America is full of broken systems. And many of these broken systems hurt the people who are most vulnerable and most in need. Perhaps the most obvious examples of our broken systems seem to have something to do with race (or at least correlate with race). The examples that are pointed to most often in the past year or so have to do with how law enforcement officers interact with people of color, such as in the situations involving Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio.
The primary reason that I wanted to write about this issue again has to do with how people have responded to my previous posts, especially my friends who are in law enforcement or who have loved ones who are. By and large these folks have said that my thoughts on these issues are too one-sided.
And this criticism is fair. I have spent most of my energies discussing things from the perspective of people who live in under-resourced neighborhoods and who are typically black and Latino.
So should the other side be explored too? Of course. So I want to do that here. But I want to put this conversation in its proper context.
So here’s the truth. Law enforcement officers have incredibly difficult jobs. Every interaction that they have with the public has the potential to be a life-threatening situation. It makes sense then that law enforcement officers may be on edge. It makes sense that they are often thinking about self-defense and self-preservation.
Add to these the realities the fact that under-resourced areas are policed more heavily, due primarily to more calls being put in to police dispatchers. To make things more complicated, these neighborhoods tend to be populated primarily with blacks and Latinos.
When we plug all these variables into the equation, the result is not surprising — Latinos and blacks are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police.
Therefore, it is wrong for people to assume that all police officers are racist. Obviously there are some that are. But it is unfair to lump all law enforcement officers into that category.
But the problem remains, people in America with black and brown skin are much more likely to be killed by police than others.
Here’s my contention: This reality is the result of broken systems in America and law enforcement officers are the ones who get the see the results of these broken systems most clearly.
Broken Systems Should Be the Focus
When someone dies at the hands of the police, we all should take note. We should ask questions. We should seek justice. We should mourn with the families involved, no matter the culpability of the deceased. And we should lament that this horrible thing happened in the first place.
But our national focus on individual cases is detrimental because it prevents us from paying attention to the larger issues, namely the broken systems. I want to tease this out a bit more.
When my friends who are white get uber-focused on the details of a particular case, they miss opportunities to feel with people who are hurting because of the case. And the focus on details also prevents white people from seeing the broken systems that helped create the scenarios that led to the police-involved deaths. (Note: I’m not saying the details are unimportant. But should the national dialogue be about them? There are people who should be focused on those details. More on that to come…)
And when my friends who are black and Latino get uber-focused on the details of a particular case, they miss opportunities to address the larger issues. This is because allowing a particular case to stand in for the larger issues of the broken systems can lead to unhelpful and distracting conversations. And what if the particular case doesn’t have clear or available evidence? Or, worse, what if the particular case involves a justified use of force? Then the chance to talk about the issues that led to the problems in the first place is much less likely.
So here’s my point: Let’s focus more on the issues that lead to certain communities being under-resourced. Let’s focus on why it is that blacks and Latinos tend to live in these communities more often than whites. Let’s focus more on the horrid schools in under-resourced areas. Let’s focus on how these realities help cause many of us to view black and Latino people, especially males, with suspicion.
Let’s focus on the wider and endemic issues that lead up to the negative interactions with police.
Let’s focus on the broken systems.
Law Enforcement Has Some Brokeness Too
However, we also need to focus on the way that these larger broken systems impact law enforcement officers and agencies.
Because of the realities that we face as a nation, police departments and other law enforcement agencies need extensive training about how to police under-resourced areas in the wisest ways. There are lots of agencies who are doing a great job in this capacity or who are beginning to, such as Seattle and many others. Law enforcement officers are the ones who get to see the realities of all these broken systems. Therefore, they need to be trained in how to deal with these realities in the best ways possible.
Another thing that has been talked about a lot lately is that law enforcement agencies need to alter their recruiting practices so that the policing force looks more like the community they are policing. This not the solution but it certainly could help, especially if police officers can be recruited from the community where they will be policing.
Perhaps the most important area for growth would have to be in the way that excessive force by police is investigated. Currently, it appears that most of these cases are investigated internally by the law enforcement agencies themselves or by local prosecutors. Both of these scenarios are very problematic since they both are wrought with conflict of interest issues. Police investigating police is obviously problematic, especially within the same agency, and since prosecutors rely on police for help with their cases, they may not be the best folks to judge the potential misconduct of police officers either. And since data is hard to come by and the data we have seems to indicate that police officers are not likely to be indicted or even charged with a crime when a suspect is killed, it is clear that what we are currently doing isn’t working. What is needed is an independent office to investigate cases of excessive force. This may help us hold our police officers more accountable for their actions when necessary.
It’s time for some change. Our broken systems need to be fixed and it’s our job as a society to do the fixing. Let’s call for common sense solutions (like independent investigations of excessive force).
Another common sense change is to stop is labeling all police, or all white police, as racist. That’s simply not true and it’s certainly not helpful in these discussions.
And, lastly, we need to focus more and more on the larger broken systems that lead to the scenarios like those involving Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.
Thoughts? What are some other common sense solutions that you can think of? Share them below and keep it civil!