This is a difficult but necessary thing to say: police involved killings and assaults on unarmed African Americans are unlikely to end soon. They will not end quickly, because they are neither new nor reflective of a “moment,” and because we have not yet shown the resolve needed to end it. We must face this if we are to reverse course away from what has become a national crisis. The peaceful protests followed by outbreaks of violence in Baltimore this week have thrown into stark relief the danger of ignoring this crisis. Americans – especially African-Americans– young and old, have had enough.
The violent response of police officers to unarmed African Americans is a decades-long phenomenon which has been dismissed too often as “race card” politics and black grievance. But this year’s spate of killings and assaults from Ferguson to North Charleston to most recently Baltimore are part of a deadly continuum of conduct that has created a well of resentment and anger in the Black community. The advent of cell phone cameras and social media has allowed for the first time the ability of average citizens to routinely document police brutality and to disseminate these images nationally. The denial that accompanied allegations of police brutality against unarmed African Americans in the past, and the claim even when the brutality was acknowledged that these events were ”one-offs” has collapsed in the face of these devastating images.
To call this ugly and unrelenting wave of police violence against unarmed African Americans a national crisis is not an exaggeration. The crisis we face is one of confidence. We are losing the confidence of a generation of young people who no longer believe in the legitimacy or credibility of our law enforcement and the justice system that undergirds it. A true democracy draws its strength from the confidence of its citizens in the bedrock institutions. The loss of that confidence threatens the very foundation of our legal system.
So how do we face this crisis? First, we must recognize that there are no quick fixes. The culture of policing in cities like New York and Baltimore has developed over decades. Policing is a job passed down through families, in which law enforcement norms and narratives are shared around the dinner table as much as in the station house. To subvert that culture will require vigorous, targeted and consistent training. That training must include a focus on managing implicit bias, encounters with the mentally ill and how best to deescalate encounters with members of the community, especially young people. Training must be accompanied by supervision and accountability for officers who fail to conform their behavior to training principles.
President Obama is right when he reminds us that policing, like education is a function of state and local government, and that his options are limited. And yet the federal government has proven to be quite adept at influencing education policy in states and cities. How? By conditioning federal funds on compliance with federal standards. Yet although today the Department of Justice provides more than $1billion annually in grants to police departments throughout the country, those funds are provided free from obligations that awardees adopt federal standards on training, data collection or other measures with an explicit anti-racial bias focus. That must change.
Second the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department must be properly funded to investigate and police departments suspected of engaging in a pattern and practice of discrimination. Such investigations doubled to 20 under Attorney General Eric Holder, but given the nearly 30,000 police departments spread across the country, this is woefully inadequate. It’s been reported that nearly every investigation conducted by the department has resulted in a finding of a pattern and practice of discrimination. The results in places like Seattle and Cincinatti where the Dept worked with local officials to negotiate changes to local police practices are promising. But the $12 million dollars currently allocated to these investigations nationwide is a shameful pittance.
Without question, there is a critical role that local law enforcement leadership must play as well. Much has been made of rogue police officers, “bad apples” and other aberrant actors in the criminal justice system. Without a doubt they exist. But the failure of local law enforcement leadership to vigorously and aggressively discipline, punish and where appropriate remove those officers from police forces around the country, has allowed the bad apples to spoil the whole bunch. There must be zero tolerance for racism, brutality and corruption in police departments. This too requires a cultural shift – one which values the integrity of the badge over the unquestioning solidarity that has too often resulted in the protection of officers who have committed egregious acts of brutality and illegal conduct. Until police officers come to expect swift and certain punishment for violating their oath to protect and serve, we are unlikely to see a real decrease in incidents of racially motivated police brutality. Police unions and prosecutors officers must also accept responsibility for their role in fostering a culture of impunity for police brutality.
Finally, the crisis we face presents an opportunity to fundamentally rethink policing in this country. This includes new thinking about who we wish to recruit to serve as police officers. Leonard Hamm, former Police Commissioner for Baltimore City, was always skeptical of new police recruits who express their desire to become narcotics or homicide detectives. “That thinking reflects a spirit of adventure,” he told me in a recent conversation in Baltimore, “rather than a spirit of service.” Policing at its core is a service profession. Those we select for this difficult and dangerous job should not only demonstrate mental toughness, courage and smarts, but integrity, maturity, empathy and a commitment to the communities they serve.
A national crisis requires a national response. That means that federal, as well as state and local law enforcement leaders and organizations must honestly and aggressively move to end police brutality. We have yet to see this kind of wholesale engagement. And while we wait, the lives of innocent people, and the integrity of our legal system hangs in the balance.