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A Deadly Problem and Its Solution: Policing and Race In America

Leo Ogle '23

On the afternoon of May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, was in the process of being arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill. Mr. Floyd showed no signs of violently resisting arrest, but he was pinned to the ground anyway. Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes. Even after he slipped into unconsciousness and paramedics were on scene, he remained on Mr. Floyd’s neck. Floyd died later that evening. He wasn’t striking out against the officers. He had not been officially charged with any crime, so why did he deserve to die? (New York Times)

There is a problem in this nation: implicit bias and systemic racism amongst police officers has led to the deaths of people of color. A problem most clearly stated by a study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that in the United States, “Among all groups, Black men and boys face the highest lifetime risk of being killed by police. Our models predict that about 1 in 1,000 Black men and boys will be killed by police over... life.” This is 2.5 times that of white men and boys.

One may argue that this is because areas where people of color live have higher crime rates. However, according to the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group working out of Washington, DC, “[s]ince many crimes go unreported to the police, it is difficult to draw conclusions about race with respect to who offends. The most reliable statistics available are arrest data… but these figures omit those who committed an offense but were not arrested.”

A cadet of color told me about a conversation he had with his father about how police would treat him. This young man is a morally upstanding model citizen and a high achieving student, whose father’s personal experience told him that he would need to be on guard to avoid ending up like Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, or George Floyd. I, as a white student, cannot even imagine what it would be like to have to have this conversation.

Given these arguments, I do not want to be misconstrued. I am not saying all cops are horrible racists, but what I am saying is that the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement is a historically broken one, and I am proposing that we fundamentally change both the role of police officers and the way the community interacts with them.

Let’s first address the problem of race. Implicit bias training certainly is beneficial to officers, but it does not completely solve the problem at hand. Racism has never been a silver bullet subject. “Researchers have found that greater diversity in police departments and local government boosts trust in those institutions in nonwhite neighborhoods,” reports Lauren Leatherby and Richard Oppel of the New York Times. Unfortunately, much like implicit bias training, it isn’t perfect but it is a large step in the right direction. Training like this can be augmented by de-escalation training. This training isn’t just focused on racial bias, but also bringing the temperature of dangerous situations down. The Las Vegas police department has been at the forefront of this training, and has seen great success. Sgt. Brian Briggs of the LVPD described the purpose of the training to the Chicago tribune, “[w]e are trying to tell people it's OK, we have more time... There were too many incidents, too many shootings, too many even uses of force. People were saying we need to come up with a new way of thinking about it."

The second central piece to changing police and community relations is the demilitarization of police. A report published by the ACLU stated, “[o]ur neighborhoods are not warzones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies… yet every year, billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments.” A study done by a group of social and political experts had this conclusion on the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement: “the receipt of more military equipment increases both the expected number of civilians killed by police.” Quite simply put, when anyone is given the weapons of a soldier, it will lead to them acting more aggressively both because of the power wielded by such equipment and the logical step that if they get these weapons of war they must be endangered.

We have a clear problem. There exists a racial disparity in the way America is policed. Here is a solution. Increasing knowledge about implicit racism and having police departments reflect their community. In addition, we must limit the militarization of police, so as to see them as members of a community and not as an invading force. This means recruiting from within the community and not from the suburbs.

We must seek to understand what we don’t understand. We must have the conversations about race that make us uncomfortable. We are the future police officers and leading citizens, so we must dispel this toxic American racial narrative.

Race in Policing

William Benson '22

Over the past few years, it seems as if a minimal yet growing belief has now taken a firm root in American society: the police are systemically racist.

The idea that there is systemic police racism is a false idea. The notion that most police officers across the country are racist is also not true. In fact, statistics show that the majority of police officers are not racist, and race is not a motivating factor in policing.

That being said, incidents of police misconduct deserve unequivocal condemnation and accountability for those involved. However, it is important to remember that these anecdotal incidents are not representative of all police officers nationwide, the vast majority of whom are good, hardworking people who want to protect their communities. Time and again we have seen police officers do heroic things for the safety of their communities.

According to Heather MacDonald for the Wall Street Journal, “In 2015 a Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects.” In addition, “a ‘deadly force’ lab study at Washington State University by researcher Lois James found that participants were biased in favor of black suspects, over white or Hispanic ones, in simulated threat scenarios,” according to the same article.

Regardless of position, broadly generalizing a large group of people will not create peace in communities. Can we prove that every day police officers go out to act on racial impulses? I believe most people are willing to stand up in protest of overtly racist behavior. However, the act of racism must be specific and defined, not just the possibility of a thought in a person’s head.

The solution to changing perceptions of police is one of changing hearts and minds. We have to show that police officers are not the enemy. We all have to work together to have police officers establish better trust and relationships within their communities, so they can better be a part of the solution of stopping crime and violence everywhere.

Anti-law enforcement rhetoric was a massive part of fueling violence across the country this summer. The sad part is that none of this is conducive to actually creating wishful policy goals. If we are to create any policy changes, we must all respectfully come to the table. Obviously, not every person is advocating for violence or saying we should defund the police; however, if all we do is broadly call police officers racist, there is much less of an open environment and opportunity to actually talk about positive change.

According to research analyzed by the City Journal, with more police there will be less crime overall. As cities across the country “defund the police,” more crime will happen as a result. That will not make communities safer or more peaceful. Furthermore, after significant cuts to its police department this summer, the Minneapolis City Council recently approved over $6 million in funding to hire additional police officers after more than 200 officers left the force this summer.

If there is anything we can take from all of this it is that the key to police reform will be to help officers have stronger ties to their communities. These brave men and women deserve our support as they put themselves on the line every day to protect us. When an officer crosses the line, accountability is required, but broadly calling police officers racist or cutting their funding is not going to make anyone safer. We must back the blue and help build better, safer communities.