There’s no doubt that serving as a law enforcement officer in most parts of modern America is an extremely difficult and often thankless job, or that many of those who serve are good people doing fine work.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that our nation is mired in a terrible vicious cycle right now in which people of color – usually, but not always, young men – are being repeatedly and wrongfully killed or terrorized by white cops.
The recent killing of Andrew Brown Jr. by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies – just days after the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant – is just the latest in what seems like a never-ending series.
And while it’s true that human beings make mistakes – sometimes tragic ones – we’re not hearing many stories of officers of color wrongfully killing or terrorizing white victims.
Of course, there is an explanation for this. The hard and undeniable truth is that this cycle of police violence targeting Black and brown Americans is nothing new; it’s as old as the nation. What’s changed in recent years to make it into a phenomenon that’s finally captured the world’s attention, and that might just spur important systemic change, is technology.
As researcher Nicol Turner Lee wrote in an essay for Brookings last year:
With the long history in America of violence against Black people, the ubiquity of video recordings has recast the narrative surrounding police violence and heightened public concerns about law enforcement…. Rather than having to take the word of African Americans over the police, people can see the violence for themselves and demand justice.”
Thanks to the existence of body camera footage from the Brown shooting, it looks like we will soon know a lot more about what seems from a distance to have been, at the very least, the highly questionable (and quite possibly criminal) decision of officers to shoot Brown in his car. The fact that three deputies have already resigned in the aftermath of the incident and that attorneys for the Brown family termed the killing “an execution” after seeing the footage, only bolsters this conclusion.
But whatever ultimately happens to the officers responsible in the Brown case – or the Wright case of the Bryant case – will obviously not produce a situation that amounts to “justice.” As Dawn Blagrove, the executive director of the group Emancipate NC put it in a powerful statement released after the Chauvin verdict was rendered:
Seeing this murderer spend the remainder of his natural life in a cage solves nothing. He will not magically become a decent human being. He will likely never see that he was not ENTITLED to kill a Black man. Prison does not create justice.”
Defund the police?
So how do we begin to establish a truly just response to this intolerable situation?
Ultimately, remedying centuries of systematic racial oppression and injustice will require many decades of sustained effort on an array of fronts, but one obvious initial solution is to undertake a rapid and thorough overhaul of how America delivers law enforcement.
Simply put, we must, if not literally and completely “defund the police,” cause major shifts in what we fund and prioritize in the criminal justice system.
- Establishing new teams of community safety professionals who are trained and skilled in crisis management and mental health to respond to a wide variety of situations to which we now dispatch armed officers;
- Decriminalizing a long list of minor nonviolent offenses (most notably, drug possession) that now serve as the grounds (and sometimes the pretext) used by officers to detain and arrest people;
- Putting in place new and enforceable rules to limit the situations in which officers can use force against members of the community and guarantee transparency when it occurs;
- A big new commitment to improved hiring and training programs designed to assure that law enforcement officers embrace the proper values, understand things like implicit bias, and have the skills to de-escalate crises;
- Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline by replacing so-called “school resource officers” with an influx of counselors and psychologists;
- Ending prosecutor abuses like racist jury selection tactics;
- Depopulating our prisons and jails by ending cash bail and rethinking the systems of punishment and rehabilitation we employ toward individuals who commit serious offenses; and
- Tackling the America’s unique and disastrous gun violence epidemic (and maybe making a lot of law enforcement officers feel a little safer) by enacting common sense safety laws.
The bottom line: The current, sickening cycle of police violence may not actually be new. And, as with a lot of other dreadful things we’ve long swept under the rug in this nation, we cannot undo the harm it has caused. But it’s long past time, once and for all, to stop the killing.