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Terry H. Schwadron

June 4, 2020

We could ban police neck restraints on those in custody. We could require independent review of police officers facing brutality claims. We could alter personnel practices and make available the records of individual police officers caught up in death cases like that in Minneapolis.

As with other controversial topics like gun safety or immigration, there are lots of proposals on the table towards eliminating the practices that led to one police sergeant holding his knee and 200 pounds on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The question, of course, is whether we will do so, whether we have anything close to the political will needed to do so, whether locally or, perhaps more importantly, nationwide. As these days show, an incident in Minneapolis or Staten Island or small town in Texas doesn’t stay there.

The long list of names and incidents from Eric Garner to Freddy Gray to George Floyd is a national disgrace, not just a problem for New York or Baltimore or Minneapolis.

So now, once again, we’re looking at how to legislate our ways out of a racial divide so deep and so personal as to question whether the American experience has any relationship to any values for which we stand, for democratic principles that we seek to share with the world.

How do we lecture China about human rights, says China, when we have police killing black prisoners already in custody, unarmed, of course, 21 times as frequently as whites? How do we criticize the Philippines for shooting suspected drug traffickers when we have fatal police shootings of our own in black communities that are twice the population percentage of black citizens?

In the end, of course, morality is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate whether we are talking about policing or health, education or public welfare. But some of the underlying causes are not, and, as with coronavirus, which is striking minority communities most heavily, the question is whether we have the will to do something about those conditions.

Proposals abound

This week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said members of the House were looking at banning chokeholds, establishing a commission to study the status of black men in America and addressing the fact that black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, said his staff was preparing legislation to establish a national police misconduct database to prevent officers fired for misconduct from being hired elsewhere.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-SC, the only black Republican in the Senate, who urged Donald Trump to stop sending incendiary tweets, said he had urged Trump to form a commission on race and justice.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it makes no sense for local prosecutors to review police brutality cases, and that citizens should expect transparency in these investigations by a federal or regional prosecutor. He called forstandardized police misconduct policies across America and for the release of disciplinary records of officers who are accused of misconduct.

Community policing has been the call in law enforcement for several years, of course, even as the number of black deaths in police custody have continued to grow.

Some proposals require eliminating laws, as in those governing police department secrecy of police misconduct cases, some for more assertive work, as in requiring federal databases and comprehensive public reporting of deaths in police custody, and some for adjustment of either police department union contracts or other internal departmental procedures meant to offer protections to individuals under allegation.

All of the proposals are meant to address a growing lack of trust for law enforcement in particular, but for more racial harmony generally in the country. The first target in this campaign is police behaviors and equipment, like body cameras, but others are aimed at the justice issues that follow. Trust requires concepts like accountability and transparency, with too many failures to indict and convict police officers leaving communities feeling that there is no justice.

Community Policing Writ Large

Looked at from a broader point of view, community policing is just the visible, vulnerable part of community racism. The Center for Popular Democracy lists 15 general areas for improvement that range from decriminalizing routine crimes to halting laws requiring arrest for failure to pay fines to treating addicts and mentally ill and increased community involvement and oversight of police and social policy-making.

But when we see the pandemic having its biggest effect in black and brown urban communities, we should be seeing wider issues in access to housing, jobs, education and food security that are too often not seen as priority.

It is here that the Trump White House is most silent. Trump believes in a wealth-first definition of well-being in America, while campaigning among those mostly white, more rural areas of the country about addressing those forgotten or bypassed by the economy. Even now, he sees unrest that needs a police stomping, not a social services approach to addressing the root causes.

Columnist Eugene Robinson tells us: the basic principle is simple: “Policing is something that must be done with and for a community, not to a community. Those officers should have been made to understand that their duty was to treat Floyd like a citizen — not like some black guy whose life was worthless.”

While talking about police, for example, Cuomo also argued every public school should provide the same level of funding for each child so there are not two education systems — one for the rich and one for the poor.”The real issue is the continuing racism in this country, and it is chronic, and it is endemic, and it is institutional, and it speaks to a collective hypocrisy,” Cuomo said.

“We’re very good in this country at telling other people how they should live their lives and how they should act, but we still discriminate on the basis of color of skin. That is the simple, painful truth.”

Cory Booker said, “This is not like we don’t know what to do. It’s that we have not manifested a collective will to get it done.”


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