JURIST Guest Columnists from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence Kami Chavis, a law professor at Wake Forest University, and Josh Horwitz, the Fund's executive director, discuss ways to address systemic police violence against people of color...
The image of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck as the dying man cried, “I can’t breathe,” is now etched in the consciousness of an entire generation. The repugnant violence committed by Chauvin and the other complicit officers – and by too many police before them – breeds severe community distrust of law enforcement which leads to long-term negative impacts on public safety.
Police violence perpetrated against Black people is not just morally abhorrent; it is a serious public health problem with multiple components. Most immediately, police violence involves primary violence – the violent acts committed by unjust police officers that inflict physical and psychological pain on the victim. This harm reverberates throughout the victim’s local community, and as we have seen, leads to fear and frustration within affected communities. And finally, each incident of police violence further contributes to a systemic problem that drives systemic violence: the erosion of trust between law enforcement and the communities that they are supposed to serve and protect.
Studies show that distrust between law enforcement and the community is a significant driver of systemic violence, and nothing hurts trust like active police violence. The moment we are now experiencing is simply another boiling point in a disturbing pattern of racial violence present since the inception of modern American police departments. The demand for transformative change that addresses this root cause of violence is so great that even a global pandemic will not stop people from spilling into the streets to protest. People would rather risk their health and safety than remain silently at home.
Nearly every instance of civil unrest in this country over the past 60 years was instigated by police violence against an unarmed Black man – from the 1965 uprising in Watts to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion and more recently, unrest in Cincinnati, Ferguson and Baltimore. The only difference between these instances and those of the past is that now, images of police violence against Blacks are readily available and the world can watch them in real time. Although the officers did not use a firearm against Mr. Floyd, those protesting his death and demanding change invoke the collective memory of others including Timothy Thomas, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans who have been victims of police gun violence.
The truth is, law enforcement officers police Black and Brown people in an entirely different manner than they do white communities. Police detain, search, arrest and use force, especially lethal force, disproportionately against Blacks. When the inherent bias in the criminal justice system is combined with police violence, the most marginalized communities are the ones that suffer both the short term and long term consequences. After every inflection point, there are calls for reform, hashtags and protests. And yet, the violence persists.
If reducing police violence, and breaking the cycle of violence it spawns in an effort to save Black lives is the goal, what would some priorities to achieve real transformative change look like, especially as this debate becomes agenda item number one for local and state legislatures as well as Congress?
The first step is to curtail police authority to engage in encounters that lead to violence. Some jurisdictions – recognizing that the costs may outweigh the benefits – have already implemented such changes. For example, some departments or municipalities do not allow police to stop people for minor traffic violations. To the extent that these violations need to be monitored at all, there are enough red-light cameras to do the job. In the era of COVID, many jurisdictions have had to prioritize the instances where their officers will be dispatched. If we find that violent crime has not increased in these jurisdictions, maybe we will recognize that these encounters were never necessary in the first place.
Second, we need to know more about the people we are empowering to take these lives before we vest them with the authority. We cannot train away some of the violent behaviors we are seeing. It is best not to employ people who have to be convinced, through training, that Black and Brown lives matter. More rigorous psychological testing that includes assessments about bias and propensity toward violence is needed at the front end of the process. This also might include a thorough review of an applicant’s social media presence to determine whether applicants have communicated racist propaganda.
But, because even the most careful selection process is not foolproof, “problem” officers should be identified and disciplined. Most police violence within a department is usually caused by a small number of officers. Those who repeat their behaviors without consequence deserve discipline or removal from their jobs. Derek Chauvin had 18 prior complaints, and Thu Thao, another officer involved in Mr. Floyd’s death, is a named defendant in a case where a man’s teeth were kicked out of his mouth. The ability to use force – when necessary – is part of the job, but the judgment to know when force is unnecessary must be as well.
Furthermore, we must break the Blue Code of Silence. Clear internal police regulations and whistleblower protection laws must protect good officers so that they do not fear retaliation for calling out the egregious misconduct of their colleagues. Many police chiefs and police officers agree that Chauvin is a disgrace to his profession, but his fellow officers on the scene failed to intervene to assist Mr. Floyd or offer CPR. This choice may give clues about their character, but it also speaks volumes about the culture of policing and the reticence many officers feel about reporting misconduct they witness.
Finally, we must remove the longstanding legal hurdles that routinely block the criminal prosecution of officers when their conduct reaches that level. Victims of police misconduct can sue police officers for violating their civil rights, but only if that right is “clearly established.” This is a difficult standard to meet, leaves victims of police violence and their families without justice, and allows problem officers on the job to resume the cycle of violence. A number of cases currently before the Supreme Court give it the chance to redefine this doctrine.
To end the violence in our streets, we must address all of the root causes of violence, and this means understanding and addressing police violence as one of those causes. There are well-developed solutions available to spur a paradigmatic shift in policing, but we must have the will to implement them. Organizations focusing on reducing violence must acknowledge that police violence is a root cause of violence, and they must center their advocacy on these solutions.
Kami Chavis is professor of law and director of the criminal justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law and a consultant to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
Josh Horwitz is executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
Suggested citation: Kami Chavis and Josh Horwitz, Improving Community Safety Means Addressing Police Violence as a Public Health Problem, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 13, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/06/chavis-horwitz-police-violence-reform/.
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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