I hope the senseless and callous murder of George Floyd will be the watershed moment that leads to true police reform. There are no excuses to be made for this disgusting display of cruelty and indifference. No arguments about “split-second decision-making under rapidly evolving circumstances.”
The officer didn’t lose his temper, he didn’t overreact, he didn’t fear for his life. The most disturbing thing the officer didn’t do was care. He casually suffocated a human being to death, without even taking his hand out of his pocket. That’s what makes his actions so chilling and forces us to reflect on our system of justice.
In our nation, we have created a system too often marked by a profound lack of caring for the harm we inflict in pursuit of being tough on crime. Since this powerful and popular political agenda began in the 1970s, politicians across the nation have learned that it plays well to voters. When we layer this political reality on top of a justice system with roots going back to slave patrols, segregation and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, law enforcement’s role in the enormous racial disparity in America becomes impossible to ignore.
I don’t have the column space or expertise to engage in a credible discussion of the long and complex history of race that precedes the current state of our criminal justice system that prevents the most vulnerable in our society from receiving true justice. But I do have more than 33 years of police experience, nine years operating our state’s criminal justice training academy, and over 15 years working with and learning from our nation’s leading policing experts, including as a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. From that perspective, I offer my insights into the current situation with the intention of providing a backdrop for a discussion about meaningful police reform — which cannot happen in a vacuum.
We must also discuss our mental-health system that is broken; our health-care system that is deeply inequitable and doesn’t address the disease of addiction; and a lack of fair and affordable housing and educational opportunities.
I do not bring the failures of these other systems into the discussion to deflect blame from problematic policing. Rather, I raise them because the root causes of crime and disorder that police are expected to resolve are directly related to the failures of those other systems. Calls to “defund the police” have become common. If that means we should divert the resources to these other services, that is a logical response to the currently untenable situation in which we put officers.
We expect a front-line police officer, equipped with five months of police academy training, to handle and resolve problems that require interventions by highly trained experts in the fields of medicine, mental health and education.
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates described this reality in his profound Atlantic essay, “The Myth of Police Reform.” His concluding remarks: “A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s the continuation of the American preference for considering the bad actions of individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.”
Our society has created a system with the intention of moving the visible, ugly evidence of all these systemic failures into jail and out of our view. Did anyone really care about homelessness until dirty, rat-infested encampments started showing up on our city streets and in neighborhoods throughout our communities? Did we care about the suffering from the disease of addiction before people desperate to finance their use broke into our homes and cars, and strong-armed robberies were committed on our streets?
If we’re honest, most people don’t care about the underlying problems or suffering. (It’s easier to attribute them to the moral failure of individuals.) But we do care about the symptoms that impact us directly and are only willing to invest our tax dollars in the issues right in front of us.
Consider this medical analogy to the persistence of crime in our communities: I’ll pay for aspirin to bring down a fever. But I’m not willing to invest in the prevention of the underlying illness. And I’m not willing to pay for expensive treatment to cure it. Then I blame the aspirin for not curing the illness. Or, I use too much aspirin in my zeal to bring down the fever and inflict lasting damage to the patient, exacerbating the underlying illness.
This is not a perfect analogy for our policing problems. Tablets of aspirin don’t have the latitude to make moral choice. But it illustrates how we put front-line police officers in a position where they can treat only the symptoms — then we blame them for failing to cure the illness.
So how does this relate to police misconduct?
Working in an environment of perpetual frustration and failure can breed resentment and callousness. This does not excuse misconduct but merely helps us understand what might contribute to bad decisions.
It illuminates the need for a reform agenda that is more strategic and robust than simply identifying and punishing individual officers.
I keep hearing people lament, “Why does this keep happening?”
Consider the frequently used metaphor of bad apples. It keeps happening because we only focus on removing the “bad apples,” which is relatively fast and satisfying (compared to the hard work of broad, systemic change). But that ignores the underlying problem. Most of the apples we put in the barrel were good. Something goes awry in the barrel to make them go bad. Until we are willing to invest in creating a healthier barrel, which only partly includes removing apples when they go bad, these tragedies will keep happening.
When we are ready to truly invest in a transformation that builds public trust, we must have robust discussions and take bold steps to advance policing. These steps include:
• Support and equip police leaders to lead change in a culture that is deeply resistant to change;
• Examine the role and influence of police unions;
• Expand training and policies about an officer’s duty to intervene in the misconduct of others;
• Create metrics for police performance that align with community expectations; and
• Improve diversity in police departments.
If we are serious about creating equity in the criminal justice system, we must look beyond police reform alone. We need to also examine the unnecessarily harmful system of prosecution, incarceration and the perverse labyrinth of fines and fees that make rehabilitation nearly impossible.
There are promising and achievable steps we can take now to address the complex challenges I’ve raised. They all take resources, political will and, most important, courage and persistence to fully achieve. I look forward to engaging with community and elected officials to get started.