The United States may be undergoing the largest civil rights movement in American history. The Black Lives Matter protests, beginning on May 26 and surging in June, emerged in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the murder of a jogger Ahmed Arbury, and the racial profiling of Christian Cooper in Central Park, among other forms of institutional racism. These protests erupted in major cities and spread to small towns and suburbs all across America. Youth, adults, BIPOC communities and white allies organized during a deadly pandemic to denounce police violence, institutional racism and the lack of police accountability in the justice system following acts of abuse of power and violence.
How do police respond to these protests and calls for justice? They respond with more brutality: tear gas, pepper spray, and riot squads. The NYPD ran over protestors; the Atlanta police fired tasers at students. Protesting is not the problem, but law enforcement’s response incites more violence, panic and chaos.
These examples of institutional racism and the failings of policing are not new, but they have been increasingly publicized through greater accessibility to filming and social media’s rapid dissemination of information. This brutality and violence has happened in the system of policing since its origination.
Policing in America is rooted in a system of white supremacy, domination and subjugation of communities of color. Modern policing formed out of the Southern Slave Patrol, a system of law enforcement in the Antebellum American South. White people’s fear of slave revolts drove the formation of the Slave Patrol in the American South (Williams 2015, 63). Enslavers hired militia-style patrols to enforce the slave system and prevent enslaved persons from reaching freedom. This was not limited to patrolling the area surrounding plantations: These informal agencies also sought out free Black people in urban centers, claiming they were “runaways,” to be taken back into slavery (Williams 2015, 71). This concept, coined “reasonable suspicion” and common-place in the era of unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing by the NYPD, originated in the Slave Patrol. Profiling Black people in America has occurred since pre-civil war when a Black man or woman without a white accompaniment would be considered a suspected runaway enslaved person (Kennedy 1997, 138).
This relevant and important history should be a crucial part of an introductory framework in police education programs. Slave patrols that governed as an extension of the criminal justice system were foundational in upholding the enslavement and subjugation of Black people. This legacy cannot be erased even with changes in procedures and practices. The very structure of policing needs to change to reduce bias and give people better access to services that police are ill-equipped to handle.
If we are to reimagine policing in America, we should consider a few things: demilitarization, de-escalation training, increased accountability and re-investing in specialized services.
SWAT teams, highly equipped officers with tear gas canister launchers and military-style vehicles exemplify the modern-day militarization of police. The 1033 Program—part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1997 and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants to combat “counter-terrorism”—directly resulted in this picture of militarization. Over the course of this program, over $7.4 billion worth of vehicles, weaponry and equipment has been funneled to more than 8,000 local and state police departments. The DHS grants in fiscal year 2013, the year of the Ferguson protests, distributed over $1.6 billion in military-grade tactical equipment to state, local and tribal agencies for “counter terrorism, border security and disaster preparedness.” State and local police departments are not the military, nor are they fighting “enemies of the state.” They are civilians who are supposed to serve civilians.
Reexamining the function of police in America should continue with looking at training. Police training stresses the control and use of firearms rather than non-aggressive tactics such as de-escalation, implicit bias training and situational analysis. From 2011 to 2013, the average police academy recruit only spent 840 hours (21 weeks) undergoing formal training. Of this course, recruits spent 168 hours on firearms, use-of-force and self-defense training compared to only 86 hours of legal education and 10 hours with mental health response. Put in perspective, other nations require either college degrees in law enforcement or more than three years of training programs, and the United States leads comparable democracies in police killings as a proportion of our population.
What we ask police to do, particularly in America, is impossible. Police should not be the primary responder for someone undergoing a mental health crisis, drug overdose, domestic abuse or other health-related or non-violent situations. Yet Americans call 9-1-1 for almost every problem, small or large, outside or inside the home. In what other profession are employees responsible for so many differing and life-altering duties? Why should policing, where so many things can go wrong, be the exception?
The United States must also end qualified immunity for police officers. Since the 1871 Civil Rights Act, citizens have been allowed to sue government officials if they violate their constitutional rights. This legislation was nicknamed the “Ku Klux Klan Act” and it was implemented as part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction to combat Klan violence in the South. However, this changed during the Civil Rights Movement, which brought nation-wide peaceful protests that turned bloody due to police brutality. The infamous Bloody Sunday, also known as the 1965 Selma Montgomery Marches, was a televised and horrific example of police use of violence.
Qualified immunity emerged through a 1967 Supreme Court ruling and drastically expanded in a 1982 ruling to become what we have today. Today, citizens are often unable to sue law enforcement officers for abuses of power or an infringement of their rights. This leads to a decrease in police accountability, thus excessive use of force by police has minimal consequences—a troubling combination. Ending qualified immunity would increase the cost of deadly actions and perhaps alter police behavior, and importantly would allow the justice system to hold accountable police who break the law.
Finally, and perhaps the most impactful, building a better policing system requires reinvestment in communities by divesting police funding. The World Bank has found that an increase in poverty is directly correlated with an increase in crime. Do modern policing tactics, such as preventative patrolling of neighborhoods, stop-and-frisk era procedures and traffic stops, truly prevent crime? In reimagining how policing is performed in America, we should increase access to healthcare and mental health services, affordable housing, a stable income, food and water, and free drug rehabilitation programs as crime prevention programs through poverty alleviation.
Policing does not address these behaviors but rather criminalizes them. It criminalizes drug abuse, has deadly consequences if someone has a public mental health crisis, and harasses individuals who experience homelessness by relocating settlements. With a reallocation of the over $115 billion spent on policing in the U.S. in 2017, imagine how many people could get a second chance at a stable income, housing, food and water and healthcare, services that should be accessible for everyone in the world’s largest economy. It is unfair to the police to deal with so many complex issues, but it is more unfair to the communities experiencing a lack of access to these services.
We need a totally new and reimagined policing system, else we will continue to have countless tragic deaths; names to be incorporated as part of another chant, ignored by Congress.
Alexander, Michelle. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.
Kennedy, Randall. 1997. Race, Crime, and the Law. New York: Pantheon Books.
Williams, Kristian. 2015. Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. AK Press.
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