In the first half of this year, police have been called to respond to reports of black men sitting in a Starbucks, black people barbecuing in a park, black people picking up litter along a highway, black women leaving an Airbnb, a black woman napping, a black real estate investor checking on his property.
The incidents are so widespread and happen with such frequency that they have been collectively described in a hashtag, #LivingWhileBlack.
That’s why Smith says it’s important not to make the policing of black people just about individuals.
“The problem is not the woman behind the coffee shop counter,” he said. “It’s that she can call the police and they will come and start making arrests without even asking a question.”
But remedies to the problem, if any are offered, tend to focus on changing minds — uncovering latent prejudices, implicit biases — not changing the structures that produce and perpetuate the mind-set.
Last week, Starbucks stores closed for a half-day to give nearly 8,000 employees “anti-bias” training. In the District, which paid out $3.5 million in February to the family of a motorcyclist shot to death by police, “cultural sensitivity” programs became part of police training in April.
Smith says such efforts are not enough to deal with institutionalized police misconduct.
According to the Justice Department’s 2016 report on the Baltimore Police Department, some supervisors instructed officers to specifically target African Americans for enforcement. One sergeant reported that her lieutenant ordered her to instruct those under her command to “lock up all the black hoodies” in her district.
“The pattern of stop-and-frisk in Baltimore showed dramatic racial disparities,” Smith said. “The vast majority of stops were black men in areas where blacks and whites encountered each other — the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and transitioning neighborhoods.”
“It was a practice to control blacks among whites, not to create safety in the black community,” he added.
Such tactics could be implemented only in a police structure that allowed for wholesale racial profiling and harassment.
Smith was chief of the special litigation section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the Obama administration. After the investigations, he worked to facilitate reform through consent decrees with police departments.
But with the election of Donald Trump as president, all consent decrees were put under review with an eye toward ending them.
The decrees were a good start, but more restructuring is still needed, new procedures instituted to ensure more equitable law enforcement. The motto “To serve and protect” should apply to everyone, regardless of race or class.
How do we do that? Maybe we could start by implementing a zero-tolerance policy for cops killing people who aren’t trying to harm them. And don’t just send police recruits on tours of black history museums, hoping they will learn something useful about past atrocities.
Teach them how to walk a beat, get to know black people where they live today and try to make sure they are still alive tomorrow. Speak out against injustice, not mindlessly enforce it. That takes a lot more than passing “implicit bias” tests.
None of this is new. Efforts to fundamentally restructure law enforcement in black communities goes back years. The civil rights committee that Smith now leads was founded in 1968, in response to findings by the Kerner Commission, which issued a report that same year that cited racism, poverty and systemic police brutality as major causes of the nation’s civil unrest during the 1960s.
One way to address the problems, according to the report — police reform.
But interest waned with Richard Nixon’s national “war on crime.” And Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” after that.
Both would disproportionately affect African Americans.
In 1967, there were about 220,000 U.S. residents behind bars, most of them white. Today, there are about 1.5 million, a disproportionate number of them black. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for 33 percent of those locked behind bars, according to Justice Department figures. Whites make up 64 percent of the population but only 30 percent of prisoners.
“Mass incarceration of black people replaced Jim Crow racial segregation as a means of social control,” Smith said.
The two black men arrested at Starbucks remained in custody for nearly nine hours. Only after a video of their encounter with Philadelphia police went viral, drawing the attention of the Starbucks CEO, did prosecutors decide not to charge them with trespassing.
But they still have arrest records, which can affect everything from job prospects to creditworthiness.
Philadelphia Police Chief Richard Ross said all commanders in his department receive “implicit bias” training. They had beaten Starbucks to it. Police recruits also get sensitivity training, Ross noted, making visits to the National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, both in Washington.
The police officers “followed policy,” Ross said of the Starbucks arrests. “They did what they were supposed to do.”
That’s the problem — a policing structure with race “baked in” overrides anti-bias training, a sense of justice, decency and even common sense. And two black men waiting for a friend in a coffee shop get arrested because — that’s what the cops were supposed to do.
“It’s very difficult to change peoples’ minds within the structure that created the mind-set,” Smith said. “You change behavior by changing the structure. Do that, and the mind will follow.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.