The public debate on police violence against black people in New York has been deadlocked for over a century due to entrenched ideas, victimization, harmful communication strategies and rigid attitudes among both the police and their critics, who do not pay sufficient heed to the broader history of the police. The deadlock can only be broken if both sides take a more open stance in the debate. Their current ways of communicating will only lead to more police violence. This is what communication expert Michelle Knight, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 29 June, has to say. Her conclusions contain lessons that can also be applied to other entrenched debates like the one surrounding Zwarte Piet. ‘Communication research focuses too little on the history of that communication, which makes for a one-dimensional picture.’
In November 2006 the New York police shot and killed a 23-year-old black man, Sean Bell, on the night before his wedding after he failed to stop for the police. Although Bell was unarmed, the police thought that he and his two friends were armed and opened fire on the three, firing 50 shots in total. The incident, which led to heated debate about the NYPD and protest marches with slogans such as ‘50 shots’ and ‘I am Sean Bell’, is examined in detail in Knight’s research. She shows that the police and their critics have diametrically opposed thought patterns that determine how they view the incident and its follow-up and preclude any reconciliation.
Both groups have enough strength to win a battle but not the war. The result is bitter trench warfare with the odd casualty. When Knight visited New York years ago she was fascinated by the sustained heated discussion: ‘It struck me how completely polarized the debate was, which meant that each incident played into the hands of both sides.’
The cause of this stalemate can be traced back to historical developments since the NYPD’s establishment in 1845. In the historical part of her research Knight concludes that right from its inception the NYPD could count on little credit from the public. ‘As a topic, the police are a useful vehicle for political debate. Anyone can project their opinions and prejudices onto them, thus causing the discussion to flare up once again. All the criticism caused it to become an inward-looking organization that was convinced of its own right.’
Both sides have made errors in the debate, says Knight. The critics should acknowledge that they regularly use the police as a scapegoat for broader issues for which the police do not bear prime responsibility. In her opinion, this hard style of communication has a negative effect on the cop on the street, only causing him to demand more respect. The media does not look to uncover the real arguments but instead looks at the emotions and contrasts. The history of the civil rights movement has dominated the general perception of such incidents, and too little attention is paid to the wider history of the police. On the other hand, the police should be much less defensive and distant in their communication: ‘By going on the defensive they confirm prevailing opinion that there are significant problems that the police want to hide. This communication also has its repercussions, because the police bump into their critics on the street. This defensive take only increases tensions.’
Knight believes that both sides have an interest in improving their communication processes. ‘In the short term it may seem an attractive option to score points by criticizing the police, but in the long term a debate that involves leaving the trenches may lead the NYPD to adopt a different stance, and that’s what everyone wants, isn’t it?’
Michelle E. Knight (Luxembourg, 1978) read American Studies at the University of Groningen. She then chose to go into communication and now works as a speechwriter and online consultant at the Netherlands Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. The title of her doctoral thesis is Cops, Critics and Confrontation: The public debate on police violence in New York and its historical roots. Her supervisors are Professor G. Redeker and Professor D.F.J. Bosscher.
Michelle Knight, mknight.nl[at]gmail.com
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