The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 8: Black And Blue

Jul 14, 2016
Originally published on July 15, 2016 8:34 pm

After more than a week of violence and racial tension sparked by the deaths of black men at the hands of police and the shooting deaths of five officers in Dallas, we're getting more perspective from African-American law enforcement officials. We wanted to know how black officers, folks who find themselves right in the middle of heated conversations about race and policing, are processing everything that happened.

Gregory A. Thomas, who leads the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or NOBLE, talks with Gene Demby. He explains what he told President Obama at a White House meeting with law enforcement officials this week and why he thinks his organization has special insight into the current debate. "We are expert enough to say what should be done in policing," Thomas said. "But the twist there is we are also black. So we've been policed, we live in neighborhoods that have been policed, we have neighbors that have been policed, we've been stopped and frisked. I've been stopped and frisked. We've all been through that experience."

Later, Gene and Shereen Marisol Meraji talk with Michael Rallings, who serves as the interim director of police services in Memphis, Tenn. On Sunday, Rallings earned some praise — and some criticism — after marching arm in arm with protesters off the Interstate 40 bridge and through downtown Memphis.

At a news conference later in the week, Rallings said he is sick of death. "I don't care where you're from, I don't care if you're black or white, or if you're a Vice Lord or Crip or Gangster Disciple," Rallings said. "We just gotta bring about a change in this city. And as I've said from Day 1, everybody has a place and a part to play in this struggle. And it is indeed a struggle." Rallings talked to us about his thought process over the past few days, what it was like marching and what his vision is going forward.

Shereen and Gene also spoke to Jelani Cobb, a journalist at The New Yorker and the director of the University of Connecticut's Institute for African American Studies. Cobb spent about a year embedded with the Newark Police Department after a Department of Justice report in 2014 found that about 75 percent of pedestrian stops were unjustified, and that "black individuals in Newark bear the brunt of the NPD's pattern of unconstitutional stops and arrests."

Cobb's year of investigation was chronicled in Policing the Police, a PBS Frontline documentary. Cobb explained what is was like working with the NPD, and how it has shaped his perception of what's happening now between police and communities of color.

Code Switch is not done with this story. In the weeks to come, we'll continue to explore these experiences, and we'll include perspectives from folks who aren't black or white.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Thanks for listening the CODE SWITCH. StoryCorps travels the country collecting the wit, wisdom and poetry in the stories of everyday people. The StoryCorps podcast showcases these unscripted stories about real life. Listen in and discover meaning in the words of someone you might not notice walking down the street. Find the StoryCorps podcast now at and on the NPR One app.


MERAJI: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


And I'm Gene Demby. We're still trying to make sense of last week if that's even possible. Here's a quick recap.

MERAJI: In the space of a few days, videos of two different black men getting shot to death by the police, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., drove thousands of protesters into the streets across the country. And at one of the protests in Dallas, this happened.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Micah Johnson apparently used his military training and detailed planning in order to pull off an ambush attack on police officers in Dallas.

DEMBY: After killing five Dallas police officers and injuring seven, Micah Johnson was himself killed by a robot-delivered bomb. Johnson told negotiators he was targeting white cops in retaliation for the deaths of black people at the hands of the police. On our podcast Extra last week, we talked to the Harvard historian Kahlil Gibran Muhammad about how that changed the conversation happening in the media. He wrote the book "The Condemnation Of Blackness: Race, Crime, And The Making Of Modern America."


MERAJI: The conversation was about the need to change police culture. It was about putting a stop to excessive use of force so these incidents don't occur over and over again. And I have to say, 24 hours later, to me, I feel like the conversation has changed to the condemnation of the killing of the police officers in Dallas. And I'm wondering how do we have both those conversations at the same time? And do you think we are having both those conversations at the same time?

KHALIL MUHAMMAD: First of all, I think we must have both those conversations at the same time. So we ought to be clear about what should be happening. But I also think that there's an imbalance in who speaks in terms of the capacity to understand that police violence, as is felt by African-Americans and blacks who are generally in America, cannot continue. That - that's a hard stop. The problem is that there are significant pockets of the majority population, of whites in America, who, on one hand, are ambivalent about whether or not those African-Americans and others who have been killed is somehow justified. And juries and judges have essentially cosigned on that belief.

