It’s Time To Really Question How We Police in America

Unless we make a concerted effort to reassess how police use force, we will continue to see cases like George Floyd and so many others.

Lost in the commotion of worldwide protests related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is a fundamental question about the way police do their jobs in this country. There have been calls for reform in a very general way over a number of years, but these have never gotten to the core of what happens when over 1,000 Americans per year die in encounters with police officers.

I’ve heard the same calls for reform and better training for officers since the Rodney King affair in Los Angeles in 1991-92. I feel like I’m listening to a broken record.

It always seems to play out the same way. First come the calls for training on implicit bias and de-escalation. These calls are followed by the creation of commissions to study the issue. Recommendations are issued that may or may not lead to piecemeal changes.

The deaths of two black men saying “I can’t breathe” is heartbreaking. Neither incident called for use of force. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes and Floyd was accused of using a counterfeit bill. Both men were put in holds or restraints preventing them from breathing.

According to a recent CNN analysis of Minneapolis police records, since the beginning of 2012 officers from the department have rendered people unconscious with neck restraints 58 times. Although blacks are 19% of the population in Minneapolis, two-thirds of the people put in neck restraints and 57% of those who lost consciousness were black.

I’m not an expert in police tactics, but it is clear to me that the force used against George Floyd was excessive. Still, it is very important that we not focus on this one incident and get lost in the minutiae of what happened on May 25. There needs to be a broader conversation and much more detailed assessment of why, on average, someone dies in encounters with police every eight hours.

If better training were the answer, the problem would have been solved a long time ago. There is certainly room for more effective training of police officers, but it’s far from enough. In March, police in Louisville using a no-knock warrant burst into the home of a 26-year old black woman, Breonna Taylor, while she was sleeping and shot her eight times after her boyfriend, fearing a break-in, fired his weapon in self defense. We found out later that the man they were searching for was already in custody. We only started to give attention to her case after George Floyd was murdered.

What is so problematic to the African American community around the country is that seemingly every time we’ve gotten over one of these incidents another one happens. Officials call for reforms, community members protest and nothing really changes. Police officers kill unarmed people and are rarely charged with a crime. Data provide us with insight on how prevalent these killings are. Police in the United States killed 7,666 people from 2013-2019, according to Mapping Police Violence. Of the 1,099 killed last year, 24 percent were black despite us only accounting for 13 percent of the nation’s population. Blacks were three times more likely to be killed by police than whites.

Of these 7,666 killings, police were charged with a crime only 99 times. There were only 25 officers convicted of a crime. The lack of criminal charges and convictions is problematic. I clearly remember watching the videos of Rodney King, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray thinking in the moment that these were slam-dunks. Saying to myself, “No way they get away with this.”

Of course, I was wrong each time. I no longer assume that charges will be filed and certainly don’t hold out hope that a conviction is forthcoming. Juries and district attorneys seem to place more faith in police accounts than in what our eyes tell us we see. I’m tired of the old worn-out response: “We did not see enough to bring charges.” You see someone being killed and that’s not enough? What else do you need to see?

Violence should not be part of the standard operating procedures for police officers when they come on the scene of something that is not related to a violent action or accusation of a violent action.

I feel very strongly that there is a fundamental flaw in how we police in this country. Far too often I’ve seen police become very aggressive in an innocuous situation and escalate into putting hands on people. In addition to that, it appears to me that people are handled in a very heavy-handed way when they don’t pose a threat. I can’t imagine why a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill ends in a man’s death. In far too many cases, innocent situations turn deadly for black people. I anticipate things not ending well when I see police following behind me while out driving. I should not have to fear the police.

Violence should not be part of the standard operating procedures for police officers when they come on the scene of something that is not related to a violent action or accusation of a violent action. In those cases, it makes sense for them to be ready to protect themselves. We talk about de-escalating situations, but so often that does not appear to be what some officers do.

Unless we make a concerted effort to reassess how police use force, we will continue to see cases like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I suggest thinking about the nature of policing and why using force is so often the norm. Aggressiveness by police leads to unnecessary use of force. I’ve experienced this myself.

It takes courage to admit when we are wrong. It is incumbent upon our police departments to be self-reflective in these incidents instead of being defensive. When cops commit crimes, we need to treat them the same as we treat civilians who commit crimes. Arrest them right away. Charge them expeditiously knowing that charges can always be amended. Show transparency if you want communities of color to trust the process.

Reggie Jackson is co-founder of Nurturing Diversity Partners and head griot of America’s Black Holocaust Museum