Black Lives Matter: Making It A Reality Through Reform

When a police officer murdered George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, in the middle of the streets on May 25th, the unhealed wounds of institutional racism boiled over. This cruel act was yet another blatant reminder of the unresolved racism that plagues the United States of America, and much of the rest of the world. For three weeks, protests expressing public outrage over yet another case of police brutality have been met by a confrontational police force and President Trump’s injection of military forces. It is abundantly clear that this confrontation will not heal the wounds, nor will it resolve an issue that runs deep within Americas institutions. If we are to resolve this crisis, we must now look toward reform.

U.S. Democrats have recently released a bill proposing police reform. Their bill would extend the use of police body cameras, limit police access to military weapons, make it easier to prosecute police for misconduct by rolling back aspects of their qualified immunity, and withhold federal funding from local police forces who do not enact reform. While this bill represents a step in the right direction, it does not address systemic issues with policing. This bill seeks to reduce the publicly visible results of systemic racism in police forces rather than resolving the racist and aggressive nature of the institutions that produce police brutality. These reforms must therefore be paired with wider systemic reforms.

MPD150, a group of local organizers working for a police free Minneapolis, would like to see their city shift resources and responsibility from police departments towards community groups. They criticize the use of “strangers with guns” as first responders to social issues. Such calls to ‘defund the police’ have gained significant traction in some areas, such as Minneapolis and New York, and could be effective if funding is reallocated to community services tackling inequality and empowering down-trodden communities. This could include increasing the number of social workers in communities, funding victim support workers and mental health providers, as well as making these trained community workers our first responders for social issues such as domestic and sexual violence. Police defunding is unlikely to be implemented nation-wide as it is determined by local authorities. Additionally, defunding the police is a temporary band aid, not a solution by itself. Without reshaping police departments across the country, the way policing is conducted will not be changed.

If reform is to resolve institutional racism, it must fundamentally change the way the police operate, the way they view themselves, and consequently the way the public views them. We must therefore review the purpose of the police. Currently, the police acts as the governments law and order agency, enforcing the law by arresting law breakers. This approach has led to inequitable outcomes and has failed to produce community wellbeing, particularly in those with large Black populations. Consequently, they have created a cycle of crime in low income communities.

The law and order approach emphasized under the current system pre-empts a violent and confrontational approach to policing that creates a tension between the police and our most vulnerable communities. Ultimately, this approach has produced a racist institution with the power to act aggressively towards members of the community. Consequently, the police force does not serve these communities and is now at war with them.

Reform of these racist institutions must create trust between the community and police officers by ensuring the police work for the community, supporting and enabling them to prosper in peace and with mutual respect. Such reform must place wellbeing at its core. Within our existing culture, the police are viewed as the law enforcement agency who take down law breakers. As such, they are separated from society and placed on a pedestal. Under the wellbeing approach, the role of police officers is transformed from agents of law enforcement to support workers integrated within the community. Accordingly, the title of police officers should be changed to community officers, reflecting their reformed role as community support workers and reforming the way in which the police should view themselves. As such, community officers would not have extended protection to use force through qualified immunity and would be held accountable to the law, as are all people.

The wellbeing approach can be implemented through the introduction of a framework for policing in which the role of the officers is to support community wellbeing, not to enforce law and order. Community officers would be responsible for building partnerships within vulnerable communities to empower, enable and create safer communities. They are therefore encouraged to educate members of their community rather than arresting law breakers. Part of the wellbeing approach demands a reduction in what is known as “proactive policing”, defined as the “systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations.” Applying an aggressive enforcement approach to low-level violations does not reduce crime, nor does it promote community wellbeing. Instead, it drives a wedge between police as an aggressive enforcement agency and the community who becomes fearful of the people who are supposed to provide protection. Officers should be encouraged to mingle within their community to understand their issues and to build rapport with them. Under this model, education and support should be provided as the primary response to criminal activity and social issues. Meanwhile, making arrests should be avoided unless absolutely necessary to ensure community wellbeing.

While the law and order approach allows police to enact force where they see fit to control disobedient members of the population, the wellbeing approach only allows for the use of force when it is in the community’s best interest. Here, force becomes a last resort that can be used as a safeguard for violent offenders but officers who use force must only do so if it is the only way to protect the wellbeing of the community, or in self-defence.

There is support for reform. A recent CNN/SSRS poll shows that 67% of Americans believe the criminal justice system favours white people over black people. Reform should therefore be a central part of the election debate this year, and it must include arguments for a community-focused wellbeing approach to policing.  Let us not waste this opportunity to make a positive difference in our communities, not only in America but across the world. Failure to do so means a failure to change the status quo and the failure to prevent a future of further police brutality and the targeting of Black communities. Through reform, we can ensure that people matter, communities matter, and black lives matter.

Jonathon Arrell

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