For generations, police abuse and violence have been ubiquitous in the Black community. We have seen officers murder Black men and women with guns, with chokeholds and with hanging—and get away with it. We have seen departments employ stop-and-frisk and other discriminatory policies that equate Blackness with illegality. And we have seen police attack peaceful protesters when they dare to speak up. The unceasing violence and targeting have left deep scars, and open wounds, in Black communities across America.
Over the past month, white Americans have begun to wake up to the realities of American policing and taken to the streets alongside Black people, chanting “Black lives matter” all across the country, even in previously unimaginable places, like Texarkana or Wichita Falls, Texas.
Mayors and city councils are questioning the basic argument that policing makes us safer. They are finally examining whether we should begin putting our money into resources that build up communities, rather than tear them down. It is an inspiring yet terrifying time, with COVID-19 still ravaging our communities.
As we collaborate to imagine a dramatically different way of operating in the future and start thinking critically about and discussing issues of safety and race, we need to make sure to treat this like the generational and deep-seated problem that it is and act accordingly.Ads by scrollerads.com
We can’t chip away at the margins of a policing system that was designed to perpetuate oppression. These are institutions formed to break up organized labor, like in Pennsylvania; to hunt down native non-white populations, like in Texas; or to catch people held as slaves as they searched for freedom, as occurred all over the country. No matter what changes you make to policing, trying to “update it for the 21st century” or imposing “accountability measures,” this history will always be a part of it. We must discuss, then, not whether we can “fix it,” but how we can radically transform it into something that actually helps all communities.
Many of the current proposals, though well intentioned, won’t do that. Several elected officials, including those in the federal government, have put forth procedural “fixes,” promising to provide de-escalation, bias and mental health training, as well as improve the use of body cameras. These are nice baby steps, but they are unlikely to cause major change—or perhaps any change at all.
The Minneapolis police force, for example, received de-escalation and implicit bias training. That didn’t help. Officers filmed Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd on their body cameras. That didn’t save his life.
Likewise, placing bans on chokeholds and limiting the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement, as Congress has proposed, are good reforms. But none of these measures meet the scope of the problem or the demands of the movement that is filling our streets. Police will still be armed and empowered to inflict violence and bring “order” to our communities, rather than actually provide the help that people need. Anything short of a fundamental reimagining of the role of police in our lives will feel designed to end the protests while allowing harmful policing to continue as always.
Some are afraid to talk about radical transformation because they believe that without aggressive policing, we will not be safe. Many heads of police unions are taking the podium to tell us just that. The reality is, however, that across the country, police are not especially good at the core of their job: solving crime and, especially, violent crime.
In 2017, police solved just 37 percent of homicides in New Orleans. In 2016, Chicago police cleared just 26 percent of homicides. Only one-third of reported rapes—which is already a small fraction of sexual assaults that actually occur—end in arrest. This is not a question of resources: Police budgets have ballooned since the 1970s and make up huge shares of city expenditures. Maybe, just maybe, rather than thinking about how to reform police, we should ask how, if given a blank canvas, we would protect the health and safety of our communities without sacrificing the dignity of Black people.
There are so many possibilities in front of us. We could spend money to close the unbelievable education gap that exists in our country, which would lead to increased job opportunities in the future and therefore less crime. We could provide mental health and substance use treatment for everyone who needs it, not just the few with means to pay for a treatment program, which would also reduce crime. We could spend money on giving gunshot victims counseling, which research shows reduces the likelihood of future crime. We could invest in violence interruption programs staffed by people from the community, which have been massively effective in reducing gun crime.
We may not see a moment like this for several decades, where people are both grasping the depth of the problem in policing and exhibiting the political will to question how to change it. Coming up with quick fixes and changes, while preserving the essential structure of law enforcement, fails to honor this point in time and the pain that has built up for generations to create it.
We should take this time to seriously examine our history, acknowledge where we’ve gone wrong and then think of what is possible. The answer is everything, if we just have some courage.
Demario Davis is an All-Pro linebacker, New Orleans Saints, and author of The Unsuccessful Champion.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.