Long History of U.S. Racism in Policing Blocks Reforms, Panel Says.

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Searing images of African-Americans, like Eric Garner, who died at the hands of police, sparked nation wide protests but also anxiety among African Americans. Photo by Peter Burka via Flickr

Significant reform of policing in America can’t happen until the deep roots of racism in U.S. law enforcement are exposed, understood and destroyed,  said a panel convened Thursday.

The panel, “Research, Practice and Advocacy: Perspectives on Policing and Protest Six  Years After Ferguson,” was sponsored by John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“The policing models are not ‘broken’–they were designed to be this way,” said Isaac Bryan, director of Public Policy, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, UCLA.

Arguing that racism has been intertwined with American policing since the formation of the republic, Gloria Browne-Marshall, John Jay Professor of Constitutional Law and a civil rights attorney, said, “It’s important to understand that today there are people who believe that the protesters are wrong and the police are correct to use reasonable force, for them to kill over 1,000 civilians a year.”

While U.S. housing and education have begun to confront structural bias, the criminal justice system hasn’t, panelists said.

Unless the historical legacy of violence against people of color is confronted,  tragedies like the killing of George Floyd will keep happening, the panelists said.

David Kennedy, a criminologist and director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, said, “You cannot be in this nation and not be aware of the extraordinary toxicity the police and the law do and have always done.”

And this goes back centuries.

“Since before we were a nation, black and brown people justly and realistically were afraid of the government,” said Kennedy.

When asked what changes they dream of, panelists said funding of public health, housing, and education must increase, rather than pour more funds into public safety.

“We don’t even have grocery stores in some parts of Los Angeles, but we have the LAPD on every corner,” said Bryan.

Mental health crises need to be dealt with by those who are trained for it, not just police, whose model is “rooted in punishment,” Bryan said.

Benjamin Tucker, First Deputy Commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD), and the highest ranking African American in the force, said better police training is the key to change.

“For decade after decade, police have had to take on more responsibility in areas that are not their expertise,” said Tucker.

While the other panelists agreed, Bryan said that improved training can be undermined by police veterans telling the younger recruits “war stories” on how it really is out on the streets.

“Law enforcement are government employees and they need to understand that,” added Browne-Marshall.

The panelists pointed out that police officers are following the priorities set at the top, such as “Stop and Frisk” in New York City. Reform must come from the very top to be effective.

Voting in reform-minded prosecutors and mayors who appoint such police commissioners is urgently needed.

“People are elected and appointed to make these decisions,” said Kennedy.

Karol Mason, John Jay College president and moderator of the online discussion, said it is vital for people to “stay in dialogue across perspectives.”

On Sept. 10 there will be a national discussion, the first of a series, on redefining public safety, said Mason.

“We must seize this moment in history and promote social change,” she said.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.

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