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Trent Lott: Leading the way to better policing for African-Americans

By Adam Walinsky
web posted December 23, 2002

Trent Lott's most enduring legacy may turn out to be a lasting improvement of American policing, with special importance for black citizens.

Police are important to the entire society. But their work -- good and bad, for better and worse -- has a vital impact on the lives of the poor, especially racial and ethnic minorities. For the poor, the police are the principal social service agency. In the ghettoes of every great city, minority citizens call the police when there is violence on the street or the boiler is broken. They call the police to mediate and adjudicate family quarrels: between man and wife, mothers and children, mothers and grandmothers, and constantly between boyfriend and girlfriend. The police are called when there are idle young men lounging unwanted on the corner, or when an idle young man is lounging unwanted at his parent's home. The police respond when the TV is too loud or a child is abused, when fighting fills the playground and when garbage fills the hall. Poor people call the police for a simple reason, which marks them off from all other social workers: when you call them, they come.

The police must establish and maintain peace in precarious neighborhoods. So they make arrests for crimes, whether committed by hardened felons or by first offenders not yet in their teens. Most often they do this well. But there are also times, in the dark alleys, sweating with fear and its handmaiden anger, out of condition and scantily trained, they erupt in spasms of violence, swinging sticks and spraying chemicals, and sometimes shooting when their better judgment tells them ever after they should have left the gun in the holster. And the result of their diligent efforts is that after a decade of "community policing," America doubled the number of persons in prison, from 1 million in 1990 to 2 million in 2000. A hundred and fifty years after the 15th Amendment, one third of black adult men are ineligible to vote by virtue of a previous felony conviction.

It is out of these circumstances that riots have time and again roiled across cities, creating a cascade of fear and distaste, venom and resentment, that divides us racially for years thereafter.

All this Trent Lott has worked diligently and with great determination to help change. For over a decade, he has been the foremost champion in Congress of the Police Corps. The Police Corps is ROTC for the police: the federal government pays for the college education of young people who agree to spend six months in the toughest and most demanding training, and then serve four years on patrol with a state or local police department.

The Police Corps is bringing to this vital work a new group of idealistic, educated young people, passing up far more lucrative work in the private sector to help serve and protect their fellow citizens. The Police Corps is also pioneering changes in police training and performance that were previously undreamt of. Here are just two examples.

Police Corps officers are taught that their primary mission is not to increase the number of arrests but to decrease it: to find ways to turn young people away from crime and violence rather than wait for them to go wrong. To this end, they spend more hours in their training working with at-risk youth, mentoring and teaching and befriending them, than are usually spent teaching police to drive and shoot (the core of most police training).

Police Corps officers also train long, rigorous hours learning to arrest and control resisting subjects without beating them, without sticks and sprays, and without unnecessary shooting. These techniques are powerful and extremely effective, but they are not brutal and (unlike most police techniques) they do not depend on causing pain. Training of this kind was urgently requested by rank and file police officers, but never created until the advent of the Police Corps.

Now it is spreading to advanced police departments generally: in just one year, retraining just the first one-third of its officers, the Baltimore Police Department has reduced citizen complaints that police have used force brutally or abusively by 32 percent.

Trent LottThis kind of program does not easily attract support in the Congress. It is small (no great contracts), it challenges established practice (Congress is leery of innovation), above all it is new. It lives and breathes because time and again, year in and out, Trent Lott made remarkable efforts to protect it: confronting unsympathetic or hostile appropriators, shooing off officious bureaucrats at the Department of Justice, making sure at every turn that it had the room and support a new program needs to begin its life. Along the way he mocked every cliched notion of his character.

Was he a partisan? He worked eagerly and cooperatively not only with moderate Republicans like lead sponsor Arlen Specter and then-leader Bob Dole, but year in and year out with the most forthright Democrats, with John Lewis, Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Joe Biden and George Mitchell. He confronted the Justice Department of his own Administration when they attempted to cut states from the Police Corps program. I came to him seeking support for the Police Corps as a Robert Kennedy Democrat, and so I remain; he has never shown me anything but respect and friendship.

Was he unduly conservative? I believe the Police Corps is deeply conservative of human values, but in many of its principles and actions it must be thought of as liberal, and the changes it seeks are radical. Trent Lott took every such change in stride, and supported and even stimulated every innovation.

Was he unwilling to support reasonable extensions of federal power? Some are reflexively opposed to any federal activity like the Police Corps, seeing policing as an exclusively local area. Trent Lott understood and easily championed this federal effort to improve local policing, to offer a model for the elimination of police abuses.

Was he intolerant? He pushed and always supported the Police Corps program in his own state of Mississippi, which of all our programs, is the most searching and deep in its determination to face the racial horrors of the past. Mississippi law enforcers were for decades direct participants in racial oppression, violence and murder. The Mississippi Police Corps from the first spent many hours showing its trainees what that state's police had done in the past, and what they must now do to overcome that heritage. Without excuse, without deception or pretence, the Mississippi Police Corps has faced the history of race and state-sponsored terrorism against black citizens as no police training program before it.

Finally was he political or self-seeking? In thirteen years of supporting and helping to sustain the Police Corps -- from its first introduction in 1989, through its enactment in 1994, the securing of its first funding in 1995, and its implementation since then -- in all that time, he never issued a press release, claimed credit, or ever asked for anything in return, save that the program do its very best.

Trent Lott may have come to the end of his Leadership. But his small-l leadership in police reform will last a lot longer.

Adam Walinsky, considered to be the founder of the Police Corps, was an aide to the late Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) in the United States Senate.

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