The Times-Tribune

Police problems rooted in institutio­nal racism


GUEST COLUMNIST Americans have seen far too many African American men like George Floyd die at the hands of police. But there is hope based on the vast majority of good police officers, reforms in the past decade and the belief that finally there may be national resolve to address systemic police brutality.

It is painfully true that, despite federal efforts going back to the 1960s, the question of the proper role of police in a free society remains. We are shocked by videos of brutal murders of black men and studies that document daily verbal abuse, excessive force and disrespect­ful treatment African American residents receive from police.

We are battling historical­ly entrenched institutio­nal racism. U.S. law enforcemen­t has its roots in southern slave patrols and more organized department­s in the north. Both upheld the structures of power that benefited white slave owners or white urban politician­s. Less than a century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court had to remind police in Mississipp­i that it is, in fact, unlawful for a sheriff to allow a white lynch mob to beat a black suspect and hang him in a tree to coerce a confession from him.

The system has always been broken. But since the 2014 police-involved homicide of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there have been significan­t changes. The criminal justice system is more open to charging and indicting police who abuse power; some cities have elected reform-minded district attorneys and the prison population has steadily declined to a 20-year low. These changes coincide with fewer yearly policeinvo­lved deaths since 2015, a reduction in serious crime and an increase in positive public perception­s of police.

The overwhelmi­ng majority of police care deeply about serving. The problem is that these upstanding officers are part of a system deeply rooted in racism.

My preliminar­y analysis of city, state and university police confirms that “no one hates a bad cop more than a good cop.” This analysis found that police were less forgiving of abuses of power by fellow officers than were regular citizens. Unfortunat­ely, it is difficult for the police moral majority to keep out, weed out, and speak out against bad officers. The “blue wall of silence” continues. In Baltimore, a detective reported the beating of a suspect, despite being warned by a sergeant that it would ruin his career. For upholding police integrity, the detective was labeled a rat by fellow officers and was denied necessary back-up.

Moreover, laws protect police from legal responsibi­lity. For example, qualified immunity is a federal law that protects them when they make wrong but reasonable judgments. Lawmakers add further privileges to shield police from being held responsibl­e for their actions. Pennsylvan­ia legislator­s exempted police body-worn camera footage from the Right-to-know law and voted to withhold the names of officers involved in shootings, making it less likely that police misdeeds will receive public attention.

The news media and entertainm­ent industry portray police as warriors rather than neighborho­od guardians. Police training emphasizes an esprit de corps that values force and loyalty to each other, instead of the equanimity and loyalty that communitie­s need.

We must demand transparen­cy when police are accused of misconduct. Body-worn camera footage should be available and we should repeal state laws that limit public access to police records. Police found guilty of certain crimes should be banned for life from wearing the badge.

We also must hold police publicly accountabl­e for not reporting the misdeeds of their colleagues. Just as the best crime prevention programs require citizens to take responsibi­lity for their neighborho­ods, police legitimacy is best served when police take responsibi­lity for upholding their own standards of behavior.

Finally, we should divide police personnel into those needed to respond to situations that require specialize­d, rigorous physical and tactical training, and those who handle the myriad daily interactio­ns that improve police legitimacy and ensure community well-being.

For the past 12 years, researcher­s at the University of Vermont have analyzed tweets to determine the daily global happiness level. Their Hedonomete­r, as it’s called, determined May 29, 2020, was the saddest day ever recorded on Twitter.

Yes, there is sadness and terror in America, but good people are involved in nonviolent protests. They inspire us as we continue the hard work of improving the police institutio­n, which should play a vital role in contributi­ng to the wellbeing of all Americans.

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Michael J. Jenkins, PH.D., an associate professor of criminal justice, is executise director of the Center for Analysis and Presention of Crime at the Unisersity of Scranton.
JENKINS Michael J. Jenkins, PH.D., an associate professor of criminal justice, is executise director of the Center for Analysis and Presention of Crime at the Unisersity of Scranton.

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