Before my 1-year-old son had celebrated his first birthday or even his first tooth, he’d interacted with police. My wife was pulled over the first time she left the house during her maternity leave. Our son was tucked into the car seat just behind her. Our three daughters — ages 9, 7 and 6 — also have been in the car when we’ve been pulled over.
None of this is out of the ordinary for black people in the United States. That’s the society we live in. That’s our shared reality.
That reality was embedded into our society before the founding of our country — particularly when it comes to law enforcement. Going back to 1619, when the first enslaved Africans set foot on the shores of Hampton, Va., the anti-black racist ideas necessary to dehumanize and enslave an entire race of people have been embedded in every system in this country, most visibly through state-sanctioned police violence. Particularly in the South, police forces were formed to round up escaped slaves. They were militias created and weaponized to hunt black people.
That’s the history of this country.
This context is necessary to understand this moment. It’s integral to acknowledging the intergenerational trauma black people experience and to seeing the intergenerational racist system that remains in place.
That’s the system that allows some people to think that putting a knee to George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — even with the conscious knowledge that you’re being recorded, other police officers are standing right behind you and people are screaming at you to “get off his neck” — is an acceptable use of force for a police officer. That’s the system that gives a white woman the ability to invoke the threat of state-sanctioned violence on Christian Cooper while birdwatching in Central Park. That’s the system that killed Breonna Taylor sleeping in her bed, Rayshard Brooks after sleeping in his car, Ahmaud Arbery running in his neighborhood, Sandra Bland starting a new job and Tamir Rice playing on the playground.
What do we do?
First, we must acknowledge that we are not immune. Systemic racism is alive and well here in Maryland. That doesn’t mean that every police officer in our state is racist. There are many excellent public servants who are effectively guarding the communities they swore to protect. But the system they operate in — what they track, how they were instructed to view public safety, whom they protect or punish — is promulgated on racist ideas and policy.
Here in Montgomery County, we’ve had black men killed by police. Finan Berhe was shot and killed by police in front of his Silver Spring home after experiencing a mental health crisis. Robert White was shot and killed by police while walking through his Silver Spring neighborhood — a walk he’d done hundreds of times before.
Second, we need to reimagine public safety and rebuild trust in law enforcement. This will require at least three things: changing hiring practices; changing what we track, prioritize and reward; and improving transparency and accountability.
Hiring practices must emphasize communications skills and psychological examination results. The No. 1 tool used by good police officers is communication skills — to de-escalate, explain and speak to residents with respect. In addition, police departments must hire more officers of color and require them to live in the communities they are charged to protect and serve.
When we track, reward and promote our officers, we should give more weight to positive outcomes: How many situations have they de-escalated? How many people have they helped? How many community events have they attended? Right now, we have the opposite. If you walk into a police station today, you’ll likely see a whiteboard hanging on the wall that keeps a tally of officers’ arrests and citations. The federal government reinforces this ranking system by giving more money to police agencies that have more arrests. This perverse incentive structure encourages a system of “broken windows” or “proactive policing,” which is ripe for racial profiling and disproportionately impacts communities of color. It also leads to unnecessary interactions with law enforcement that have little to do with public safety and all too often end up deadly. If we are going to change this system, we will need to change the way we allocate budgets — investing more in social services and mental health programs, including our county’s crisis intervention team, and less on police in schools and military equipment for police departments. This is what is called “defunding the police.”
Finally, when it comes to transparency and accountability, we need more — not less. Last year, I launched an effort to do this in Montgomery County by authoring the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency (LETT) Act, which is now law. The LETT Act requires independent investigations and public reporting when an officer kills a resident. This month, I introduced a bill with colleagues to change our use-of-force policy, requiring deadly force be used only when absolutely necessary and only as a last resort, prohibiting chokeholds and creating a duty to intervene if an officer witnesses another officer using excessive force.
Taken with meaningful changes at the state and federal levels, these steps can help us reimagine policing and rebuild trust in our communities. My hope is that when my 1-year-old son grows up, his relationship with law enforcement will be much different than mine.