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5 Problems With How We Talk About Police Reform

Written by , Posted in Culture, Politics, Race

Are our conversations addressing the real problem?

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The ubiquity of cell phone video has made plain to the general public something black folk have believed for a long time: we don’t receive equal treatment from the police. Every time a police shooting makes the news it forces people–especially whites–to confront that uncomfortable reality. Unfortunately many of the resulting conversations over the past few years have done little to move us closer to a tangible resolution. While I believe this is due in part to the naturally slow pace of the types of policy change reform advocates want, I also think the way we discuss police violence has made it more difficult to forge a common understanding and achieve real progress.

1. Making it a “black issue”

Perhaps the biggest issue with the national dialogue on policing is how quickly it gets framed as a “black issue”. Treating it that way obscures the facts, makes it easier to divert the attention to unrelated issues (e.g., “black-on-black crime”), and makes it harder to build political consensus. The facts are that even though black people are disproportionately (compared to our population percentage) shot and killed by police while unarmed, the majority of fatal police shooting victims each year are white. The general public doesn’t know this because those stories rarely get media attention, even when there’s video of the incident. For example, the police shot a 19-year old white teen named Dylan Noble who wouldn’t show one of his hands after being pulled over. Another man, John Geer, was shot and killed by police while he stood in his doorway with his hands up. The officer, Adam Torres, was released from jail in June 2016 after serving most of his one-year sentence. In fact, according to Washington Post data on police shootings whites make up 46% of all people shot and killed by police and 45% of those who are shot while unarmed. There are also instances of non lethal force that involve whites. One Missouri officer stopped a teen on an outstanding warrant, tased him, dragged him out of the car, and dropped him face first on the curb. The teen suffered brain damage as a result and the officer was sentenced to four years in jail.

The real problem with our current state of policing is that officers are rarely charged and almost never receive prison time for actions taken in the line of duty. That should be a major starting point for our conversations about police reform. It is ethically and morally unacceptable to live in a society where prosecutors are more zealous about jailing petty drug dealers than police officers who kill citizens–regardless of their race, gender, or  income–without just cause.

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