Former Houston mayor provides insight in race relations and policing

Police chiefs, politicians, protestors and everyday people are all searching for the answer to ‘How do we erase the hate?’

Houston’s first black mayor was also the top cop in three different cities and he may have the answer. Mayor Lee Brown says getting police officers to treat everyone equally really comes down to one simple concept, community policing. “It’s about getting to know people and building relationships”.

Mayor Brown has made history all over the country since becoming a police officer 60 years ago. "I joined in 1960 in the San Jose Department. I was the second black to join that department and things weren’t easy.”

In fact, at that time not only were black citizens treated less than, so were black police officers. "I can recall going to calls where someone called for the police, I show up and they tell me I want a real police officer."

Mayor Brown went on to head the police departments in New York City, Atlanta and was the first black chief here in Houston before becoming the Bayou City’s first black Mayor.

As top cop, he started Community Policing and other departments have followed including as far away as South Africa.

“It’s been implemented in one way or another all over the world, not just the United States. I took that concept to New York and after one year of implementation crime went down in all index categories. By the way, when I was Commissioner in New York my office overlooked the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge and one day I thought about the people telling me they wanted a 'real police officer' here I am I’ve got 30,000 police officers working for me. Maybe now I am a real police officer.”

Not only a real police officer he was also appointed Drug Czar by President Bill Clinton.

"He wanted to put 100,000 more police officers on the street and I told him it’s not how many police officers you have on the streets but how you use those police officers".

Mayor Brown says community policing is the answer to erasing the hate because officers are stationed in one area of town and build relationships with the community they're patrolling by car and on foot and get to know the people. “You find it very difficult to kill somebody if you know them". 

Brown believes community policing begins before an officer ever makes it on the force, weeding out anyone with racial bias using psychological evaluations.

“You ask yourself who do you want to hire to be a police officer under community policing? The answer is someone in the spirit of service not the spirit of adventure,” and he says less police training should be spent on how to enforce the law. "I want to see them trained to be problem solvers. I want them trained to understand cultural differences.”

Mayor Brown started a number of Police Positive Interaction Programs such as Ministers Against Crime "because pastors are leaders in their community” and his programs included the youth.

For instance, his officers coached youngsters in community sports. Brown remembers the first group of kids.

"I brought them all together and asked them how many of you want to be a police officer and not one hand went up. I went back a few months later every hand went up”.

So how do we stop blacks from being disproportionately killed by cops? Mayor Brown says by holding officers accountable when they are wrong.

“When it happens everyone should be upset about it and the officers involved should be treated like anyone else. If you commit a murder, try that person as a murderer”. 

Mayor Brown says you also have to have diverse departments, intervene when an officer has repeated complaints, have a reward system for the absence of crime, not just for big arrests and make sure officers are trained to be problem solvers.

“The history of policing started with Sir Robert Peel in England where he created the 1,000 man Metropolitan Police Department and he created the police department as peacekeepers. That’s what we must get back to.”

Mayor Brown explains it in-depth in his book, “Policing in the 21st Century”. 

NOBLE, the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives was started by Brown in the 1970s and continues to this day.

He says having a support system is crucial and collaborating with churches and civic groups goes a long way in successful policing.

“It’s a good combination when people and police are working together to achieve a better city by having better communities."