Last night, April 20th, I slept soundly and comfortably following the guilty verdicts given to Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Since last May, I have watched TV and read about the death of George Floyd and what if any justice he and his family would receive from the American criminal justice system. Justice was served yesterday for Floyd and his family, yet justice for African Americans and other Americans of color has not been realized; and the criminal justice system and the institution called the Police, needs serious and targeted reform.
We have moved past the time in which more training, more policies, more rules, and regulations are the solution to what is wrong. If we go back into history and look at the reasons why police forces were created in the first place, to protect the property and safety of the wealthy against the masses, we know that the institution called the Police was never created to protect all the people, only some. Add to its original purpose the historically negative attitudes held by the society toward African Americans, and other people of color, among others, and it is any wonder that in an increasingly diverse country, policing could work at all as it is currently configured. The purpose of the police has, over the generations, become attractive to some (not all) men and now women who hold beliefs and attitudes supported by this powerful and authoritarian institution. How many police have people of color confronted that are rude, mean, hostile, dismissive, too physical, and demonstrate a lack of respect toward them? Survey the Black community and the numbers are large. So large that a required lesson for young Black men and boys is for parents to teach them how to interact with the police in ways that minimize the risk to their lives. I have provided this lesson to my sons for over 30 years, and still provide the lesson to them as adults every time a Black man is killed at the hands of the police. It’s become a lifelong endeavor.
Defunding the police is not the answer. Re-allocating resources away from force as the primary solution to a variety of other interventions, by mental health, educational institutions, and services in the community able to solve a range of problems is. Defunding the police is not the answer, but reforming the outreach, recruitment, on boarding and orientation process for police officers is. Becoming a police officer should never be a profession one enters when they are unable to do anything else; or simply because dad was a policeman. Policing should require an education; coursework on a range of topics and subject matter that teaches human behavior, psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, science, languages, and other subject matter that expands one’s mind and perspective-that enables one to become and educated person. Defunding the police is not the answer but acknowledging (and supported by social psychological theory) the impact of years “on the streets” on the approach toward the people they are policing is. Today, we honor the policemen who have been policing the streets for 20+ years without also recognizing the psychological toll it takes on them and their views. I will never forget my summer experience in my senior year in college, working in the New York City Criminal Court at 100 Center Street, Probation Department. It was my job to interview and intake defendants and complainants. Everyone I interacted with, every day during that summer, were engaged with the New York criminal justice system because they had in some way broken the law. By the end of that summer, I was not only anxious to return to school and my other life but was conscious that this summer job had begun to impact my personality and ways I interacted with the people who I was hired to serve. I was rude, dismissive, impatient in my interactions with them. I had become an example of the stereotypical government worker that disliked the people I was there to serve. I was both horrified and disappointed that I had become that kind of person, and I am a good person; someone who, at that point in my life had decided that I wanted to pursue a career that helped others. I think that many police experience the same transformation (as do corrections officers in prisons). Police departments need to implement rotational programs that encourage their police officers to “ride a desk” or engage in other tasks for periods of time; they need periodic respites from work on the streets.
It is time, motivated by the federal government, for our nation to come together to decide what we want 21st century policing to be. We can all acknowledge that what we have now is not working; and the historic purpose and legacy of policing is just not applicable or appropriate today. We can no longer tolerate a failure of imagination among our political and community leadership; it is time to work with the American people to envision a new way forward.