Friday, May 1, 2015

No more excuses: The pressing need for meaningful police reform

How many more unarmed people of color must be killed before the American public decides that maybe, just maybe, the protests we see on the news are justified?

I am so tired of hearing people argue that racism is a thing of the past (“Don’t make this about race-- we have a Black president don’t we?”) only to turn around and refer to protesters in Baltimore as “thugs,” conveniently overlooking the fact that of 10,000 protesters, less than 100 were non-peaceful (See: “Thug is the New N-Word”).  How long will it take for our society to look at the data and see, without bias, the brutality that our police state culture so readily condones? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we, as a society, move forward from such deeply entrenched injustices?

Typically, the onus for change is placed on those same communities that have long been discriminated against. The community organizers, the religious leaders, the protesters, the unfairly convicted… All are expected to take the lead in driving social justice movements. Today, I want to explore a different approach and focus instead on the need for police leadership. Anyone who lives in a district where people of color are disproportionately arrested, pulled over, incarcerated, or frisked (i.e., the vast majority of Americans) should demand police reforms. And what should these reforms look like? What role can police leadership play? For a start, let me suggest the following for our own police force here in Madison:

  • Provide opportunities for community engagement. The police need to become authentic participants in our community’s ongoing dialogue around race relations and the justice system. Without community engagement, opportunities for repairing harm disintegrate. Police should hold bimonthly community meetings in easily accessible venues, such as the state capitol, the downtown library, or community centers. All police officers should be required to attend at least three of these meetings annually in order to ensure that the entire force hears the voices of those they serve.
  • Demand accountability. Ensure that civilians have easy access to filing complaints against police who racially profile or otherwise target people of color. Begin by supplying all libraries and post offices with complaint forms to be submitted anonymously to a neutral, third party oversight committee. Further, all police officers implicated in shootings or batterings of unarmed persons should be indicted and tried by a civilian court. The fear that police cannot somehow participate in the very justice system that they are charged with enforcing is ludicrous. If an officer is not guilty, then let us trust that the jury will deem him or her not guilty, and vice versa.
  • Diversify the police force. As discussed by McNett (2004), ensuring diversity in the workplace has both practical and ethical benefits.  Madison police leadership should embrace this concept through the utilization of Laura Nash’s Discussion-Based Ethical Analysis (McNett, 2004) as well as larger-scale diversity-promoting recruitment efforts. 
  • Include a social justice component in police examinations. Ensure that all officers are educated around issues such as systemic racism, opportunity gaps, and the cradle-to-prison pipeline by a) requiring all newly hired police officers to pass a social justice exam and b) adjusting existing promotion eligibility criteria to include components aimed at assessing officers’ proficiency in relevant social justice topics. And, in terms of the curriculum for these proficiency components, allow me to suggest this required reading list.

I firmly believe that the majority of police officers are good people who entered the force for the right reasons. However, when any group in a position of power is so clearly linked to systemic violence, we must stop making individual-level excuses and start instituting meaningful reforms.

Non-Linked References:

  • McNett, J. (2004). Diversity in the workplace: Ethics, pragmatism, or some of both? In C. Harvey & M. J. Allard (Eds.), Understanding and managing diversity (pp. 241-253). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • U.S. Uncut. "No, the other one." [Graphic]. (2015). Retrieved from