I served as a police officer for almost 30 years in Denver and New York City. I can tell you firsthand that we still have too many officers who subscribe to the belief that specific communities are full of threats to neutralize, not people to serve and protect. A new way of policing, one based on the consent of the community, can never take root in that poisoned soil.
Officers who see only threats are more likely to use force before exhausting other options, increasing the chances of tragedies such as the one in Minneapolis. Officers who don’t see humans first bristle at the simple, pro-human statement that "black lives matter." When the fires die down, law enforcement leaders across the United States need to ensure that toxic beliefs die with them.
I want to be clear: I have served with thousands of deeply honorable police officers who do their absolute best to help people. In my experience, no one joins the force wanting to take a life. And as a black woman in uniform, I understand the tension between law enforcement’s roles in protecting communities and perpetuating racial inequity better than most.
To establish any credibility with black communities, leaders need to state unequivocally what has been obvious to anyone with an Internet connection and a conscience: Derek Chauvin was rightly charged with the murder of George Floyd. Law enforcement institutions that have stood silent in the past have already taken unprecedented steps in the right direction. The Major Cities Chiefs Association, for instance, called Floyd’s death “criminal.” To my surprise, unions that had remained silent about past misconduct proclaimed that “Reverence for life … must be the floor and not the ceiling” for every police encounter.
Acknowledging the truth when police take a life without just cause is a prerequisite. So is acknowledging the historic role police have played in terrorizing black communities, from slave patrols to the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. The latter is well within living memory; police need to account for why many see the badge as a symbol of oppression before they can begin to overcome that perception.
A new way of policing requires new systems for accountability. That includes charging those who enable excessive force such as the three officers in the George Floyd case who were charged Wednesday. Chiefs across the country would tell you that employment panels or arbitration processes frequently thwart their efforts to fire bad actors. In many cases, they need legislators’ help to remove those barriers and prevent fired officers from obtaining a job in a different department.
It is within their power, however, to foster a culture that does not tolerate silence in the face of injustice. Officers who speak out should be commended, not ostracized. And departments can adopt policies that reduce harm, such as prohibiting chokeholds and requiring officers to keep their distance from those who pose no danger to others.
Departments also need to change their composition — especially higher up the chain of command, and especially when it comes to including women. Diversity is no panacea, but I’ve seen how female officers excel at finding collaborative solutions and deescalating dangerous situations. Measures that would enable more women to become officers and climb the ranks, from intentional recruiting to support for child care, would equip departments to better serve their communities.
As the deaths of black men and women continue to mount and the collective pain of a community boils over, some argue that improving policing is pointless — that we’d be better off defunding departments entirely. I can sympathize; this is difficult and, at times, discouraging work. But on the other side of this crisis, we will still need policing in some form. We should strive to align it with the values of communities as much as possible.
And while we work toward a new way of policing, we should also imagine a country that doesn’t use law enforcement as its default response to unaddressed epidemics such as homelessness, generational poverty and substance abuse. Sending guns and badges can’t provide anyone with a home, a job or freedom from addiction. And it certainly can’t compensate for our inadequate public health response to covid-19.
Instead of threatening protesters with police, we could deal honestly with the pain driving people to the streets. That will require real strength and real leadership.