Consequently, at the other extreme, we have a heroism attached to the occupation of policing where people who are police officers are wrapped in the cloth of patriotism as making sacrifices on behalf of the nation. And this has eliminated the possibility that we can have a both-and conversation because of the scale of the unwillingness to come to terms with some basic facts about policing. And this is not just about when police officers shoot or use excessive force. It's also about the culture of policing and the way in which communities are actually treated on a day-to-day basis.

MERAJI: There's so much to unpack here, so we're back with more. And here's a warning, we're still not going to get into everything in this episode Trust, but we are going to talk to the police. And, Gene, I'm not going to lie. This has been playing in my head on a loop for days now.


KRS-ONE: (Singing) My grandfather had to deal with the cops. My great-grandfather dealt with the cops. My great-grandfather had to deal with the cops. And then my great-great-great-great - when is it gonna stop? Woop, woop. That's that sound of the police. Woop, Woop. That's the sound of the beast. Woop, woop. That's the sound of the police. Woop, woop. That's the sound of the beast.

DEMBY: That song right there, that was the "Sound of Da Police" by KRS-One. I hate to age you, Shereen, but that song came out almost a quarter century ago. And we're still talking about the same stuff, about how black people have suffered at the hands of the police for generations. And we're still asking when is it going to stop.

MERAJI: Today, we're going to talk about and with the people that live on both sides of this debate though - black cops.

DEMBY: No...

MERAJI: No KRS-One. We're not playing that again. Anyway, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, he's African-American.

DEMBY: And even before this tragedy, David Brown's gotten a lot of credit for improving police and community relations in that city. Here he is on Tuesday at a memorial service with President Obama, quoting Stevie Wonder's "As" to express officers' love for the people they serve.


DAVID BROWN: And I've got to say always. I'll be loving you always. And there's no greater love than this, that these five men gave their lives for all of us.

DEMBY: And David Brown, who we just heard, is a member of an organization called the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or NOBLE. I spoke with the head of that organization, Gregory Thomas.

GREGORY THOMAS: We are executives in policing, right? So I'll give you a couple examples. We are the police chief of Miami Gardens, Detroit, Mich.

DEMBY: Miami Gardens was where Trayvon Martin is from right? Or...

THOMAS: Right.

DEMBY: Yeah.

THOMAS: Miami Gardens, Detroit, Mich., Atlanta, Ga., Durham, N.C. And we are the police chief in Dallas, Texas. So we are expert enough to say what should be done in policing. I don't care who you want to put against us. We can push back with some expertise. But the twist there is, we are also black, right? So we've been policed. We live in neighborhoods that have been policed. We have neighbors who have been policed. We have been stopped and frisked. I've been stopped and frisked. We all have been through that experience.

DEMBY: And right before we sat down to talk, he was actually at the White House meeting with Vice President Biden.

MERAJI: A meeting that President Obama crashed.

DEMBY: Yeah, he just apparently just walked in the room. And they ended up talking for two hours about everything. And in that meeting, Thomas said that law enforcement has to do a better job of acknowledging the pain that communities and families go through after high-profile incidents like these happen.

THOMAS: We understand that because that could have been one of our kids, right? And not saying we're justifying the shooting or not justifying the shooting, we are saying that there's a pain there that law enforcement has to acknowledge. And we caused it. Whether or not the person in question was a part of the reason why it happened is irrelevant.

DEMBY: Sure.

THOMAS: We caused the pain. So my point there, in the meeting, was we have to acknowledge the pain. And the president agreed. He called everybody to the table and said we have to walk out of here realizing that if you just went a little bit closer towards acknowledging the pain, things would be better out there.

Of course, others won't say that. I could say it because NOBLE is established as an organization that has been out there on the forefront of these issues for a long time. We're going to stay out there, too. I have no problem doing that. But I - see, acknowledging the pain does not mean that you necessarily are at fault or have culpability. I didn't say that. It's not about liabilities.

It's about you're involved in this and the way we're going to get past this issue we're in right now is leadership from our organizations and from our members that are going to go out there and not allow their partners, who they know are corrupt, who they know are abusing people - black, white, green - I don't care what color they are. If they're abusing people, call them out, set the standard that you're not going to accept that.

