1 in 5 Americans interacts with law enforcement yearly. Of those encounters, 1 million result in use of force. And if you’re Black, you are 2-4 times more likely to have force used than if you are White.
The death of unarmed Black men at the hands of police is not a recent phenomenon but a consequence of their historical relationship with roots in economic growth of America. This brutal exploitation and oftentimes fatal maltreatment of Blacks can be traced back as early as 1619 when the first slave ship landed in America.
Ahmaud Arbery. Sean Reed. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. George Floyd. These are only the newest of painful stories and images of Black people targeted, harassed, arrested, and killed by police and racist vigilantes that have sparked renewal of a mass movement calling for the reformation of policing in America.
It has become all too evident to American society that incidents of police misconduct and violence disproportionately affect minority, and especially Black, communities. A deep distrust of the police system is often rooted in such places, and many live in constant fear of a potential altercation with an officer–oftentimes prompting them to avoid calling the police in dangerous situations altogether. For black Americans, policing is “the most enduring aspect of the struggle for civil rights,” because it has always been a mechanism for racial control. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than young white men.
A 2017 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 91% of Americans believe that the criminal justice system has problems that need fixing–the ultimate question is how to go about doing so. With the recent nationwide and international protests in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a number of questions and recommendations have resurfaced. Calls to “defund the police” have risen to prominence, and a majority of Minneapolis City Council members made a public commitment to dismantle their police department.
On the other end are those calling for substantive reform to these systems without disbanding individual departments. Recent attempts at reform through the legislature have ranged from limits on lethal force to an end to qualified immunity for law enforcement. In Washington, DC, Senator Mitt Romney is assembling a bipartisan legislative effort aiming to create “supervisory” boards to determine whether unnecessary force or racial profiling was employed by a police officer, in addition to new training programs aimed at combating racial bias. A Democratic proposal includes creating a “National Police Misconduct Registry,” developing a national standard on the use of force, and limiting the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments.
Some Issues Plaguing the Police System
- “Police officer shootings of unarmed Black men comprise a disproportionately high number of police officer shootings.”
- The actual number of civilians killed by police is unknown as only 3% of our nation’s 18,000 police departments voluntarily submit this information to federal agencies (Davis & Lowery, 2015), but unarmed African American men are being killed by police at a rate of almost 5 times that of unarmed White men (Robinson, 2015).
- Police are tasked with responding to a wide range of situations, including mental health crises, substance abuse occurrences, interpartner violence, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and others.
- The “warrior culture” that described police as enforcers of the law rather than keepers of the peace promotes hesitancy toward needed reforms.
- Blacks and Latino/a/x are overrepresented in other enforcement activities, including pedestrian and vehicle stops.
- A 2015 study by the Ferguson Police Department found that despite encompassing 67% of the population, African Americans accounted for 85% of traffic stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests.
- A Stanford University research team analyzed data collected between 2011 and 2017 from nearly 100 million traffic stops to look for evidence of systemic racial profiling. Researchers found that black drivers were more likely to be pulled over and to have their cars searched than white drivers. They also found that the percentage of black drivers being stopped by police dropped after dark when a driver’s complexion is harder to see from outside the vehicle.
- Many police departments are particularly focused on obtaining revenue for their respective localities rather than practicing effective and constitutional policing.
- Increasing distrust of police systems has caused many minority communities to refrain from calling the police altogether in dangerous situations. (See: Nikole Hannah-Jones, “A Letter From Black America: Yes, we fear the police. Here’s why,” Politico Magazine, March/April 2015)
- Poor policies and lack of administration regarding the use of force–especially deadly force.
- Toxicity of “police culture,” in which officers envision their role as “going into a situation, immediately taking charge, and resolving it quickly.” (See: Guide to Critical Issues in Policing, Department of Justice Community Relations Service, p. 4)
- Difficulty managing large-scale protests and demonstrations. (p. 10)
- Surveys of police officers have found that 67% of officers believe “deaths of black people in encounters with the police were isolated incidents” rather than part of a broader pattern. Surveys show officers don’t recognized much evidence of discrimination against black people. (See: Perry Bacon Jr., “How the Police See Issues of Race and Policing,” FiveThirtyEight)
Policy Recommendations for Police Reform
The following recommendations were based on the 2015 Final Report of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (the President’s Task Force Report), organized following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri at the hands of a police officer in 2014. Read the full report by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, New Era of Public Safety: A Guide to Fair, Safe, and Effective Community Policing here.
- Community-oriented policing
- “Community policing is a process in which police departments actively build meaningful relationships with community members to improve public safety and advance community goals. It puts the community’s voice at the center of the decision-making process.” (p. 2)
- Bias-Free Policing
- “Discriminatory policing […] has serious consequences not only for individuals and communities but also for law enforcement and for society.” (p. 34)
- “Departments should work with communities to create cultures of inclusivity and accountability and promote bias-free policing; condemn bias and discrimination in all police practices, ensure that all officers are trained to counteract biases; implement robust accountability systems; and track data to disparate outcomes.” (p. 36)
- Stops Searches and Arrests
- Departments should build upon the minimum protections they are required to provide in order to protect personal liberty, communicate performance expectations, and promote safe, bias-free interactions with community members. (p. 71)
- Ban formal and informal quotas (i.e. requiring a certain number of citations). (p. 88)
- Seek search warrants whenever possible. (p. 94)
- Forbid stops, searches, and arrests based on physical characteristics alone. (p. 96)
- Police union contracts
- The Use of Force
- Police Use Of Force Policies currently lack basic protections against police violence
- “Police Departments with policies that place clear restrictions on when and how officers use force had significantly fewer killings than those that did not have these restrictions in place.” Police Use of Force Project
- Reduce the types of crises police respond to.
