Ways offered to help heal rift between Miami blacks, police

One of the backdrops to the recent violence in this city is the soured relations between police and the black community. In addition to a number of cases often cited here of alleged brutalities by white police against blacks, there is day-to-day bitterness between many blacks and many police.

From the blacks' point of view, the police use too much force, act too "tough ," and lack "respect" in dealing with them.

But from the police point of view, toughness often is necessary in dealing with suspected criminals. The problem, some police here admit, is that the toughness tends to slip over into their relations with law-abiding blacks.

Two Miami police psychologists say the problem is compounded by racism among police officers, inadequate training, and inadequate support by their superiors. Some additional training is being considered.

But the two psychologists credit the Miami police for their restraint during the two days and nights of riots in black neighborhoods that left 16 persons dead and more than 150 buildings burned or looted.

"Our contact in the black community 99 percent of the time is with the hoodlum element," Sgt. Nelson Perry of the Metropolitan Dade County (which includes Miami) Public Safety Department told the Monitor. "Then, when you run upon the legitimate citizen, you end up treating him the same way."

Sergeant Perry calls Liberty City, the black community most torn by the riots , "one of the most dangerous ghetto areas in the country."

Jerry Kuffner, a police officer who covers Liberty City, says: "If you're not tough, you will not be able to do your job out there." But, he adds: "The ones we give a hard time to are the ones who give us a hard time."

What makes the area one of high crime, some say, are overcrowded, low-income apartments, poverty, and lack of jobs and job training -- problems that local black leaders say must be addressed with more urgency in the wake of the riots.

Most of the city and county police operating in black communities here are white.The hiring of more black police officers is another objective of local black leaders.

Some white police "play the game" of being racist, while others truly are, says W. Parke Fitzhugh Jr., a consulting psychologist to the Dade County police. Rarely, he says, do white police have the opportunity to meet blacks as individuals while not on duty. And most of their on-duty contacts are negative, he says.

But Dr. Fitzhugh and Dade County police officer William Garrison, an assistant for psychological services, see an even more basic problem than racial stereotypes: how police deal with their own fears.

"You get into those [housing] projects at night and the fear factor skyrockets," says officer Garrison. "You've got your adrenalin pumping. You're geared up for the big game.

Both psychologists counsel officers to admit such fears rather than trying to supress them and ending up exploding later in rage.

Ernie Vanattia, a Miami police officer about to leave the force for quieter work in forestry, told the Monitor that one night "I put my fist through the door; there was so much pressure building up."

Says Officer Garrison: "People want to see police as above human." All the while, he says, the officer is thinking: "I've got to survive today because I don't want my wife to be a widow. I want to see my kids grow up."

The Dade County police department is planning to offer additional stress-handling training for management late next month. The department also is considering a 10-day crash course for officers in black culture, similar to a course it held recently on Spanish-speaking culture in Miami.

The department also is seeking to assign more black officers to black neighborhoods, says Dr. Fitzhugh.

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