To Make Our Communities Safer, We Must Rethink Policing

June 17, 2015

The concept of policing and the question of how systems of community safety can be improved across the country have been at the forefront of American consciousness lately. People around the world, from activists and their allies to social media and folks sitting around their dinner table have started a discussion of how communities of color have been both systemically criminalized by policing practices such as “stop and frisk,” “broken windows,” and “jump-outs” and portrayed as enemy combatants by militarized police forces in Ferguson and Baltimore. Reaction nationwide has sparked protests against mass criminalization of Black communities, which have demanded the attention of the federal government.

Recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a Consent Decree on the Cleveland Police Department, aimed at creating an environment in which police can execute their duties of protection and service in a manner that works for all residents. Further, President Obama announced an executive order (EO) that would limit certain types of military equipment to local police departments. But we must ask the question: Is this enough? The DOJ’s Consent Decree and President Obama’s EO 13688 are steps in the right direction, but if they are to have a sustainable impact, they need to be accompanied by more preventative work in partnership with local communities.

The Cleveland area has a troubled history with police violence that serves to illustrate our nationwide problem. Recently, Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo was found not responsible for a 2012 shooting in which the Cleveland police fired 137 bullets at an unarmed Black couple, killing them, Fifteen of those bullets came from Officer Brelo, who was standing on the hood of the couple’s car while shooting the passengers inside. It seems like a grisly scene from Training Day.

Between this 2012 shooting and the subsequent verdict that let Officer Brelo walk, a 12-year-old boy was killed by a police officer for playing with a toy gun, a 22-year-old man was gunned down in a Wal-Mart by a police officer for holding a BB gun, and a 37-year-old mentally ill woman was killed when she was body slammed by police officers outside of her family’s home.

The culture of aggressive policing in Cleveland and the surrounding region have been demonstrated time and again, taking the lives of Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and Tanesha Anderson, but we have just now reached a point where it is acceptable to acknowledge that there may be a problem.

But is acknowledging the problem and implementing retroactive provisions to potentially correct it enough?


What we need are preventative measures to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. We need to explore more comprehensive screening options to ensure that police who earn their badges are willing and able to uphold their credo of protection and service.

Officer Brelo has shown violent tendencies in the days after his acquittal, and if he was capable of physically assaulting his own brother, its not difficult to believe that he would be capable of using excessive force against community members who are strangers to him. One must ask, why was someone like this trusted in a position to interact with the public with a deadly weapon? Why was he put in a position where he could choose between someone living or someone dying?

Even more recently, we saw police officer Eric Casebolt in McKinney, Texas barrel roll his way into the national spotlight, slamming the head of a teenage girl into the ground and pulling his gun out on other teens for the crime of being at a pool party. Officer Casebolt had a history of questionable tactics and racial discrimination but wasn’t removed from his duties until the world was watching and he thought it best to resign (got fired). The reality of the situation is that those like Officer Casebolt do not deserve to earn a badge in the first place and we need to do better to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Similar to what is happening in Texas and Ohio, as we look closer at EO 13688, we find that although the mandate is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. As Natasha Lennard correctly points out in her Fusion article, this is about optics, and “mitigating the optics of warrior cops does not eliminate the fury undergirding revolt.” Like the Consent Decree in Cleveland, the Executive Order seems to be too reactionary.

Under EO 13688, certain types of equipment, like grenade launchers and tanks, are banned, but authority is still ultimately given to local mayors and city councils to determine what type of equipment law enforcement agencies can request and access. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like much of an issue, but would it make a difference in a place such as Ferguson? It is tough to see pictures of Ferguson Mayor James Knowles out on the town with Darren Wilson or those involved in sending racist e-mails and believe that he might deny the local police chief access to equipment that could be used to further demonize Black and Brown people in the community. Even with EO 13688 in place, former Police Chief Tom Jackson could have had mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) on the ground and used tear gas on protesters; he just would have needed to ask his buddy, the mayor, first.

Reactions won’t solve our problems, but proactive steps might give us a chance. We need to get to a place where an officer won’t fear a 12-year-old boy with a fake gun. Extra training won’t prevent six police officers from believing on some level that it was okay to give Freddie Gray a “rough ride.” Banning tear gas won’t stop city officials from hitting send on an email that calls the President of the United States an ape. Stopping a tank rolling down the street won’t stop drunken Baltimore baseball fans, the Mayor, or the President from calling protestors “thugs” or “animals.” Restricting camouflage uniforms won’t stop officers from finding it necessary to unload 137 rounds into a vehicle while one of them hops onto the hood of the car and fires 15 rounds into the windshield. Reexamination of the concept of policing and inherent racial biases is what needs to happen now.

We aren’t addressing the issue of the warrior-cop mentality that is literally killing people on the street. This is costing taxpayer dollars in lawsuits against police departments and cities; the city of Cleveland, for example, settled for $3 million for the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, and between 2011 and 2014 the city of Baltimore paid out nearly $6 million in police misconduct settlements. However, far more importantly, this is costing lives in communities across America.

Aura Rosser, Freddie Gray, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and a long list of too many others would still be alive today if we looked at policies that prevented warrior-police from earning their uniforms and serving not as agents of public good but the armed guard of systemic racism and implicit bias. It would go light years in the effort to reestablish (or establish, in many cases) communities’ trust in a system that in theory is supposed to keep them safe but in practice is a system that has participated in widespread destruction of Black and Brown communities.

We need to shift away from thinking about police as a force to thinking about policing as a service. We need to do more to break down the walls of the “us versus them” mentality and to improve relationships between community members and law enforcement. Imagine a world in which police officers are required to live in the communities they serve. They would understand the unique challenges of their neighbors and would be a part of the community. Trust could be built, and we could move closer to a system that works for everyone. Imagine what policing would look like if candidates at the police academy spent less time training to use weapons and more time training in non-lethal techniques We might see our officers traveling overseas helping to end conflict instead of the other way around. Imagine what communities could look like if police officers here in the United States had to adhere to the rules of engagement in the Geneva Convention. The positive possibilities are endless.

Nowhere in the executive order or consent decree is there mention of police hiring practices, residency restrictions, or anything else that can work toward ending a culture of police who have viewed themselves as separate from the community they are hired to “protect and serve.” This creates an atmosphere in which we feel and see things in an “other” framework when we need to be shifting the discussion to “us” and “we.” The consequences are lethal, and we have seen how destructive it can be. The divide creates a fracture that allows the stigmatization and criminalization of communities of color.

It is as if the government sees from afar but cannot fully empathize with the struggle that people are experiencing every day.

It took mass demonstrations and the lives of too many to get to the point where we have the full (public) attention of the highest levels of government, and that has brought us to a unique time and place in American history and culture. The bridge between governments and the people they are put in place to serve has been in need of repair and reconstruction for too long, and in this moment, the Movement must continue. Eliminating the optics of militarization is a good thing but it doesn’t end the thinking behind those optics. Additional proper training for officers can never hurt, but that won’t necessarily weed out a trigger-happy officer who joins the force to have his ego stroked.

In this moment we need to commit to longer-term, more comprehensive policy solutions and practices, because our time will come to define the times in which our children and grandchildren live. If we fail to realize that not all Americans have access to full citizenship, then the moral and social fabric of our nation will be torn asunder forever. The federal government has demonstrated that we have its attention; together, we must now make these reforms come to fruition.