As the racial upheaval of this past spring recedes from our collective consciousness, let’s make sure to hang on to the important lessons that must guide us forward.
George Floyd’s tragic death on May 25 at the hands of the police supposedly jolted America awake to our nation’s persistent problems with police brutality against black people. It supposedly kick-started a reform movement that would result this time in real reforms that might finally end a pattern of brutality and move us closer to achieving equal justice for all.
And those of us who are law-and-order conservatives must lead the charge for commonsense reforms to ensure this is so. Too easily, we could fall reflexively into a traditional-sounding position of simply defending the police and the status quo.
Don’t get me wrong: I will always remain a consistent supporter of the police, whom I consider some of our nation’s bravest heroes. But I also believe we are failing future generations if we neglect to acknowledge the growing concerns about police misconduct.
When our nation loses confidence in policing, our communities become less safe. And in that scenario, we all stand to suffer — blacks, whites, police officers, and civilians.
As we move past the tumult of recent months, we must make progress in restoring our nation’s faith in law enforcement and in achieving real racial reconciliation that goes beyond symbolic gestures.
We all can take some solace, perhaps, from seeing Aunt Jemima ceremoniously booted from syrup bottles, Uncle Ben from rice boxes, and Confederate imagery from the Mississippi state flag. I’m no fan of racial stereotypes in corporate branding. Nor am I drawn to romantic overtures to a pro-slavery secessionist movement from the 1860s.
But what about the more pressing business of ensuring that no black people get wrongfully beaten or killed by police?
We have seen the federal proposals aimed at reforming police agencies — only then to see members of Congress resort to their typical political games rather than cooperating together to achieve workable solutions.
Senate Democrats blocked a very solid reform bill sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate. Then the Democratic-controlled House passed their version of a police reform bill with a provision they knew from the get-go would be a non-starter. Their bill would take away from police the “qualified immunity” that necessarily protects officers from frivolous lawsuits arising from their daily duties.
It’s time for Congress and the states to unite around measures on which everyone can agree — recruiting standards designed to improve the quality of officer candidates; the use of databases to avoid passing problem officers from one agency to another; making it easier to discipline or fire bad officers through merit systems, statutes, and police union contracts; establishing reasonable protocols for when and how to use force against suspects; teaching and reinforcing de-escalation techniques; insisting on proper use of body cameras; embracing a “duty to intervene” when one officer sees another engaging in wrongful conduct; and increasing positive community relations through neighborhood-oriented policing.
Let’s not waste the momentum that currently exists to recalibrate law enforcement and restore much-needed confidence in policing.
We can and should acknowledge that the bad officers who engage in police brutality represent a tiny percentage of law enforcement officers. Further, we can and should acknowledge that black-on-black crime is a much larger contributor to the deaths of black people in America than are police interactions. Those victims’ lives matter, too.
But still, too many of us (myself included) have failed to acknowledge fully that the continuing revelation of verifiable video footage provides us ample evidence of acts of unjustifiable police brutality against black people.
With so many troubling actions caught on camera, how many episodes of misconduct occur that are successfully hidden from public view? It is apparent that brutality is a bigger problem than what we have seen through a few videos, and this issue requires our serious attention and action.
“Overall, in 2019, 24 percent of all police killings were of black Americans,” notes a Statista article, “when just 13 percent of the U.S. population is black — an 11-point discrepancy.” That’s actually an 84% discrepancy. The same article states that black Americans “were nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to be unarmed before their death.”
Such statistics have a whole litany of socioeconomic root causes, but based on what we also know anecdotally, we cannot dismiss out of hand the potential for racial bias as a contributing factor.
Our justice system, which is our law enforcement apparatus, is constitutionally and statutorily designed around the principle of equality. It is designed around the belief in due process and fair play. It is designed around the ideal that justice is “blind” — meaning impartial and objective.
But whenever we still see black brothers and sisters denied fairness and justice, the ideals to which we aspire as a nation are also denied.
As long as black people believe being black in America is associated with being treated with greater suspicion than others, we in America have work to do.
Let’s all stand together, resisting the urge to lash out at one another, and insist that we acknowledge and address these unpleasant truths. Police brutality is real, and it must stop. Bias in the justice system still exists and must be rooted out wherever it is found.
Curtis Hill is Indiana’s attorney general.