I am either foolish or brave for attempting to write about law enforcement in the United States; some part of me fears I may be both. But how did we get here? How did we arrive at this point in history where those who are tasked to serve and protect us has become such a political issue? That is what I am hoping to explore. My journey will weave through the political lens of those on the left and those occupying the right. Then, I will attempt to find some middle ground, but before we begin I need to make some statements of fact about both myself and some police statistics.
1. I acknowledge I am not an expert on law enforcement, nor am I expert on police de-escalation tactics.
2. I am a white, middle class, male living in Seattle, WA.
3. I have never had an interaction with a police officer where I felt threatened.
4. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page and the Guardian, 36 police officers were killed in the line of duty last year.
5. According to the Washington Post, police officers killed 986 people last year.
6. According to the Guardian, men of color are 9 times more likely to be killed by police when compared to white men.
7. Not every death was documented on film.
8. No good data exists which provides us information on the numbers of those deaths which were in self-defense.
Left: I am a life-long Democrat. I can vividly remember President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union pledges to put 100,000 new cops on the street. At the time, it seemed like a dream and an answer to the violence plaguing city streets.
I also remember being a little kid and having conversations with my parents about respecting officers, answering “yes ma’am/sir” and “no ma’am/sir,” and being completely honest when questioned. From a young age, I was taught to hold those who were putting their lives on the line in high regard. After 9/11, that respect for police officers and firefighters was only deepened. After such heroism, I, like many others, felt compelled to stop officers and thank them for their service.
As an adult looking back, I now realize my story was/is a product of my privilege. My parents never had to tell me to keep my hands in sight. I was never lectured on not making sudden movements. I have never been followed through a store. I have never been pulled over without reason. I have never been stopped and frisked. I have never been assumed guilty until innocent, because of my skin color.
It is with this dissonance in mind that I approach this issue and it is here I begin. I believe Democrats possess the responsibility to provide some historical context for this debate. Any student of history, knows one of this country’s greatest sins is racism. Racism comes in many forms; systematic, systemic, overt, and hidden. This racism has manifested itself in several different ways; slavery, xenophobia aimed at immigrants and refugees, Jim Crow laws, denial of voting privileges, separate but equal clauses, denial of housing, jobs, loans, access to credit, and many other forms.
In regards to our topic of law enforcement, this racism has led to laws such as “stop and frisk,” mass incarceration where, according to the ACLU, blacks are convicted at a rate of ten times that of whites for drug offenses even though the rate of usage is the same, minorities being followed through stores, the assumption of guilt based on appearance, and much more.
With this long and dark history in mind, as well as the rise of police altercations caught on film, we are left to ponder what should be done. Unfortunately, racism isn’t going anywhere nor are most white people aware, much less going to hand their privilege over without a sense of anger and loss. While unspoken and spoken prejudice is allowed to permeate in our society, we can safely assume incidents of police violence will continue.
Right: As an outsider looking in, I believe the Republican Party espouses safety, security, and liberty. They preach personal responsibility and accountability. More often than not, they focus their efforts on a bottom-up approach to solving problems, rather than solutions coming from Washington, D.C. These tenants are valuable in the conversation about law enforcement reform. But, where do we begin?
Life is more complex than an “us versus them argument.” It is filled with nuance and balance. It is filled with choices and consequences for those choices. The consequences for those choices should be fair, balanced, equitable, and community focused. When men of color are sent to jail disproportionally, they are not the only ones punished. Their choices harm the entire community. Children are left to fend themselves and unsupervised due to economic pressures placed on single parent households. Drugs and crime can become a solution to a difficult problem.
Here, the GOP can change the argument. Their messages of personal responsibility can become community focused. It can reform police departments to arrest and push prosecution fairly across all classes and races. It can reform mandatory sentencing laws to punishments that fit the crime. It can quit punishing those who have left prison by removing the box on employment applications for those convicted of a crime; allowing them to move on with their lives with dignity and respect, instead of creating another prison for which the only escape is drugs and crime. The GOP’s argument can focus on building strong, vibrant, and robust communities of opportunity where jobs are plentiful and outweigh the short term benefits of dealing drugs or using violence as a means to an end.
The GOP can also begin to recognize the opportunity and education gaps that exist in this country and their relationship to crime and drug use. They can push for smart, measurable, and accountable spending on education, retraining programs, and various forms of higher education. They can push for incubators for job creation and ensure those jobs are community focused from the hiring process to the impact felt in the community. As the right begins to address these overarching concepts, they will find a more receptive community for their message, as well as communities where needs are met and crime isn’t an option.
Center: Here is the magical thing about our political system; the parties need each other. Democrats need Republicans to keep government working responsibly, efficiently, and focused on cost. Republicans need Democrats to focus on progress, innovation, and meeting the needs of emerging communities. As far as the topic at hand is concerned, the two parties need each other. While they are in the midst of a debate to address concerns around law enforcement, I would like to use what I know about both political persuasions to propose the following ten items:
1. First, let’s finally admit that the War on Drugs has not achieved the desired intent and the criminalization of drug use is racist.
2. Let’s place body cameras on every patrol officer in the country.
3. Let’s instill a national effort to recruit, train, and place on city streets more officers of color.
4. While “Community Based Policing” efforts are popular and can honestly address some of our concerns, let’s take a hard look at the program and make sure it is working as intended.
5. Let’s focus our efforts on rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Also, let’s be honest about what happens when men of color are locked behind bars. It creates a void in the family and leaves children without strong male role models.
6. Let’s reform mandatory sentencing laws and make sure the punishment fits the crime.
7. Sure, have officers trained on working with minority groups, but give them opportunities to work with people in the field who represent those communities.
8. Let’s quit building prisons and instead invest that money in education and job training.
9. Provide more opportunities for officers to be seen in a positive light; community gatherings, National Night Out events in communities of colors, events focused on the whole family, etc.
10. Let’s celebrate those officers who go above and beyond the call of duty for the communities they serve.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. These things are easy to write, but much more difficult to implement. With that said, this issue more than any other holds potential for compromise from both parties. The country wide conversation has led us to the perfect opportunity to address concerns with law enforcement practices. Now, all this is required is political leadership.
Be good to each other,