The Change We Need: 5 Issues that Should Be Part of Efforts to Reform Policing in Local Communities

After the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, people are again, searching for solutions. There are no simple solutions, but that will not deter us.

Transformation of police departments, their role and relationship to our communities requires a change in culture, accountability, training, policies and practices. It also requires strong leadership and transparency. Without organizing our communities and building power nothing will change.

Below are five issues that should be part of any effort to reform policing in local communities.  This is not an exhaustive list but it’s a start. (Hyperlinks to resources are provided.)

1.Accountability and Transparency

The lack of trust for law enforcement that exists in so many communities is due in part to lack of accountability and transparency. Too many failures to indict officers and too many acquittals have left communities feeling that there is no justice. When someone is killed and no one is held responsible it not leaves people of color feeling vulnerable.  To build trust, there must be consequences and the public must have information.

a. Accountability: Police departments should not investigate themselves. Nor should justice depend on prosecutors who rely on local law enforcement for evidence in cases they bring. Instead, accountability systems should be directed by the communities that police departments are supposed to protect and serve.

b. Transparency:   Improved data collection and reporting practices are necessary to expose interactions with law enforcement and as a tool of accountability. There is no federal database tracking the number of people killed by law enforcement, use of force, or stop-and-frisks.  Many local departments do not keep this important data either. Departments should collect and release this data to the public annually. The Center for Policing Equity is developing a database that 50 police departments have already agreed to use. President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing recommended that local police departments make all policies and data publicly available.

2.Excessive Use of Force

Data indicates that Black men are 21 times as likely as White men to be killed by law enforcement. Black women, Transgender people, Native American and Latinx communities are also disproportionately killed or assaulted by law enforcement. Racial disparities in use of force cannot be explained by disparities in crime rates. So what can you do? Demand that your local police department: (a) create strong community-centered accountability systems, (b) release and improve use of force policies, (c) release data on all law enforcement activities, and (d) improve training.

a. Use of Force Policies: There are no national standards on use of force, but some police departments have adopted policies intended to reduce excessive force. Such policies prohibit acts such as neck holds, head strikes with a hard object, and using force against persons in handcuffs.

b.  Improved Training: Law enforcement should be required to go through racial bias training in addition to building skills in problem-solving, conflict mediation, and de-escalation tactics.

3.Discriminatory Stop-and-Frisk Policies and Practices

In New York City, data showed 81% of people stopped-and-frisked were innocent and 84% of all people stopped were Black or Latinx. In Chicago, Black people are 32% of the population, but 72% of all stops. Unfortunately, these policies and practices are not exclusive to New York City and Chicago. Does your local police department use these practices? If so, do they track data on such practices? Demand answers from your police department.  Call for an end to targeting and profiling in communities of color.

4.Broken Windows Policing

Eric Garner was allegedly stopped for selling loose cigarettes. Alton Sterling was allegedly stopped for selling CDs. The Department of Justice concluded that the Ferguson Police Department overwhelmingly fined and arrested people, particularly Black people, multiple times for minor municipal code violations. These practices stem from the “broken windows” theory which asserts that addressing low-level “disorder” issues, such as broken windows, is necessary to prevent more serious crimes. However, many criminal justice experts have concluded that broken windows theory is actually just a form of “informal social control.” The practices that stem from broken windows theory, such as stop-and-frisk, disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities and there is no evidence that they are effective at reducing crime. What can you do? Read the recommendations offered by the Department of Justice in Section V of the Ferguson Investigation and talk to your neighbors about whether any of the recommendations are right for your community. Some recommendations include (a) the prohibition of ticketing and arrest quotas and (b) supervisory approval before someone can be arrested for “failure to comply,” “resisting arrest,” “disorderly conduct,” or “disturbing the peace.”

5.Inadequate Training

The majority of law enforcement training emphasizes technical and tactical aspects of policing. There is an insufficient amount of training focused on anti-racism, implicit bias, mental illness, age-appropriate responses, problem-solving, mediation or cultural competency. So, it is not surprising that many law enforcement officers are primed to perceive Black people as criminals and respond based on that stereotype. Recently, the Department of Justice announced that it would start training all of its officers on implicit bias. Is your police department conducting such training? If not, demand it!   The Center for Policing Equity conducts training for free if your police department will share data.

These are just a few issues to get started on. Other issues to target include constant surveillance and targeting of Muslim, Black and Latinx communities; immigration enforcement by local police; undercover agents entrapping queer communities of color; and, the role of police in schools. There are more transformative changes that can be done to end the over-policing of our communities. For example, groups like SpiritHouse in NC and Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective are working to reduce reliance on police in their communities.   Regardless of what you choose to take on, remember that the systematic oppression of Black people and other people of color can only be changed through organized collective action. In other words, keep exercising your people power! 

Click here for an extended list of resources related to anti-blackness, policing and organizing for change.