If you're a police chief, do the exact same thing. Weed them out. Fire them. Get them off the police force because if you don't, what you'll get is what we have right now - people just being apathetic towards police and not supportive.

DEMBY: Were you alone in that room with the president and the vice president calling for, like, acknowledgment?


DEMBY: Was there anyone else?

THOMAS: No, the entire - the other nine leaders of police organizations were there too.

DEMBY: Did they agree with you?

THOMAS: They shook their head. They shook their head. And I don't know that they agreed with my stance because my stance was not what they were doing. Some of them were trying to, you know, lay the faults of what's going on in this issue on behalf of their members at the feet of the White House. And I wasn't going to do that. You know, I don't care who's in the White House. I'm not doing that because, you know, as I analogized in the meeting, I said you're giving this to an entity that's at 20,000 feet. We're on the tarmac. It's our issue, right, so let's deal with it from here first, right, acknowledge the pain and work on weeding out those members of your organizations that are out there doing this.

Now, again, if you say, you know, 99 percent of the police force that you're in charge of are not corrupt, that may be the reality, but the perception is that it's not true.

DEMBY: Right.

THOMAS: So you have to deal with the perception, not the reality. And I made sure that was clear to them there and I could say it in a different voice because, you know, again, I get it. You know, I'm a Brooklynite, born and raised in Brooklyn, still live in Brooklyn now, right? So to my earlier point about being stopped and frisked, this happened when I was 14 years old.


THOMAS: I mean, it hasn't happened much more as I've been an adult, but in the instance that I'm referring to, I was 14. A friend and I were down in the Delancey Street area, you know, Delancey in lower Manhattan.

DEMBY: LES, right.

THOMAS: Yeah, going shopping for clothes after having gotten that precious Summer Youth Corps check.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah.

THOMAS: You know, we have to go spend that money and buy the latest pants or the latest hat. So we're down near the Williamsburg Bridge, and there's a bus that goes over the bridge that will take you back into Brooklyn where you catch another bus to go further into Brooklyn.

DEMBY: Sure.

THOMAS: So we're - I remember like it was yesterday. We're sitting in this restaurant - I think it was Blimpies, actually - eating a hero, and here comes the bus, right? So the truth of the matter is, you know, I'm an athlete. I was running track and playing football then, so the bus was no match for me. I'm like OK.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

THOMAS: I haven't met a bus to this day I can't catch. So I make the move to catch the bus. And I get there before my buddy, who was a little bit slower and, for the record, much taller than me. If I'm 6'1" now, he's like 6'6". So it's the same kind of, you know, space of height just to give you perspective. So we get to...

DEMBY: Two big, muscular, athletic-like dudes...

THOMAS: Right.

DEMBY: ...Chasing the bus.

THOMAS: There you go.

DEMBY: Yeah.

THOMAS: All right. So we get to the bus. And so I get into the stairwell of the bus. I hear somebody say, hey, you in the blue hat. Step back off the bus.

DEMBY: Is that you?

THOMAS: No, that's my buddy.


THOMAS: Instinctively, I kept going because I, you know, he wasn't talking to me. I didn't know who that was coming from until they said said, hey, you in the brown pants, you too, step down off the bus. And I turn around into a barrel of a gun of a police officer and, you know, an undercover officer at that point, a detective, with their guns drawn. So we backed off the bus and we are then directed to go against the fence. And I tell you, I was a rookie on the mic, as they would say, at that point. I had not been stopped by police or had any contacts wherein my buddy, for whatever reason, had some before. So he's instructing me as I'm - as we instruct young people now, like, how to comport yourself when stopped by police. He's doing that, you know...

DEMBY: What was he saying?

THOMAS: Stay still, my man, don't turn around 'cause I'm asking, like, what are you stopping me for, right? I'm against the fence and I'm saying, what are you stopping us for we? Didn't do anything. We were running for the bus. And actually by coincidence on the bus are people who are saying the exact same things. They saw us running. They were laughing as we're, you know, trying to catch the bus and seeing me get there before he was. And they saw the whole episode going on.

They saw it as a sincere us trying to catch the bus move rather than us doing something criminal. So I'm still, you know, again, trying to gather myself and saying, what do we do, what do we do? And he's telling me you got to stand still, man, 'cause they'll shoot you. You got to be careful, right? So we stand there, they search us, they turn us around and then another vehicle pulls up shortly thereafter where...

