Although record keeping is poor, experts estimate that out of every 1000 people killed by police in the United States, only 1 officer is convicted of a crime.
What can we do to change that?
1. Start with ourselves
It is very easy to point a finger and say, “those bad officers shouldn’t do that.”
It’s much harder to look ourselves in the mirror and recognize how police reflect us.
Police are not going to change until there is an overall societal shift towards antiracism, that begins with you and me.
Admit that we harbor racist beliefs and work to change ourselves and influence others to join us.
Learn to recognize the humanity in everyone, and that all people are equal in every way and deserving of respect and kindness, employment and housing.
Lose our pro police bias. Open our eyes to the way police interact with people of color.
Practice antiracism in every sphere we influence, from our kid’s school to our workplace, in conversations with our friends and family, and especially when we serve on juries.
2. Vote for candidates who support police accountability at all levels of government
Ultimately, convictions of police officers are very hard to obtain because of the Supreme Court decision Graham v Connor, which grants police tremendous discretion in how they use force, and because prosecutors depend on police to win convictions, creating a conflict of interest.
Reading Graham v Connor you can feel Supreme Court justices’ biases towards police officers and against people of color.
“Police are courteous and kind to me, almost without exception, and black and brown people are scary, so let’s create a legal standard that protects police.”
- subtext of US Sup Ct Graham v Connor decision
To change the Graham standard, we need more Supreme Court justices like Sonia Sotomayor, who have a very different understanding of police and race.
This means we need a President who will appoint justices like Sonia Sotomayor.
We also need more prosecutors who are committed to justice for all. Vote for pro police accountability candidates for District Attorney, as voters in Philadelphia recently did.
Demand elected officials change the way police are prosecuted to make prosecutions more likely. Prosecutors depend on police to try cases, creating a strong disincentive to indict police. Juries tend to sympathize with police, making convictions of police unlikely, another factor that weighs in prosecutors’ decision making. Prosecutors who charge police face tremendous backlash.
One suggestion would be to create independent prosecutors at the state wide level who would investigate and prosecute police use of force cases, without conflicts.
Here in California we have some of the strongest legal protections of police in the United States, stronger than Alabama’s. The Police Officers Associations and Correctional Officers Unions are united as a powerful lobby and influence other unions to support their policy stands, even against the interests of the unions’ members.
To countervail them, we need good government groups like the League of Women Voters to take a stronger stance for police accountability.
3. Apply pressure locally
Police chiefs report to Mayors and in some cities to Police Commissions who set local Use of Force policies. Officers must follow locally- established Use of Force polices or face discipline.
Police unions are powerful politically and local oversight is unlikely to demand police accountability unless they feel the heat from citizens.
Learn what your police department’s Use of Force policy is. Does it require deescalation? When was it created and last updated? How is it enforced? Come together with people who feel the same way and demand change.
Last year, despite vehement opposition and litigation by our Police Officers Association, activists got the San Francisco Police Commission to update our use of force policy, which had been enacted in 1995, to prioritize deescalation. We also got our Police Chief fired and replaced by an outsider committed to reform, despite a protracted struggle with our Police Officers Association.
We are currently struggling to get our District Attorney, George Gascon, to charge police with murder in the 11 open cases of SFPD fatal officer involved shootings; to prevent the implementation of TASERS; to oversee the implementation of 272 recommendations by the US Department of Justice to change SFPD; to raise funds to celebrate Mario Woods Day on July 22nd, his birthday; to raise funds to build a permanent memorial to Alex Nieto on Bernal Hill where SFPD executed him on March 21, 2014; and to get a real fighter appointed head of the Department of Police Accountability.
Learn your local police issues, organize with others, and fight like hell for change.
4. Rethink policing entirely
When high profile cases of police brutality happen, we often think prosecuting the police involved, or technology like body cameras or TASERS is the answer, or training, or other reforms.
When I started in this movement, I thought we could fix police, too.
More and more now, I see clearly the wisdom of Angela Davis and others who have been in this struggle for a long time: a piecemeal approach is not going to solve this problem.
We need the whole enchilada.
“The problem with always pursuing the individual perpetrator in all of the many cases that involve police violence, is that one reinvents the wheel each time and it cannot possibly begin to reduce racist police violence. Which is not to say that individual perpetrators should not be held accountable — they should.”
Malkia Cyril, Director of the Center for Media Justice and cofounder of the Media Action Grassroots Network observed at the Tech Crunch: Justice conference:
“We cannot insert technology into white supremacy and expect anything other than white supremacy.”
-Malkia Cyril @culturejedi
The Movement for Black Lives addresses it this way:
"We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations."
-Movement for Black Lives
Police are expensive.
In addition to manifesting racism, they are not particularly effective at working with youth, mentally ill, homeless, LGBTQ+, immigrants, disabled, pregnant, or intoxicated people.
Many police don’t have the right skills or mindset to be medical first responders, which they are often called upon to do.
Some police don’t handle programs designed to improve relations with young people very well.
Police scare people, and police are scared of people.
People are scared of people, too.
If we truly want police accountability, we must shrink the current police into nonexistence and develop an alternative.
An explicitly anti-racist, diverse across every dimension, kinder, gentler, unarmed corps, with deep roots in the community they serve, with experience in youth development, creativity, emotional intelligence, deescalation, mediation, mental health, physical health, spirituality, and community and relationship building.
This corps would practice restorative justice to uphold laws by engaging the person who violated the law, the victim, and the community.
We cannot fix what was broken from the start.
We must start anew.
Karen Fleshman is the founder of Racy Conversations. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She cofacilitates workshops on race nationwide and online and contributes to Huffington Post. Karen is a cofounder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and serves on the workgroup overseeing US Department of Justice recommendations on ending bias at SFPD. www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren
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