undertaking. The seal is meant to be unfinished, because this country’s meant to be unfinished. We’re meant to keep doing better.”

There will be no simple solution to this crisis. It did not start last weekend or last week.

We are meant to keep doing better.

Black lives matter


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Recently retired Dayton Police Maj. Wendy Stiver is now director of research and procedural justice for the Charleston Police Department in South Carolina. She worked for Dayton police 21 years.

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