Annie Wang / Sun Staff Photographer

The documentary, "Policing the Police," was filmed based on Cobb's investigation of the Newark Police Department.

May 6, 2018

2018 Pulitzer Finalist Dissects Police Violence Through ‘Gang Unit’ Shadowing Experience

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Prof. Jelani Cobb, journalism, Columbia University, criticized police violence and dissected the different relationships between people of color and law enforcement officials in the 2018 Krieger Lecture in American Political Culture on Thursday.

Cobb, who was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, said that the media and the government have been responding to police brutality in a predictable and underreacting way, like a “type of cyclical event.”

“We can tell that there is a script that tends to be played out. There is the initial action, there is a shock and reaction among people of the community,” Cobb said. “There is generally an administrative attempt to downplay the egregious elements of the story and then there is a series of bureaucratic and administrative policies that generally do not culminate in a criminal or civil penalty for this loss of life.”

Cobb, who shadowed the “gang unit” of Newark Police Department in 2015 to film the documentary Policing the Police, said that there is “a phenomenal tolerance for violence … as it relates to the police.”

According to the documentary, the task force employed a method of “field inquiry” on Newark’s most dangerous streets in which officers stop, search and frisk residents based on what unit members described as “just knowing” the residents’ criminality, often in the absence of any specific evidence against them.

According to a 2014 Department of Justice report and Cobb’s commentary in the documentary, “the Newark Police Department was stopping people without reasonable suspicion 75 percent of the time.”

Cobb resisted calling the police force a “uniquely racist” sector but said “the consequences of policing are uniquely dangerous.”

“The mechanisms of policing essentially have been to police by race wherein your skin color becomes the basis of what makes you suspicious and that can be rationalized in the name of keeping you safe,” Cobb explained.

On the same note, Cobb said that people of color see the police differently from white people, who have “the option of seeing the police as the solution, as the cure for a problem” whereas minorities “tend to see police as a treatment for the problem, and sometimes the side effects of the treatment are worse than the problem itself.”

According to Cobb, while shadowing the force, he saw officers take unregistered guns off the streets but also witnessed innocent pedestrians wrestled to the ground in fear.

“It’s clear to me that there’s no trust. That’s what happens when everyone assumes the worst of everyone else,” Cobb said.

Among the many snapshots of police violence showed at the lecture, Cobb identified the Rodney King video of 1992 as one of the most important events in inciting shock and reflection. The video, with its display of unrestrained police brutality, in part, inspired the adoption of the 1994 crime bill, which instituted a Department of Justice process for police regulation, according to Cobb.

The adoption of the “consent decree” program that allows DOJ to investigate police practices and mandate reform, Cobb explained, initiated a method of “common regulation” and “quality control” for the nation’s nearly 18,000 police forces. “The hope is to overcome a historic lack of transparency,” said Cobb of the measure.

Cobb said that the issue of police violence on the black community originates from the nation’s foundational questions of citizenship. More specifically, the relationship between African-Americans and law enforcement began with the slave revolts and in the “extra-legal execution of people after the end of slavery,” Cobb explained.

“The first step toward fixing the police system requires that we lift up that rock and look at what’s under it,” Cobb added.