Until the tragic killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, few seriously questioned the brutal hand of racism as orchestrated through increasingly militarized local police forces, our legal system, our penal code, banking, employment, and other institutions. The ensuing mass protests across the U.S. have now forced us to see in a new light some of the real consequences of racism.
While these institutions continue to systematically deny Black and Brown people their freedom, safety, health, livelihoods and lives, this poignant moment has afforded us both the opportunity and obligation to look deeply into our collective soul and reconcile the hard truth of what we have passively allowed or actively pursued.
The cause of our current crisis is rooted in a police culture that supports armed responses to problems that are – in most cases – not violent at all. Their culture of racism is a product of a broader racist community environment and related policies and practices. For example, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and the “Three Strikes” law have contributed to incarceration rates for Blacks that are five times that of Whites. This is how we ended up with a Black prison population of more than 2.3 million, 34% of the overall 6.8 million prison population.
Similarly, social determinants of health impacting Black Americans are also a devastating social fallout of racism. Contrasted with Whites, more Black Americans experience substandard employment, housing, education, income and access to health services. They are also more frequently subject to occupational hazards, toxic chemical exposure, food deserts, violence in their neighborhoods, and easy access to alcohol and drugs.
These practices have been widely institutionalized over centuries. To combat them, we need to start examining policing policies and practices on the local and state level.
Most decisions that impact police, policing, incarceration, and related issues are made at the state and local levels. States can and should mandate policies and practices such as banning racial profiling, limiting use of force, collecting information on police violence, and mandating independent investigation and prosecution of officers who use deadly force.
On the local level, cities need to question and rethink the role of police and policing. The City of Minneapolis unanimously passed a resolution to dismantle the police department and replace it with a community-led public safety response model. Other cities are enforcing dramatic reductions – cutting tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars – in police budgets and channeling funds to restorative programs to address some underlying inequities that lead to crime and violence.
These efforts are a start, but they need to be combined with other effective efforts to remove racism from police departments. We need state and local officials to replace “broken windows policing” with “community policing.” This means removing quotas for stops and arrests and instead involve community members in decision-making, prevention approaches, and the pursuit of fair treatment for all community members. This also means identifying and investigating hate crimes and implementing deflection and diversion programs. Local and state officials need to collect and publish data on race, ethnicity, age, and gender of those stopped, searched, and arrested by police officers.
As prevention professionals know from work with other issues, expecting individuals to change through education while the culture remains the same is an exercise in futility. It is no surprise that body cameras, police officers of color, and cultural sensitivity training have proven ineffective at changing racist behaviors among police departments. Such reforms relied far too heavily on our police forces to be the front-line interveners on matters that have little to no need for traditional police involvement – such as mitigating problems with homeless people, child disciplinary problems in schools, and verbal domestic disputes.
Only a small percentage of police calls for service are responding to violent situations. Yet, tragically, police involvement in such cases has too frequently led to violent and even deadly confrontation. While there is still a need for armed protection in many cases, most of what police are called to address is more appropriate for mental health professionals, social workers, and public health or medical professionals. State and local policies need to make room for these professionals to become our first responders.
We now have a window of opportunity for significant, structural change that can start to undo some of the institutionalized racist practices advanced by our current policing approaches. If we can get our state and local officials to respond appropriately, we could positively impact the next generations of Americans and transform our country dramatically for the better.