Many people are in mourning right now. They are mourning the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men who were recently killed by police officers. They are mourning the police officers killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge. They are mourning the fact that nobody is facing an indictment in the death of Freddie Gray. But as many young people of color seek alternatives to policing within their communities as a result of these injustices, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray is fighting for more representative police forces — as well as pertinent legislation — that would prevent future tragedies like those of the past few weeks.
A black woman herself, McCray has frequently defended the Black Lives Matter network alongside her husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio. They have both lauded BLM as being a "force for good" as it transforms national discussions about race. But in a city where the broken windows theory — which espouses a tough-on-crime approach — has not completely faded out of people's minds, what can politicians do to challenge police brutality even as they insist that black lives do matter?
McCray proposes some solutions that focused on three specific areas: community policing, mental health, and gun control. In her calls for more representative police forces, McCray also cites studies illustrating that female police officers are better equipped to defuse potentially violent crisis situations before they become deadly.
"Having cops that are representative of a community they’re charged with protecting — when people think about this, they think in terms of ethnicity, and don’t reflect on the fact that most police forces are overwhelmingly male. Yet women, who are more than half the population, could make a big difference in police culture," McCray says. "Women are also brought up differently. They are encouraged to connect, encouraged to nurture, they’re encouraged to be a force for deescalating and mediating. All of these things, women actually bring into the equation, which would be so helpful at times in like this in our culture."
McCray tells Bustle that the New York Police Department has committed to making its forces more representative of the communities they are supposed to serve, explaining that 20 percent of the incoming class of officers are women and 57 percent reside in the city itself. The First Lady also says the NYPD has instituted an implicit bias training, and is working on diversifying its leadership as well as its forces.
"Women, who are more than half the population, could make a big difference in police culture."
But policing itself is not all that needs to change, argues McCray. A longtime advocate for the expansion of mental health services, McCray says that Congress needs to pass legislation that would expand treatment for, rather than criminalize, mental illness. She says that there is nowhere you can go where people aren't affected by mental illness, whether directly or indirectly, yet they don't have enough services. Most people with mental health issues aren't violent, McCray argues, and are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.
But, McCray says, "untreated mental illness does not get better. It can become more serious and we’re asking too much of our officers ... if we want them to be social workers in addition to everything else they’re doing. We’re dismissing the needs of our families at a time when we actually have the tools and treatments that can prevent so much frustration, so much tragedy. What are we waiting for?"
To reiterate: Violence cannot and should not automatically be attributed to mental illness, because doing so further stigmatizes mental health while also eliminating a lot of necessary nuance from these discussions. So in light of all the recent shootings — of people of color and of police officers — McCray also points out that something needs to be done about gun violence. "Does anyone really think guns for everyone is going to make us safe at this point given all that’s happened in the last weeks?" she asks. "I don’t think so."
While the NYPD and other police forces around the country might be taking steps to dismantle systems in place that enable racist police brutality, it should not be surprising that many people of color are seeking alternatives to policing in their communities. McCray says that's "a good thing, it’s a healthy thing," and it's not a new phenomenon in her city, where the two-year anniversary of Eric Garner's death at the hands of police came to pass on Sunday. But even as more and more people are turning inward for safety, police departments like the NYPD still exist, and she's determined that they take steps in the right direction.
"On our police forces, we have Muslims, we have black people, we have Latinos and again, NYPD is really committed to making that happen — not just in the force, but in leadership," McCray says. "And that’s the direction we have to move in, no matter what."