Carole Levine May 27, 2021
I started writing this piece on May 25th. That date marked the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and the awakening of much of the nation from our slumber through or perhaps our purposeful ignorance of the nightmare that is the rampant police brutality against people of color. Across the country there were remembrances – some celebrations of Floyd’s life; some teach-ins on police brutality; some focused on passing local, state, and national legislation to address this issue; but all with a goal of not forgetting. So many of these remembrances point to the continued chain of deaths of Black, Brown and Indigenous men and women that have continued to occur at the hands of law enforcement since May 25, 2020. The question that keeps repeating is “What have we learned?” And the answers that echo in my head are not comforting.
We have learned that most of the law enforcement officials in this nation do not look like the majority of the people they are asked to “serve and protect.” When the diversity of the local police matches that of the community, crime rates in minority neighborhoods are lower according to work by Maria Velez, a University of Maryland criminologist. It is all about trust, according to Velez, an associate professor of criminal justice. “When you have diverse police departments, diverse governments broadly speaking, that sets in motion dynamics that filter down to the community that galvanizes trust. That helps reduce crime,” she said. Add to the lack of community trust, a huge problem in recruiting and retaining police of color. Janice Iwama, an assistant criminology professor at American University told The Washington Post, “You just don’t see it as an attractive career any longer. Situations like what is going on right now are not helping the recruitment and retention issue. It’s actually making it worse, I’m sure.”
But research shows that since the 1990’s, police departments nationwide are less overwhelmingly white. A study published by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2018 found that the share of white non-Hispanic police fell from 78.5% in 1997 to 71.5% in 2016. Before you stand up and applaud, you should also know that the nation’s white population during this period, also shrank from 72% to 63% so the change in police did not keep up with the change in population. White police officers still overrepresent a white population that continues to shrink. We still have a long way to go.
Perhaps we have made some progress in the last year in terms of police accountability? Do not hold your breath on this either, although there are attempts. The conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was met with a sigh of relief. Why? The nation waited on pins and needles for that verdict, worried that anything less than “guilty” would unleash violence in our streets. But anyone who followed the trial would have seen the clarity of the evidence and would know that there was no other verdict to be found. Why were we “relieved” when this turned out to be the case? Because this is not the usual outcome in trials of police, even with an abundance of evidence. And perhaps because we are not trusting in our systems of justice.
Police accountability remains a huge elephant in our communities. We have seen promises, studies, reports and in some cases actual reform. Some of it falls under the mantra of “De-fund the Police” which was widely chanted in the protests across the country following the murder of George Floyd. Cities, large and small, were pushed to look carefully at how they were spending their budgets for police and law enforcement. Why was this budget line the largest every year for the city of Chicago? Who is really accountable for the millions of dollars spent on police equipment that makes our police blend in with our military? The word “de-fund” offended many, but perhaps it began to push local governments to look harder at where their policing dollars were going. Three cities are examples of change: Austin, Texas (now being widely criticized by Texas Governor Abbott), Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis, MN have begun to reimagine and reorganize and re-fund (a lesser costs) their police departments as described by Vox on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Twenty large US cities cut their police budgets, but Austin’s was the largest cut. They re-allocated funds to services that should help eliminate the need for police intervention. Will this make a difference? Only time will tell. In Portland, they are setting up a Portland Citizen Review Committee that will receive complaints about policing, advise the city’s oversight agency, and field appeals from citizens and officers on complaints and investigations, and will be able to subpoena documents and compel the release of evidence, witness testimony, and the cooperation of sworn officers. Rather than recommend discipline, the board will impose it itself — it will even be able to fire officers, including those found to have lied when presenting evidence or testimony during the course of the inquiry. And the new board will have the ability to make policy; should the department reject a rule created by the board, that rule will automatically be sent to the city council for a vote, and the council could vote to institute it. This will be a powerful citizen oversight board. And in Minneapolis, the push for change came swiftly after the death of George Floyd and just as swiftly failed. But a new initiative Yes 4 Minneapolis will be on the ballot this fall that will create a department with armed officers in a department of public safety, that would also contain other safety officials who are experts in mental health and anti-violence. It would re-work oversight and leave room for expansion and redefinition of the department. Are any of these perfect? Probably not. But all recognize that the status quo is not working and is not recognizing the real needs of the communities. Accountability in policing means oversight and change. It is being met by resistance from those who have, for the most part, not been held accountable. It is long overdue.