DEMBY: Squad car.

THOMAS: Yeah, that's right. It was a marked vehicle. I could recall a marked vehicle pulls up. The two uniformed cops get out, and from the back of the car get out two Jewish men. I say Jewish because they were dressed in orthodox garb. They get out, and the cops ask them is this them, meaning me and my buddy. And they say no. And they get into the police car. The police car pulls off. The detectives pull off. And we're just, like, standing there, like, really?

DEMBY: They didn't acknowledge that they just threw you up against the wall then.

THOMAS: No. They just - they walked away and left us there basically, right? And then, you know, after further investigating, after further, you know, letting my mother know and, you know, the whole issue, we found out that at the same time as we were running for that bus, those two gentlemen that were in the back of the vehicle were in their store a little bit further up. Two men came in there with a gun and robbed the place. OK. So the description was two black guys.

DEMBY: Sure.

THOMAS: So, you know, you do the math - two black guys. We happened to be two black guys. And we're running for the bus and, you know, that made sense. Now, fast forward where I am right now. I get it.

DEMBY: Yeah. I was - I actually wanted to ask you about, like, how you got from that moment to where you are right now.

THOMAS: To that moment, I get why they may want to stop us. I mean, I'm also assuming that the description given by the victims was more than just two black guys. I'm hoping that, you know, in hindsight, there was a description with clothing that made them want to stop us, too. But I also, you know, that notwithstanding, I get it. You may think that we have done something because you just got a radio call that said that somebody got robbed and two black guys did it and they're running. I get that. But you got to tell me that, though. You got to tell me right then when I'm being let go what happened. Explain to me what happened and I might get it then, too. I get it now.

DEMBY: When they do explain it, as you said, when they do say, you know, this is why we stopped you, that doesn't really make people feel better.

THOMAS: Well, you know, what, though, because you're violated no matter how you explain it. But what we know from studies that have been done from - like, Tracey Meares, who's a Ph.D. and a friend of mine from Yale University, did a study on just that, on stops. And it comes down to a term we're using now called procedural justice, right? So to the extent that you have to do that as a police officer given a radio call that says male black wearing a suit like mine with the exact same time, I mean, you know, what's the odds of that? But let's say the radio call is that, you got to stop me, just tell me that, you know, and I'll get it.


MERAJI: Coming up, we talk with a law enforcement leader who's dealing with these issues on the ground, the interim director of police services in Memphis who told us he took some hits for marching with Black Lives Matter protesters last week.

MICHAEL RALLINGS: You know, there are some who are questioning, you know, director, why would you march with Black Lives Matters protesters? Well, the first thing I tell them that I was born black.


DEMBY: A conversation with director Michael Rallings after the break. This is CODE SWITCH.


MERAJI: Thanks for listening CODE SWITCH. And if you'd like more podcast in your ear holes now, check out How To Do Everything. It's a survival guide for all of life's trials and tribulations, like bear attacks, romantic conundrums and romantic bear attacks. There's a chance you'll find it helpful, but you'll definitely enjoy hearing about other people's problems. Find it now at and on the NPR One app.


DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. We're back with our conversation with Michael Rallings.

DEMBY: He's the interim police director in Memphis, Tenn.

MERAJI: He marched arm in arm with protesters last week, and I asked him how he came to that decision.

RALLINGS: Oh, that's a, you know, that's a complicated decision. So let me tell you how we got there. You know, we had what I estimated as a thousand protesters on our bridge, on our I-40 bridge, which was, you know, probably one of the most unsafe situations I've ever been involved in in my 26 years of law enforcement. I asked it, hey guys, we need to get off this bridge. And I appreciate the protesters. You know, they were in the crowd saying, director, we don't want any violence either. And I said, well, let's do this together. And they said, well, you go with us, and we made it happen. So we marched from there all the way to the FedExForum.

DEMBY: So how did the - how did the protestors respond to that?

RALLINGS: This was true negotiation. I think there was mutual respect on both sides. You know - you know, I've been involved in probably every protest that we've had in the city of Memphis since our 1998 KKK rally. You know, I always tell my staff and my officers that it's our job to bring calm and peace to a chaotic situation. Some people may have not thought that was the best idea, but, you know, I can take that hit. We got the bridge open eventually. No one got hurt. You know, no property damage. No one was arrested. And if you look at the bridge today, you'd never know what happened on Sunday night.

