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Wornie Reed
Wornie Reed

National Commentary

Policing Reform or Change?

Among the subtle lessons being taught during the great demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd—and others—is the difference between liberal approaches and progressive approaches.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans, white and black, see policing as seriously problematic. Liberals tend to think that institutions in America are structured just fine with a need for mending here and there. Many liberals in traditional fashion tend to believe policing in America is okay, but a few problems have developed that require tinkering around the edges.

Progressives tend to see some institutions as problematic in their structures and functions. Thus, there are calls for defunding police departments—meaning different things to many people. Many view the police’s current duties as too broad, involved in areas that require other types of expertise, like mental health and domestic violence.

But others see the remaining functions of policing as problematic, especially in the case of race and policing in America.

The utility of discussing racism as an attribute of institutions becomes apparent when we explain that it was permissible and legal to discriminate against African Americans not long ago. Racial discrimination was done not so much by individuals but by institutions in society—through their policies and practices. And if those institutions have not changed their policies and practices, they are still discriminating by race.

Legislation, known as Black Codes, was enacted in the independent states and commonwealths following the Revolutionary War to institutionalize and legalize the customs and practices on which slavery rested before the founding of the nation.

According to Wintersmith’s 1974 book, Police and the Black Community,  the relationship between the black community and the police started with the enforcement of the Black Codes. He asserts that few counties in the slave states did not have a local police patrol known as “patterollers,” whose primary responsibility was to contain the slaves and enforce the Black Codes.

According to Wintersmith, these patterollers (patrollers) were usually poor, young whites, who did not own slaves but whose favorite sport was Negro catching, watching, and intimidating. After the Civil War, these Black Codes were subsumed under Jim Crow and the legal doctrine of segregation. Police officers were the principal agents of the violent repression of black Americans.

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And after the Jim Crow era ended, some policing practices changed, but the basic functions did not. Quite simply, law enforcement protects white communities and polices black communities. And there is almost a direct line from that fact to today’s police using excessive force against African Americans.

Over surveillance of black communities has undoubtedly led to racial profiling, which is the precipitating event in many police-black citizen encounters involving excessive use of force.

A colleague, Ronnie Dunn, and I demonstrated in our book, Racial Profiling: Causes & Consequences, that contrary to widespread belief, problematic police behavior is not necessarily the result of a few “bad apples.” It is usually the result of policies and practices.

Consequently, better training of police officers will not bring much change. The structure and function of police departments need changing, or at least their policies and practices.

Two weeks after George Floyd’s death, 16 state legislatures had introduced, amended, or passed 159 bills and resolutions related to policing. That suggests many officials knew something was racially wrong with policing beforehand. And they wanted to demonstrate that at least they were doing something about it. 

While I accept all reform as useful, much of it we must classify as necessary but not sufficient to solve the problem of police killing black folks.

At least three states have passed legislation reforming policing. The state of Colorado passed a sweeping police accountability bill. Among other things, it limits the use of deadly force, requires the use and public release of videos if police misconduct is alleged, and requires the collection and reporting of data on police-citizen encounters.

New York repealed the infamous Section 50-a of the NY Civil Rights Law, which had kept records of police misconduct as confidential personnel matters. Other provisions of laws passed in New York and Iowa address such things as banning chokeholds.

Much of the legislation passed and or discussed across the country does not address many of the things that shield police from prosecution for misconduct–and encourages misconduct–like qualified immunity, police unions, and state law enforcement bill of rights laws.

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