There are abundant reasons why police are often a “protected class” when it comes to convictions of murder in a court of law. Some of those reasons include laws that protect an officer’s right to use force; qualified immunity that shields law enforcement and other public officials from liability in civil lawsuits; the advantage of powerful police unions; prosecutors who might face conflicts of interest; and even juries that tend to side with the police who were “just doing their very dangerous jobs.” If we look at all of these, pay special attention to qualified immunity which has become the political football in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would eliminate it altogether. In order for plaintiff to make their charges against police stick under qualified immunity they must show that their allegations amount to a violation of constitutional rights and that those rights are “clearly established” law, requiring precedent from a previous case showing courts have sided with plaintiffs in similar circumstances. For most victims of police misconduct, meeting these legal thresholds are almost impossible. According to Jeffrey Fagan, law professor at Columbia University, eliminating qualified immunity would be acknowledging this very real issue. Professor Fagan said, “It says to the public: We’re aware of police wrongdoing and we want to hold them accountable in exactly the same way that we as government want to hold civilians accountable for their criminal behavior.” As the Senate tussles with keeping the elimination of qualified immunity in or out of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, two states – Colorado and New Mexico – have eliminated it. Other states may follow, but at the federal level, the jury is still out.
According to the 1989 Supreme Court decision Graham v Connor police use of force must be “objectively reasonable” and reasons that officers are “often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” This has left a lot hanging when it comes to judging cases involving police killings. And, quite frankly, we do not even have an accurate count of how many of these killings have happened. We have no reliable data. According to The Washington Post’s police shootings database, on-duty police officers have shot and killed more than 5,000 people since 2015. Data on the number of incidents in which police officers use deadly force is also lacking. The bottom line is that we just do not know.
Philip Matthew Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who spearheads a group that tracks data on police crimes said, “It’s rare because the juries are very reluctant to second guess and judge the actions of on-duty police officers in violent street encounters.” Stinson’s research and database on law enforcement officers arrested for murder or manslaughter since 2005 indicates that they number 140 (the numbers may vary as they are based on news reports). Of those numbers, about one third were convicted on some sort of charge, but only seven officers – 5% — were convicted of murder. Murder convictions are few and far-between.
So where does this leave our Black, Brown, Indigenous and oppressed populations when it comes to relations with those who are supposed to serve and protect them? A recent poll released by Axios showed that just 4 of 10 Black respondents had favorable views of police or law enforcement and 57% have unfavorable views. These views are starkly different than those of whites, Latinx or Asian Americans who answered the same poll. As we look at what has happened to Black communities, in particular, at the hands of law enforcement prior to this year and even in the year after May 25, 2020, one might understand this data. The outcry and awakening that came last May has aroused many, but some have awakened to erect more barriers and reinforce their defenses to attempt to preserve what was already in place.
May 25th, 2020 awakened many of us to the injustice that is rampant in our policing and law enforcement. But it did more. It opened our eyes to the realities of systemic racism that pervades all of our communities and systems. When we look at the realities of the situation – It is Black communities that were hardest hit by Covid 19; It is Black communities that suffer the most from gun violence; It is Black communities that are caught in the throes of economic inequality with the fewest pathways out. In some areas, there is some forward movement. Twenty-five states and Washington, DC, have curbed use of force, required intervention by fellow officers, or stripped abusive officers of their ability to work in law enforcement. Nationally, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (JPA) passed the House and awaits action in the Senate. But we can do more. That is our challenge. We must do more than remember and breath a sigh of relief that some things a bit better. We must work harder to ensure that our systems of safety and justice work as well for Black, Brown and Indigenous people as they do for white people and that no barriers of age, sex, gender identity, religion or anything else bar people from opportunities for advancement. We honor the memory of George Floyd in doing so. May his memory be for a blessing.