MERAJI: So when you say you may have taken some hits for that, what are those hits that you've taken?

RALLINGS: You know, there are some who are questioning, director, why would you walk and march with Black Lives Matters protesters? Well, the first thing I would tell them that I was born black, so I'm an African-American male. I understand some of the frustrations that members in the community have. I'm a career law enforcement official. I taught use of force and firearms. I've taught de-escalation techniques. And so I look at things differently.

MERAJI: Director Rallings, there's no secret there is a longstanding distrust between the black community and law enforcement. And as a black man, I just want to know, why did you become a cop?

RALLINGS: Because I love my community. And I tell you what. The only two things I ever wanted to be in life, one was a service member, an Army guy, and the other one was a police officer. So that's all I've ever known. I think it's one of the most honorable professions that you can do. We never - we don't choose easy jobs. You know, as we were on that bridge the other night, I could see Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala. And I said, my God, I never thought I would be in this situation. So here I am, hand in hand with my deputy director, Mike Ryall, who's a Caucasian man. And we're walking these hundreds of individuals off this bridge and I said, well, I just hope Dr. King is looking down and saying, Mike, good job.

DEMBY: So, Shereen, I had some mixed feelings about that interview.

MERAJI: I know you did.

DEMBY: I thought his invocation of MLK was sort of kumbaya-ish (ph), you know, a little "We Are The World." But, you know, in 1965, when folks in Selma were marching and protesting on a bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by the police.

MERAJI: And, Gene, just over this past weekend, police and protesters clashed in Minnesota. And in Baton Rouge, hundreds were arrested by cops in combat gear. So things could have gone really bad on that bridge in Memphis if Mike Rallings acted the way other departments acted, you know, very recently.

DEMBY: And it would have been on him. Like, you know, he made specific decisions on how to engage with those protesters. It wasn't enough that he was a black police chief. We've seen how in other cities having black police chiefs, black police leadership or officers on the ground doesn't really stop messed up stuff from happening. Three of the officers indicted in Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore, they were black. The man leading that department was black. You know, Newark, N.J...

MERAJI: Yeah, Newark has a very diverse police force and is under federal monitoring after the Justice Department found widespread violations of people's civil rights there.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker spent nearly a year embedded with the police in Newark and produced a documentary with "FRONTLINE" about it. We watched that documentary. One of his friends from Howard University, Ras Baraka, is the mayor there now, and he's been trying to clean things up. And in the documentary, Ras tells Jelani he wants his officers to gather more intelligence and stop randomly searching young black people from the poorest parts of Newark.


RAS BARAKA: That's not how you police. I mean, that right there is racism.

JELANI COBB: But these are black and brown cops.

BARAKA: Yeah, so what?

COBB: It's a diverse police force.

BARAKA: It's not the who did it that make it racism. But to me, is the fact that overwhelmingly it happens to one specific group of people is what makes it racism.

MERAJI: We talked to Jelani by Skype, and he told us there were two main reasons why he wanted to tell this story.

COBB: One is, like, this question that we have now. Like, what does it take to change, to make sure these kind of problems are not happening anymore? And the other is that I was really legitimately interested in seeing the world from the perspective of police because for the last four years now that I have been writing about this issue, with sickening frequency, I've mostly talked to officers after this sort of thing has happened...

DEMBY: Right.

COBB: ...In the wake of disaster. So I wanted to talk to people while they were going about their everyday tasks.

DEMBY: Do you feel like their answers to your questions were satisfying? I'm thinking specifically of that scene - Shereen and I were just talking about this - the scene in which the police yoke up that dude. He was walking...

MERAJI: He was walking home.

DEMBY: They jump out of the car. They grab him. He instinctively pulls away, as you would do, right?

MERAJI: Says don't touch me, please don't touch me.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't touch me, don't touch me, please don't touch me.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm not doing nothing. I'm not doing nothing. Come on, man. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Stop, stop, stop, stop.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: You want to pull away from me, man, you want to get hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: Just cuff him for safety. Cuff him for safety.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I swear to God I didn't resist you.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: Cuff him for safety. Cuff him for safety.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I didn't do nothing.

