Debate swirls around the quality of policing, and some consider it broken as an institution.
By Matthew Rodriguez
Whether incremental reform or complete defunding and restructure, the discussion was wide-ranging when Los Angeles City College hosted a discussion about solutions to police violence and accountability on Nov. 12 when the Office of the Chancellor and Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, AFT Local 1521 Social Justice Committee sponsored the webinar “Pursuing Racial Equity in Police Reform” hosted on Zoom.
Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) Chancellor Francisco C. Rodriguez says that dealing with racial inequities in policing requires difficult and honest conversations.
“LACC must lead by example,” Rodriguez said.
Dr. Rashawn Ray who is the executive director of applied social science research at the University of Maryland highlighted opportunities for structural and permanent policy changes in policing. The demand for police reform has grabbed ahold of the national consciousness in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, MN, last May.
“George Floyd left us feeling various ways about the fact that police officers are supposed to protect and serve,” Dr. Ray said. “Instead, we saw something drastically different.”
Dr. Ray presented a slideshow of side-by-side comparisons of photographs of protests that happened decades apart. He shared a 1964 photo of African American civil rights activists surrounded by police alongside the “flower girl” photo of a young African American woman approaching a protest line in 2014, offering peace and surrounded by police.
The side-by-side images evoked powerful imagery of past meeting present; and a reminder of the progress still to be made.
“We have the over-militarization of police looking like they are going to war with full tactical gear and weapons,” Dr. Ray said. “The juxtaposition is when cops display photos of harmony with the black community.”
Social media has played an integral role in capturing the rise of a movement. The rise of Black Lives Matter can be tracked through the use of the #blacklivesmatter. The murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in 2014, and Wilson’s subsequent non-indictment saw a huge rise in the use of #blacklivesmatter. A movement was born.
Dr. Ray emphasizes the outsize importance of social media algorithms.
“When people share memes illustrating disparities in police using force and killings, it provides a counter narrative against police making false statements,” he said.
Dr. Ray says social media is a powerful tool that can be a gift or a curse.
“While highlighting displays of activism, there is also a lack of objective information due to echo chamber-creating algorithms,” Dr. Ray said. “ … Do not use social media as the only type of source you get your news from.”
According to Dr. Ray, the rise of social media is correlated with a massive shift in attitudes toward police brutality and racial inequality. Collecting research over time using Twitter data, he is confident that such a shift is enough to create a policy window in which public sentiment is at its peak.
“It’s like a match that’s been lit,” Dr. Ray said. “The wick goes all the way down and we are trying not to get burned to create change before the match goes out. We’ve seen it before, with slavery, to New Deal policies, to marriage equality. We have a unique policy window where a solution can be attempted with public support.”
The policy window created by worldwide protests against police brutality in May this year has resulted in the most transformative legislation to date when House Democrats passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
However, the legislation is currently under congressional gridlock pending a Georgia Senate runoff in January resulting in a Democratic Senate majority.
If approved, the legislation would ban chokeholds, give the Justice Department greater interventional power in use-of-force cases, create a national registry for police conduct complaints and restructure lines of military equipment to local police departments. It does not defund the police.
Police officers are rarely ever charged in instances of excessive use of force. Dr. Ray says 90% of the cases go uncharged. The remaining 10% of officers receive charges, and 95% of them are found not guilty.
Over the last five years, U.S. police agencies paid out $2 billion in civilian payouts for officer misconduct. Taxpayers paid the bill.
In the case of Breonna Taylor, the officers were not charged for her murder, however her family received $12 million in the wrongful death settlement against Louisville, KY.
Dr. Ray says essentially Breonna Taylor’s tax dollars were used to pay her family for her wrongful death.
The reallocation of funds going to social services and the revitalization of neighborhoods using money directly drawn from the budget of the police department responsible in this case and others like it are not a stretch of the imagination.
Besides relieving the taxpayer of a burden not of their creation, it will foster the needed culpability within the police departments themselves and hold individual officers accountable.
One possible avenue for restructuring civilian payouts for misconduct could take the form of insurance policies on police departments. Dr. Ray suggests that instead of general funds, police have insurance policies to draw from when civilian payouts are needed.
Critically, implicit bias and its role in policing is perhaps the most pressing issue facing police departments in their interactions with the Black community.
Implicit bias is purely reactionary in nature and hard-wired in tandem with the biological fight-or-flight response the mind employs to make sense of interactions quickly.
“Policing is implicit bias on steroids,” Dr. Ray said.
The absence of data is an aberration in a data-driven world. Data is available on anything and everything from CDC flu data to the number of people killed by jellyfish each year. Yet, we still don’t know how many people police kill or how many are treated with excessive force.
In what should be a non-partisan issue and grounds for drafting legislation, only 40% of 20,000 law enforcement agencies submit data to the federal government.
Karen H. who was a student in the audience wanted to know if defunding the police would be better for minority groups.
“How can we make our communities safer when we don’t feel safe with police around us?” she asked.
Completely divesting the police is not the aim for Dr. Ray. He uses Chicago PD as an example. Take a percentage of their $1.3 billion budget, he suggests, and invest that into workforce training and development, mental health and wellness support services.
“Communities want the same type of collaborative environment that we know predominantly white neighborhoods share with police,” Dr. Ray said. “It’s not solely about defunding and reallocating. Eighty percent of police suffer from chronic stress, high rates of depression and anxiety, 90% never seek help. Oftentimes, we are sending sick people to help sick people.”