Here’s What It Will Take for Police To Stop Killing Black People

woman in black shirt holding white printer paper

Say their names.

Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, Ian Birk, Brian Encinia, Brian Rice, Joseph Demarco and Stephen Shannon, Winson Seto, Antonio Santos, Charles August, Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips, Johannes Mehserle, Timothy Loehmann, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, and Jeronimo Yanez. And, now: Derek Chauvin.

Say their names.  And say them with putrid anger. 

They’re the names of the officers that killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John T. Williams, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Kayden Clarke, Mario Woods, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and, just a few days ago, George Floyd.

And so far, they’ve all gotten away with it.

And they are not the only ones. There are thousands and thousands more whose names should be said. Thousands and thousands more that each took the life or lives of community members for no reason other than they were Black, Brown, Indigenous, disabled, poor, gay, transgendered, non-Christian or any combination thereof. Thousands and thousands more names to place on the tips of our tongues if nothing is done about it. Or if the wrong things are done about it  — again. 

This is not the first time in this nation’s history that abuses by law enforcement gained national attention. Law enforcement was originally designed to target minorities and little has been done to change that function since. They’ve been used to enforced slave codes, black laws, poor laws, ugly laws, Jim Crow laws and they still enforce them in their various forms today. It is no mistake that they systematically target minorities. It is no mistake that they use excessive force to do so. And it is no mistake that they get away with it.  And it is no mistake that there is resistance to it. 

Abuses by law enforcement have been federally recognized since the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. Police officers were at the front lines of Southern resistance to federal authority and the efforts to prevent freed men from accessing the rights granted under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.  Actions taken to curb and contain these abuses have been weak, though, and any legislative wins that are gained are quickly dismantled by the work of pro-police and anti-civil rights organizations. Organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association, Lexipol, and the Klu Klux Klan … to name several. 

These groups have been so successful, in fact, that while police kill and average of 1000 people each year, less than five of these murder cases are actually brought to court. Of these, an average of one conviction per year is secured. For example, in 2015, increased public pressure brought the number of cases tried to 15, but convictions are still all but impossible to secure: 99.9 percent of officer murders have been ruled legal and completely allowable by the federal government. This is also not an accident.

Pro-police and anti-civil rights groups and politicians have intentionally land mined the path to legal justice with obstructions. From the conditions that create the opportunities for the deprivation of rights to occur to the point of securing a conviction – loopholes, trapdoors, pitfalls and barriers to justice have been intentionally designed into the system to ensure that officers will have the opportunity, the permission and the legal clearance to target, murder and get away with killing black people, brown people, the indigenous, poor people, people with disabilities, people from the LGBTQ community, non-Christians, any other minority community and especially those living at their intersections. 

Before an officer even has an opportunity to murder someone from the community, the stage is set for brutality to occur. There is very little formal oversight in the establishment of a police department. The hiring process for officers intentionally disregards personal and professional records of misconduct and violence. Inappropriate training leaves officers completely incompetent and unable to apprehend a suspect (even unarmed, disabled, elderly and youth suspects) without the use of excessive and deadly force. Programs that allow the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement groups arms these incompetent and discriminatory officers with military grade protective gear and weaponry. And a culture built around the fact that the people they brutalize are virtually powerless to do anything about it all empower officers to consider brutality to be a normal art of their daily job requirements. This is also not a mistake. And efforts to counter these intentionally designed culture of violent discrimination have failed.

During the Civil Rights Movement, it became apparent that measures were needed to assess and continually evaluate law enforcement as part of the larger movement to end brutality in that era. According to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), “Law enforcement officers were often viewed as under-trained, and their selection and hiring practices often were discriminatory. Policies and procedures were often poorly written or sometimes, nonexistent, and many in the general public did not respect law enforcement officers as professionals. Issues of accountability, integrity, liability, performance, and community partnership dominated the public dialogue and media coverage of law enforcement.” 

An accreditation process was established to satisfy complaints over these issues, but only at face value. The system of oversight implemented was weak and predictably ineffective. As the Chief of Police of the Hollywood Police Department described after the department lost accreditation last year, “It doesn’t give you any money. It doesn’t give you any prestige. It’s a trophy for the agency.”  Abuses by law enforcement could be curbed if precincts were required to undergo an appropriately structured accreditation system. This would include attaching accreditation to funding, requiring the collection and reporting of data at regular intervals, and enforcing strict consequences for violations of federal standards and publicizing violations of conduct. These adjustments, though, would not be enough to stop the police from murdering minorities. 