DEMBY: They throw him on the ground. They handcuff him. They said he shouldn't be resisting arrest, that he should've complied. That's what they kept saying. When you asked one of the - one of their bosses later, we saw it showed in the video, and you're like, do you think that was a good stop? And he was like, it doesn't look good, but it's a good stop. How do you explain that disconnect between the way that looks and the way it looks to them?

COBB: Yeah. He said that he couldn't tell because he didn't see what happened at the beginning and from appearances only it was a bad stop and so on. But, I mean, I think one thing that I realized in the course of this interaction is that the police are very eager for people to recognize that it's very difficult to do their job. And they're saying that unless you do this job, you don't know what it's like. And, you know, that's something that you hear from officers frequently.

At the same time, I think that the officers were often incapable of considering what it was like to be on the opposite side of an interaction with them. So, you know, we've had time and again where you'd see those, you know, aggressive stops. They say, well, you shouldn't back away. We're police.


COBB: You know, why are you reacting this way?

MERAJI: Which is strange to me because these are officers of color who some of them grew up in this neighborhood.

COBB: Yeah, it was shocking because, you know, the police force is majority black and brown. But that didn't seem to enter the equation. And the other thing that happened was a kind of after-the-fact reasoning. If you saw someone who you believed was suspicious, and then you searched them, as opposed to drawing the conclusion that perhaps they were not suspicious or perhaps you made a mistake, the presumption was - well, this person must have dumped whatever contraband they had, you know, just before I searched them.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: They were involved in something. I mean, it might have been fairly minor, but it was something.

COBB: That kind of infallibility means that you can never kind of conceive of having made a mistake. And I think it's a very dangerous place. This is dangerous for any institutions that function that way - typically, one that has the capacity to use lethal force.

DEMBY: It struck me, watching the documentary, that, you know, this is a black city with black political leadership, black and brown city council members. It struck me - the extent to which the cops are their own distinct political constituency that has to be sort of assuaged and whose fears have to be allayed. You can't just come in and say, we're going to do things differently.

COBB: It's interesting because I talked to Alicia Garza about this. And, you know, she's...

DEMBY: Alicia Garza from Black Lives Matter?

COBB: ...From Black Lives Matter, right. She's one of the founders of that movement. And she is a labor organizer. That's what she does - her full-time job. And she's very much a pro-labor person. And I pointed out to her the irony that the biggest obstacle that they encounter, in terms of meaningful reform in policing, is a very powerful union.

Fraternal Order of Police, in most cities, wheels a great deal of influence. And if you saw the conversation I had with the president of the Newark FOP, you saw that he was not really willing to relent on anything.

MERAJI: That was James Stewart, right?

COBB: (Unintelligible) ...Any problems. James Stewart - yeah.


COBB: And so at one point - we didn't include this in the film. But one point - I said, you know, the DOJ has come in and found that there were systemic problems in Newark. And I said, really, how many officers are on the force here who should not be on the force here? And he said none. There are teams that win the World Series and still make trades in the offseason.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Right.

COBB: But no institution functions that with that level of perfection. But that kind of denial is, you know, one of the biggest obstacles there.

MERAJI: And one thing that James Stewart said was, I'm a fourth generation cop here. And we are under so much scrutiny now that we can't do our jobs the way we're supposed to.


JAMES STEWART: When you got the cop out there in the street facing all this negative opposition day in and day out, does there come a point when the police officer's going to say, hey, you know what? Maybe he doesn't have to go to jail. Maybe I'll take the path of least resistance. Maybe I'll put the blinders on as I'm driving by the corner where the ten guys are hanging out. You know, is that what the community wants, too?

COBB: That's a kind of ongoing thing. And we saw that, even in New York when there were concerns around Eric Garner. And, you know, police were kind of saying, well, you'll have to either take this kind of policing or you won't take any of it, which is - I mean, it's almost, like, unparalleled.

It's like if we say to doctors, well, we have this standard for malpractice. And, you know, you're not allowed to do this with patients. And it's like, oh, well, I just won't operate at all. But, you know, you have a public trust. And you have a pension and a salary. And the state has trusted you with the capacity to end the lives of other citizens.

Like, it's giving you that much authority. And a concomitant, you know, level of oversight should come with that. I don't think there's any reason to bristle at that. But, you know, certainly, we've seen that happen, not just in, you know, Newark or New York. We've seen that line of argument in lots of places.

