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Police Are The Real Problem: Why We Must Address Systemic Police Misconduct

"Would the employees at Starbucks and Waffle House have called the police if they believed the police would have acted neutrally?"

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This spring, a lot of people have been focused on instances of corporate racism, with Starbucks and Waffle House being the most notable incidents. These occurrences illuminated how easy it is for black people to have the cops called on us. Still, there is a danger in building a movement only focused on implicit bias trainings for baristas and Waffle House staff. The employees of these restaurants only called the police because they knew that police would act in an anti-black manner. Would the employees at Starbucks and Waffle House have called the police if they believed the police would have acted neutrally? We cannot eradicate these instances of racism unless we address systemic police misconduct.

We have seen police officers from the mighty mountains of New York to the curvaceous slopes of California brutalize black people. There is nary a day where I do not have to avoid watching a viral video of a police officer dehumanizing a black person. Anti-blackness is entrenched in American policing. Mapping Police Violence reported that in 2017, nearly 30 percent of the people killed by police were black — while black people only account for 12 percent of the population. Our existing federal laws and programs which were created to address police brutality are clearly insufficient (for example, 42 U.S.C.§ 1414 “pattern-or-practice cases,” criminal civil rights prosecutions, and Office of Community Oriented Policing Services). Despite these laws, black people continue to be disproportionately harassed and killed by police.

From 1997–2017, the Department of Justice conducted only 69 pattern-or-practice investigations into the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. In 20 years, only 0.0038 percent of law enforcement agencies have been investigated for systemic police misconduct. The Department of Justice describes pattern-or-practice investigations as a “central tool in accomplishing police reform.” How has the US government’s “central tool” for addressing systemic police misconduct only been able to investigate less than 1 percent of police departments? Pattern-or-practice investigations are too small a solution for such a sweeping problem.

When scholars and activists on the left discuss economic inequality, the proposed solutions are often massive government interventions: universal basic income, a jobs guarantee and reparations. We understand that deep rooted economic inequality requires solutions that are large enough to dwarf the problem. In 1967, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin released the “Freedom Budget,” a plan with the goal of “wiping out poverty in the next 10 years.”

They demanded that the federal government provide full employment for all who were willing to work and that slums be replaced with decent housing. The budget was endorsed by Dr. King, who wrote, “We must dedicate ourselves to the legislative task to see that it is immediately and fully achieved.” The budget articulated the need for federal policy which would completely end economic degradation. In our fight against police brutality, we need to think as big as our forbearers did. We must commit ourselves to achieving federal legislation which seeks to guarantee the end of police brutality.

The United States government does not care about ending police brutality. The evidence is seen in its paltry efforts to end systemic police misconduct. In April of this year, The Leadership Conference, LDF and ACLU wrote a letter demanding congressional action on police shootings. There is consensus among civil rights and civil liberties organizations that the status quo is allowing for the continued extrajudicial killings of black men and women. Yet, there is nothing proactive about the government’s current efforts to stem police misconduct. At minimum, every police department in the United States should be subject to pattern-or-practice investigations. Even this modest first step requires that government commit far more resources to saving and protecting black lives.

If we want to end police brutality, we must assume that every police department in the United States has a race problem and a problem with systemic misconduct. For too long we have given the benefit of the doubt, even as the black body count rises. We should all be tired of learning new names-turned-hashtags and being outraged by another video of an officer beating one of us up. We must demand that the government do more than investigate 69 police departments in 20 years. As we organize, we must turn our attention to federal legislation that aims to truly eradicate systemic police misconduct.

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Lover of Black people & National Organizer for National Action Network, a national civil rights organization.