5 Problems With How We Talk About Police Reform
Are our conversations addressing the real problem?
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.
2. We focus on individual actors instead of institutional culture
An honest conversation about race, racism, and policing is needed and long overdue. Unfortunately, speakers tend to reduce the problem to an issue of a few “bad cops” instead of focusing on a police culture that uses retaliation to intimidate good cops who bring attention to misconduct. The Department of Justice’s investigation into Baltimore’s police department found this very thing at play.
“Several officers told Justice Department investigators that they believe their fellow officers have retaliated against them for reporting misconduct or objecting to improper enforcement activities,” Justice Department investigators concluded. “Other officers expressed fears that they would face such retaliation, and that BPD supervisors would not address any retaliation that occurs.
“Our review of BPD’s internal affairs files underscores these concerns.”
Investigators tell the story of a detective who considered reporting two fellow officers for brutally beating a suspect in 2011. When he asked a sergeant what he should do, he got the following warning: “If you’re a rat, your career here is done.”
The detective decided to do the right thing; his report about the incident ultimately led to the prosecution and conviction of the officers. But supervisors and colleagues made his life hell, and he no longer serves the citizens of Baltimore.
None of this surprises me. I, like many civilians, have long heard about the blue wall of silence–something which makes law enforcement criticism of “stop snitching” culture the height of hypocrisy. And for as much as public officials and law enforcement leaders talk about the need to get rid of bad cops, when have we ever heard any of them publicly encourage officers to come forward to expedite that process? Having these leaders on record in speeches, new policies, or even a petition would send a clear signal that they are serious about changing the culture they’re responsible for creating.
3. We mainly focus on fatal shootings and perceived racism
Most police reform discussions focus on the the perceived bias (something that can rarely be proven) of individual officers. A productive conversation on race and its impact on policing would also include what we know about law enforcement policies that disproportionately affect minority communities. There are journalists who have covered some of these stories, whether we’re talking about civil forfeiture in Philly, warrants in DC that are based on an officer’s “training and experience” but almost exclusively executed in black neighborhoods, or a transit cop in New York recording his superior officer encouraging him to profile and arrest black men–even if they’re not actually committing any crimes. Add to that the last two Department of Justice reports on municipal police departments (Ferguson and Baltimore) that outline a number of ways that these departments violate the rights of black citizens. These stories rarely ever make cable news headlines because the media has preferred narratives (i.e., white cop shoots black unarmed man) because it confirms what many viewers already believe.
4. We talk more about unity than accountability
The other problem with making our focus police bias is it makes it easy to focus the conversation on “coming together” and creating “unity”. Police reform is the only example I can think of where a demand for government change leads to calls for unity among the general citizenry. We don’t talk about unity when we find that teachers are involved in a cheating scandal. And we certainly don’t hear calls to come together when educators are caught sleeping with their students. What we get in those examples are calls for government accountability. That’s what happens in every other profession (including public service) when someone fails to live up to the legal (and ethical) standards of their job. Ensuring that accountability is the job of elected officials and their appointed law enforcement officials, not black folk. Unfortunately, our focus on celebrities and athletes protesting has allowed politicians to get by without having to answer serious questions about the issue. Most of us have heard Colin Kaepernick talk more about his views on police brutality than we have our mayor, governor, and even president.
5. The debate is often controlled by groups on the fringes
One thing I’ve noticed about the people who most frequently discuss these issues is that they often lack the type of nuance needed to have a productive conversation. This is equally the case for the police abolitionists who believe we shouldn’t have police at all, particularly in black and brown communities, as well as police apologists who defend almost every action by law enforcement. I think both camps are out of touch with reality. I think most people, myself included, have respect for the police and understand the difficulty of their job. And I also think most people know that having a difficult job is no excuse for abuses of power and unlawful behavior. Understanding (and solutions) are rarely found in the extremes. I understand why members of law enforcement, their families, and supporters are offended by claims that the police are racist and bent on black genocide. That type of rhetoric is unproductive and will rarely lead to a productive conversation. If reform is the goal, making sweeping generalizations and ascribing those types of intentions to the police is unlikely to sway anyone, including policymakers who can impact law and policy.
The things people say when they have the public’s ear matter. Debating whether the police–whether individual officers or the entire institution–are racist may make for good tv but it doesn’t get us closer to a solution. A better debate is whether our elected leaders and policymakers have the courage and political will to bring about the change people have demanding. That change won’t come overnight but having substantive discussions between the right people willing to talk about the right things is a great start.