DEMBY: There's a moment in the "FRONTLINE" episode in which you are explaining to these two police officers, who were both officers of color, about your first encounter with the police when you were a teenager. You were coming home, you had a baseball uniform on - a bat, a glove. And you got, like, yoked up by a cop who threw you against a mailbox.

COBB: Yeah.

DEMBY: And you told them of another experience you had in which you were with your boys and a cop drew his gun on you all...

COBB: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...And asked you to sit down or asked you to...

COBB: To get on the sidewalk.

DEMBY: Right.

COBB: We're walking, like, on the edge of the street.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: He pulled out his weapon to make you comply with whatever he needed you to do at the time for his safety and other officers' safety - even for your own safety.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: You could point your weapon at somebody and give them commands to comply. Once you feel like the threat's neutralized, like, you know, they're complying with you, then you put your weapon away and, you know, you...

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Have a normal interaction.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: Have a normal interaction.

COBB: Can you really have a normal interaction if someone's pointed a gun at you? I don't...

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: You got to look at it our way. I mean, they said there was five, six males. And one of them possibly has a weapon. What would you do as a police officer? You encounter a group of males. One supposedly has a weapon on him. How would you confront the situation?

DEMBY: So I'm curious. Like, having had that experience with police - and you spent all this time with the police in Newark for this. Like, how did those two things inform each other?

COBB: It really depended on who I was talking to and on what day I talked to them. So I talked with one officer who worked homicide and whose son had been a victim of homicide in Newark. And his death remained unsolved. And so she was going to communities and knocking on doors and telling people that their loved one was not going to be coming home.

And she understood more than people could recognize what it felt like to be on the other side of that. And, you know, you go through that saying, as horrific as - experience that that is, I'm glad this person is doing this work.

And, you know, then, on the other hand, I would talk to people who I just think didn't get it - that did not seem to recognize that based upon any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution, you can't simply treat everyone that you encounter as a suspect with impunity. And, you know, there was some people who you talked to. And you got the impression that you definitely did not want to be pulled over by that person.

DEMBY: Right.

COBB: So it really was kind of a mixed bag.

MERAJI: One thing that I noticed Ras Baraka brought up a couple of times in the documentary was that - I'm dealing with issues that are bigger than police culture.


BARAKA: And then you've got generational poverty, generational unemployment. This building has been vacant for 30, 40 years. So they didn't just get vacant when I became the mayor.

MERAJI: Did you find it frustrating to have to tell this story and not be able to get into those other issues?

COBB: Yeah. It's kind of like a ball of yarn. Like, where do you start, you know...


COBB: ...To unravel it. And no, one of the things that I've said - and, you know, people have been taken aback when I say it at first - is that it's entirely possible that we place too much emphasis on policing, even though we see these spectacular incidents and we see these, like, horrific things that happen.

We certainly should be concerned about policing. But the problem is not policing. The problem is the status - the overall status of the people - who are being policed and their relationship to lots of other institutions. So we see, in a horrific and public fashion, the yield of bad police work.

We don't see the yield of bad educational systems in the same way. We don't see the yield of poor housing, of lack of employment options or poor healthcare - of all the kind of institutional failures that happen in many of the communities that we're talking about. And so therefore, we say, well, how can we fix policing? And it's overwhelming to say, how can we fix the overall relationship of this entire group of people to the society in which they live?

DEMBY: Jelani, thank you so much for doing this. I know it's been a lot of time.

COBB: Yeah, thank you.

MERAJI: Thanks, Jelani.

DEMBY: That was Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker. His PBS "FRONTLINE" documentary is called "Policing The Police."

MERAJI: You need to watch it.

DEMBY: Yeah, you really do.

MERAJI: It's so good.

DEMBY: Yeah, it's really, really good. All right. That wraps up this week's episode of CODE SWITCH. Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors are Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja.

MERAJI: And a special shoutout to the CODE SWITCH squad that put in work on this episode.

DEMBY: Yes, sir.

MERAJI: Thank you, Leah Donnella, Haili Blassingame and Ericka Cruz Guevarra.

DEMBY: You can find us on Twitter @NPRCodeSwitch. Subscribe to our podcast. And we want to hear from you. Email us at We're back next week. Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.