- By providing adequate prevention, support, and referral services, departments and communities can divert people with mental health and developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and substance use orders, from the criminal justice system.
- Find a Balance Between the First Amendment and Free Speech
- Clearly instruct officers about the public’s right to record law enforcement activities.
- Limit and closely supervise information-gathering techniques that target activities protected by the First Amendment.
- Engage in cooperative and strategic advance planning.
- Demilitarize officers and require them to interact with assemblers in a respectful and positive manner.
- Promote crowd-control tactics that are less likely to cause injury and set clear limits on the use of force.
- Strengthen Accountability
- Maintain publicly accessible electronic tracking systems for force data.
- Track and analyze incidents that identify systemic patterns of harmful or excessive force (e.g., incidents where no force was necessary but an officer nonetheless used a Taser or other weapon).
- Publicly release information about serious and lethal uses of force as soon as possible.
- Make use-of-force policies publicly available.
- Engage communities in developing and revising use-of-force policies.
- Data Information and Video Footage
- Requiring body cameras has become a popular policy proposal to boost accountability in police departments.
- “Body-worn cameras (BWCs) have very small and statistically insignificant effects on police use of force and civilian complaints, as well as other policing activities and judicial outcomes.” (See: A randomized control trial evaluating the effects of police body-worn cameras)
- Adopt and implement a “guardians of community” mindset and that their primary role is to protect and serve
- Develop performance-based requirements for promotion.
- Prioritize diversity and create a culture of equity and inclusion by working to eliminate racial, ethnic & gender bias in the workplace.
- Prioritize the recruitment, hiring, and retention of community service-minded officers. Improving police departments’ image and reputation through community policing and cultural awareness will help mend broken ties to communities of color and other marginalized groups.
- Provide Ongoing Training
- Ensure that basic recruit and in-service training covers a wide variety of skills, including crisis response, de-escalation, cultural competency, and leadership.
- Nationally, more than 600 law enforcement academies train new recruits at more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Nearly half of these academies are housed at educational institutions, such as colleges, universities, and technical and vocational schools.
- Attend to Officer Health, Wellbeing and Safety
- The mental health and stress of responding to violent situations and dealing with human tragedy takes a toll on officers and their families and is reflected in the high rates of suicide, which is the leading cause of officer deaths in the line-of-duty.
What does “defund the police” mean?
Calls to defund police departments are generally seeking spending cuts to police forces that have consumed ever larger shares of city budgets in many cities and towns. Minneapolis, for instance, is looking to cut $200 million from its $1.3 billion overall annual budget. Many activists want money now spent on overtime for the police or on buying expensive equipment for police departments to be shifted to programs related to mental health, housing and education. See: New York Times, “What Does Defund Police Mean”
What is Qualified Immunity?
- “Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” – Pearson v. Callahan, 2009
- “Protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.” (Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute)
- In situations where police violated people’s rights and at times have injured or killed people through excessive uses of force, officers and departments have been shielded from legal liability because of qualified immunity.
- H.R. 7085: Ending Qualified Immunity Act
- Center for Policing Equity
- Mapping Police Violence
- Movement for Black Lives
- National Black Justice Coalition
- How white Americans used lynchings to terrorize and control black people
- The racist roots of American policing: From slave patrols to traffic stops
- Taking Freedom: Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.
- Creating a Multicultural Law Enforcement Agency: An Intentional Priority
- American Police from NPR’s Throughline
- From the Slave Codes to Mike Brown: the brutal history of African Americans and law enforcement
- Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts
- Procedural Justice, Trust, and Institutional Legitimacy
- Diversity Course Effectiveness Among Criminal Justice Students
- Black Bodies on the Ground: Policing Disparities in the African American Community—An Analysis of Newsprint From January 1, 2015, Through December 31, 2015
- The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement
- A randomized control trial evaluating the effects of police body-worn cameras
Phillip Atiba Goff TED talk on fighting racism and improving policing
- How does your race inform your view of and interactions with law enforcement?
- What can be done to create accountability and build better relationships between law enforcement and communities of color?
- What role does stereotyping and implicit bias play in levels of trust?
- In what ways does White privilege affect the relationship between different groups of people and law enforcement agencies?
- What can/should be done to reduce and eliminate local law enforcement agencies procuring and using military weaponry in operations?
- In what ways can law enforcement leaders ensure officers are educating themselves and staying current with evolving best practices to combat racism?
- What are some of the policies and practices police departments should develop that support fairness, equity, procedural justice, legitimacy, transparency, and accountability — the values that build trust in policing, restore confidence in police, and, ultimately, heal wounds?
- What role has the police played in creating the “school to prison pipeline” and what steps are needed to address this problem?