Back in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson set up a commission to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. That work included looking at how police departments operate in black communities. Two years later, the commission had come up with a proposal to screen out prospective cops who are racist and prone to violence. It seemed like a no-brainer.
“Of equal importance with his education is a police candidate’s aptitude for the job: His intelligence, his moral character, his emotional stability, his social attitudes,” the Johnson report said. “The consequences of putting on the street officers who, however highly educated, are prejudiced, or slow witted, or hot tempered, or timid, or dishonest are too obvious to require detailed discussion.”
Yet here we are, nearly a half-century later, and it often feels little progress has been made.
One week brings a cellphone video, or two, of a cop shooting an unarmed man. Another week shows a police officer verbally abusing a woman for “talking back” or making a turn in a car without signaling. And yet another week we might see a cop body-slamming a girl for refusing to leave a pool party or her junior high school classroom.
That these officers are white and the people they are shown allegedly assaulting are black only serves to make one wonder what good was the commission’s report?
“There is no politician that does anything more than wring his hands, call for more communication, better training, more diversity, more body cameras — and none of those steps are going to change what happens,” said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project in New York. “They are merely nibbling around the edges of the bush when what they need to do is uproot the bush.”
An organization called Communities United for Police Reform offers a model for re-creating the concept of policing. The group treats violence as a public health issue. Every human resource a community can muster — including ex-offenders and former gang members — takes on the role of a physician tasked with stopping the spread of an epidemic.
The organizers encourage residents to take more responsibility for policing themselves. No repressive “stop and frisk” police tactics are required. They advocate putting an end to the deadly practice of having armed cops stop motorists because of minor traffic issues, such as a busted taillight.
Why not limit police to investigating major crimes?
Instead of having cops respond to every 911 call, have a list of other service providers to draw on — social workers, ministers, psychiatrists, for instance.
Such changes would certainly meet resistance. Not just from police but from those in wealthier and majority-white neighborhoods for whom police operate as advertised: “to serve and protect.” For those in poor and minority communities, the slogan might as well read: to confine and control.
“One of the things I came to understand and have to accept at a level I had not before is the amount of investment white people have in this system,” said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor and founder of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Because of the safety and other advantages that the system provides white people, it’s been difficult for them to let go of the notion that the system isn’t flawed and let go of the notion that anybody who is innocent won’t be harmed by the system.”
The death of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed black man who was shot by D.C. police last month, is instructive. A much-heralded advance in police reform was the use of body cameras by police. But the officer who shot Sterling didn’t turn his camera on until after the shooting.
“There is no way in the world I can tell you exactly what happened,” Peter Newsham, the interim police chief, said at a news conference after the shooting.
So, after decades of study and efforts to reform the police, after billions of dollars spent on the latest technology aimed at helping police do a better job, the answer was the same old same old.
Cop culture, historically rooted deeper in racism than in justice, simply cannot be “reformed.” It must be abolished; the institution where it festers must be dismantled and created anew.
Uproot that bush.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.