The dark culture of our criminal justice system is, and always has been, the real issue in overcoming police brutality. There are steps we can take to speed up changing the culture of criminalization in police departments: body and van cameras, education, and re-inventing the idea of what it means to be a police officer.
President Obama said in response to the Baltimore rallies this week over Freddie Gray’s death from a snapped spine, “This is not new. This has been going on for decades.”
The history of African Americans’ awareness of police brutality, while the rest of America resisted that reality for the most part, should serve as a reminder that society appears more invested in keeping African-Americans in prison than out.
Here are some statements by Americans since the 60’s, Black and White, that show we should have acted long before now:
- 1963—Martin Luther King, Jr framed the issue then and now: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
- 1965—John Lewis: “I thought I saw death” (after being hit by police).
- 1965—Robert Kennedy “To many Negroes, the law is the enemy. In Harlem, in Bed-Stuy it has almost always been used against them.”
- 1967—President Lyndon Johnson: After unarmed 16 year-old African American boy was shot by Philadelphia police: “Did he threaten him?” (Answer: no, unarmed). Silence, then: “Do you have influence with Republicans in the House (to pass Civil Rights legislation)?”
- 1976—Thurgood Marshall: “If the police adopt a policy of shoot to kill suspects, the federal courts will be powerless.”
- 1983—Rep. John Conyers: “The time has come for consideration of federal intervention,” in Harlem, at one of a series of congressional hearings he organized about police brutality – the nation’s first.
- 1991 and 1992—Rodney King, brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers: “I realize I will always be the poster child for police brutality… Can’t we all just get along?”
- 1997—NAACP President and Congressman Kweisi Mfume: “If we don’t have some kind of a big stick to hold over the heads of police departments, they’re going to continue to allow [police brutality] to take place,” referring to the attack on a Haitian suspect who was sodomized with a toilet plunger by New York City police officers.
- 2007—Dennis Archer, Mayor of Detroit 1994-2001: “You also had a police force that did not treat African-Americans with respect. You had others who felt disenfranchised, wanted a part of the economic growth,” speaking about the Detroit Riots of 1967.
A lot has happened since Rodney King: The murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Anthony Hill, Walter Scott and most recently Freddie Gray have gone viral because of the power of their horror, now captured on private cameras.
We have the opportunity now to move in a new direction. However, policy bias at the highest level still occurs.
A section providing state oversight of the Voting Rights Act was struck down last year. Loretta Lynch was finally appointed Attorney General after a vote of only 56-43 in the Senate. Still almost half of the U.S. Senate, all Republicans, voted against Lynch despite not having a single objection to her capacity, skills and background.
Inner city crime is prompted by social and economic isolation. It is hard to feel empowered to follow the law in a place where the law doesn’t protect you. The current Congress continues to ignore and reject expanding social programs, education and direct jobs programs—all issues that would significantly help African-Americans who face twice the national unemployment rate.
Danielle Williams, a protester in Baltimore, asked MSNBC why media wasn’t there days ago when there were peaceful protests, “There were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we’ve burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us.”
SOLUTIONS: Hillary Clinton said this week, “We should make sure that every police department in the country has body cameras to record interaction between offices on patrol and suspects, that will improve transparency and accountability. It will help protect good people on both sides of the lens.”
Officer Michael Slager was charged in South Carolina with the murder of Walter Scott because of hard video evidence, but there are many young men who do not have the same opportunity for justice. The six Baltimore police just charged with Freddie Gray’s murder could still be free without the private cameras that first showed him limp and dragged screaming in pain to the van, where he died after a lurching ride. Body cameras, and paddy-wagon cameras, will put everyone on an equal playing field, particularly those without the means to seek quality representation. Even the most expensive body camera costs less than a gun, which is $800.
Police academies need to take on the police’s own culture and teach officers how to address arrests even if the officer feels offended or the suspect runs, and in particular don’t do more to minorities. Don’t bully if you feel dissed. Be aware of your ego and don’t act on it. Don’t shoot a fleeing suspect is in the law and the Constitution, confirmed 30 years ago. Don’t twist an arrestee into a pretzel and bang him around in the back of a van.
Being a police officer is more of a responsibility than carrying a gun. Police officers should be a bridge of opportunity between people and government, focusing less on quotas and paperwork. Community policing, building relationships, is key, as former Houston Mayor and many cities’ police Chief Lee Brown has emphasized for decades.
Rep. Conyers, Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, has re-introduced the End Racial Profiling Act. The legislation would enforce increased state oversight of local Police Departments.
It would be naïve to say culture can be changed in a day or through a simple piece of legislation, but all who have said no problem exists are becoming aware they were wrong. History clearly shows otherwise. The immediate solutions including universal police body and inside-van cams, and training for arrest management and sensitivity, starting immediately, to existing and new police, can begin tomorrow.
Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the Clinton White House and senior staff for Reps. John Conyers, Charles Rangel, Claude Pepper, Ed Koch and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. He wrote the epilogue to Bankole Thompson’s groundbreaking book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty.” Autumn Kelly is senior policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates.Fighting