Hiring processes for law enforcement would also need to be comprehensively overhauled. Currently, there is no requirement that applicants for employment be screened for incidences of previous misconduct, abuse or discrimination — personally or professionally.  Policies have been written and enforced, though, to prevent such screening. Potential officers are also not required to undergo social profiling and racial bias screening as part of their psychological, medical and physical testing requirements. As a result, applicants with histories of abuse and misconduct are hired onto the force or transferred between departments without consideration of the threat they pose to the communities they’re placed in. This process very closely resembles that engaged in by the Catholic Church when the shuffled pedophile priests from community to community knowing the traumas their employment was likely to produce. Screening officers for personal or professional offenses and requiring that applicants be tested for bias could eliminate officers unable to serve and protect all communities equally before they are armed and put on the streets. Strengthening hiring and transfer requirements alone, or even in conjunction with the previously mentioned reforms, though, will not put an end to police brutality, either. 

Training is often mentioned as the end all be all of solutions to police brutality; however, as those that have been working against police brutality for decades now have found, training reforms alone have already failed to create systemic change. There are, however, a few adjustments that can potentially decrease incidents of police brutality by making changes in police training.  Recently there have been efforts to use law enforcement officers in sectors such as education and mental health. There has been an explosion in the number of police officers placed in schools and assuming roles that are usually the responsibility of those trained to work in the education system. 

A similar pattern has been seen with the use of law enforcement as mental health practitioners and first responders to mental health crisis situations. Police officers are police officers. They are not surgeons or pilots or astronauts, nor should they be expected to be. They are not teachers, principals, social workers, psychologists, or community elders, either.  Training for law enforcement does not require the years of training, experience and credentials necessary to operate in these positions, especially under the color of law. There should not be an expectation that a few hours of training will change this. Officers should, however, be trained to identify situations in which they are not qualified to handle and call people that are qualified. Numbers in addition to 911 should be available and programs funded so that unarmed, appropriate support and protection can be accessed by community members when needed. And all efforts made by law enforcement to expand into other sectors should be stopped immediately. 

Increasing the use of unarmed enforcement and decreasing the use of armed enforcement can also help put an end to systemic police brutality. There are very few officers that are actually killed in the line of duty. Far fewer than the number of civilians that are murdered by police. The majority of the calls that they respond to are for non-violent activity. There is no reason for an armed officer to respond to every case. A representative portion of law enforcement should be disarmed completely and trained to respond to non-violent and non-lethal situations without the use of intimidation or excessive force. They should be certified in such a way that the use of excessive and deadly force is considered a violation of training and removes the ability for any officer to claim that their murder of a community member, especially an unarmed community member, can be considered objectively reasonable. Of the remaining officers that are armed, they should be forced to return all equipment accessed under the 1033 Program. This program — which authorizes the transfer of military equipment, tactics and training to local law enforcement groups — places military grade weaponry in the hands of officers that have proven unable to responsibly operate cameras, tasers and firearms. Police are not members of the military, either. Disarming a large portion of the force and restricting arms to the rest of the force can decrease the likelihood an officer would be involved in the murder of a community member; however, this strategy alone or in conjunction with those previously mentioned also cannot put an end to police brutality.  

Even with all the appropriate measures in place, there is no guarantee that law enforcement will be free from misconduct. From the time that a report is filed, through the investigation period, to the potential charges that can be brought and through the types of consequences that can be implemented — there are loopholes, pitfalls, barriers and weaknesses and complete breaks in the system that allow police officers to murder citizens and face no consequences.  There is no shortage of obstacles obstructing a victim’s path to justice. 

A number of these barriers are presented when a victim considers filing a report. Most frequently, victims must file a complaint at the station where the officer works to file a complaint against an officer. This seemingly obvious conflict of interests is maintained in efforts to stop the filing of a complaint before it starts.  Another form of intimidation used by law enforcement against victims of misconduct and brutality is the threat that countercharges may be filed against a victim as a form of retribution. While there are many policies that protect officers from facing lawsuits from victims, there are no such protections for people against police. There is a very real threat that police can sue their own victims in court. And they have carried out this threat repeatedly.

Preventing police abuse would require that federal legislation be put in place to ensure that an officer or department cannot file countercharges against an individual involved in a police misconduct report. If legislation was modeled after the protections granted to police, only the U.S. Attorney General would retain the authority to bring these charges. If modeled after a system that prioritizes unobstructed paths to justice, threat of countersuits would be removed entirely. This clearing only leads the way to an additional set of obstructions presented during an investigation of police brutality, though.

Dr. G.S. Potter
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Dr. GS Potter is a community educator, strategist and advocate. She holds a PhD. from the University of Washington, is also the founder of the Strategic Institute for Intersectional Policy. She works in alliance with organizations such as Krip-Hop, the Idriss Stelley Foundation and POOR Magazine.

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