Part 3: DJ Henry And The Police Response

By Phillip Martin

Oct. 19, 2011

BOSTON — Some police experts say that police forces around the country—from Westchester County, N.Y., where DJ Henry was killed, to Los Angeles, which has had its own share of questionable police shootings over the years — needto train officers to de-escalate conflicts and increase sensitivity to racial stereotypes. 

Jack Cole has 27 years of service with the New Jersey State Police. He said policing in that state had a history of troubled race relations. “If you read anything about police you know that if we didn’t create racial profiling, we certainly raised it to a high art form,” he said. In 1998, the New Jersey State Police was investigated by the U.S. Justice Department. The department concluded that the state had engaged in a pattern and practice of flagrant and massive civil rights violations.

“My superintendent called in all of our best racial profilers from the toll roads and the interstate roads and brought them down to headquarters, and they made one unit out of them called the Interdiction Unit,” said Cole. “You didn’t even have to be a racist cop to participate in this because this myth gets created. Cops stop mainly black people. Because they stop mainly black people, it’s mainly black people that get arrested. It’s self-perpetuating.”

Henry siblings
DJ Henry and his siblings. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Cole believes that racially charged shootings like those of DJ Henry in Westchester County and Eurie Stamps in Framingham, Mass., occur because police are trained to fight an enemy. Officers’ education is “training them to go to war instead of training them to be community policemen,” Cole said.

Patti DeRosa, a Boston-area race relations trainer whose clients include Massachusetts police departments, does an exercise with cops where she hands out photos of unknown people of various skin colors and ethnicities.

“I just say, 'Pretend you’re a casting director. I want you to cast this person in a movie. What role do you think they would be believable in by the public?'” she said.

Asians are often cast as computer whizzes or martial artists and Latinos as drug lords. Yet, DeRosa said, most police and cadets are still quick to say they have no prejudices. 

“Most offense happens from internalized stereotypes. The officers in their hearts may truly believe this had nothing to do with it, and in fact may not want race to have anything to do with it. That doesn’t mean that that overreaction doesn’t get triggered because of those stereotypes. It’s like pollution in the air, these biases. We all inhale them,” she said.

DeRosa cited the DJ Henry police shooting as an example. “I challenge anyone to come up with a story of black police officers accidentally shooting a white kid,” she said. “We even hear about black officers being shot at in the line of duty and it’s white officers shooting black officers. You don’t hear about the inverse. So there’s some dynamic of the stereotype that kicks in.”

Mabel Lam, a Massachusetts police psychologist, agreed with Cole and DeRosa that training is a problem.

“They’re trained to shoot or be shot at,” she said. “And so sometimes they may overreact.”

Lam thought psychologists could make a difference by conducting screening to identify the police candidates and current officers “who are so-called not suitable.”

Many law enforcers themselves have come to believe that police training in general must be altered to increase sensitivities and foster better relations between the police and people of color. The police commissioner and the district attorney for Westchester County, N.Y., declined to comment for this story on any aspect of the DJ Henry case. But police departments across the Northeast seem well aware of the DJ Henry controversy.

Dan Zivkovich is executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee. He said Massachusetts’ six-month, 800-hour training period for new police officers was created to prevent the very kind of situation that may have led to the death of DJ Henry, whose family lives in Easton, Mass., about 25 miles from Boston.

“No officer wants to use deadly force because the consequences are far-reaching. It’s not just the person who has died and it’s not just their family. It impacts officers and their families as well,” he said.

The trainers try to set the tone of these discussions by emphasizing the country's founding values. Zivkovich said, "We let them know that the Constitution was built to constrain police because our forefathers had a distrust for police-type actions because of the way they’d been treated.”

Tommy Parks is a ninth-grade U.S. history teacher in the Boston Public Schools. He teaches his students the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He is also the stepfather of Brandon Cox, who was sitting in the front passenger seat of the car when Officer Aaron Hess opened fire on DJ Henry. Cox was wounded. Parks’ students have followed the case closely.

“I tell them the Constitution is the best thing walking, and they know they have all these rights that are guaranteed under the law. But they still can’t figure out how do your rights get usurped or violated when you have so many guarantees,” Parks said. And he doesn’t have an answer for them. “That part sort of leaves me in a quandary because you know that Brandon and DJ didn’t get equal treatment. That’s not how you treat everyday citizens and it’s not how you treat human beings,” he said.

“What the DJ Henry incident confirms is if you’re a person of color you are endangered when you dispute a police officer’s command,“ said Lisa Thurau. She is the executive director of Strategies for Youth, which trains police nationwide how to deal effectively with young people, especially kids of color.

She said that police are in a unique position because their mistakes have heavy consequences. Therefore, she said, “I would think that it’s time for some police academies to reconsider the amount of time spent in physical tactical performance duties and increase the amount of time spent in communication and de-escalation efforts.”

Massachusetts law enforcement officials are listening.

Zivkovich said, “What we’ve recognized is that in the past we’ve mis-guided our officers because we focused too much on power and authority and not focused enough on legitimacy, cooperation, trust and respect. And so in progress right now are new curricula to really try to drive this home. The second part to that is looking for the people who can carry this forward.”

How these lessons are applied will be the true test of the efficacy of police hiring, training and procedures in the aftermath of the shooting death of DJ Henry. In the coda to our series, we look at the role of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is now investigating this case.

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