This country has failed to provide one of the most fundamental protections in the Constitution: the right to life.
“Stop Killing Us.” Three words, scrawled on a sign held by a 5-year-old black boy at a Tampa protest against police brutality. Messages don’t get any clearer than that. Yet to judge by the days of protests sweeping the country, this message still hasn’t gotten through.
Last week it was George Floyd, who died while restrained by a police officer in the middle of a Minneapolis street in daylight, though he posed no physical threat. His alleged offense? Passing a counterfeit bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. Before him it was Breonna Taylor, an emergency room technician in Louisville, Ky., shot dead in her own apartment by officers who used a battering ram to burst through her front door.
Before Ms. Taylor it was Laquan McDonald. And Eric Garner. And Michael Brown. And Sandra Bland. And Tamir Rice. And Walter Scott. And Alton Sterling. And Philando Castile. And Botham Jean. And Amadou Diallo.
The list goes on and on, and on and on. Black Americans brutalized or killed by law enforcement officers, who rarely if ever face consequences for their actions. Derek Chauvin, the officer accused of kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck until he was dead, had 18 prior complaints filed against him.
In the name of all these men and women and countless more, this is why thousands of Americans have taken to the streets — to express a rage born of despair. Despair that their government has failed to provide one of the most fundamental protections in the Constitution: the right to life, and to not be deprived of that life without due process of law. Stop killing us.
What the protesters want is a country where bad cops are fired rather than coddled. They want a country where cops who beat demonstrators aren’t protected by their unions, but instead lose their jobs. They want a country where the police protect the right of their fellow Americans to gather in public and seek redress for their grievances, rather than one where they are rammed with SUVs. They want a country where federal troops aren’t used against a peaceful protest to facilitate a photo-op.
A vast majority of these protests have been peaceful. But not all. Where they are not, police officers are often the target of that violence. Officers may feel left with no good options in that moment, but how they respond does matter. Because it’s sometimes the police themselves who make matters worse by instigating physical confrontations, manhandling elderly people and pepper-spraying children. And wherever violence has broken out — whether committed by law enforcement, outside agitators or rioters and looters — it has provided an excuse to shift the debate away from the sources of the original despair.
Riots are “socially destructive and self-defeating,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967, during an earlier spasm of unrest. In the same passage he wrote, “It is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots.”
“In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard,” Dr. King said. “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
More than half a century later, justice is still being postponed. Racial inequality remains rampant in wealth, housing, employment, education — and enforcement of the law. This is not news, but it is the responsibility of all those in power to recognize and fix it. As President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission found after studying the inequality at the root of the 1960s riots: “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”
Here are some steps to move the country toward a place where citizens don’t live in fear of those charged with serving and protecting them:
In departments with policies that sharply limit when, where and how police officers may use force, shootings and killings by the police are much lower. For instance, police officers should be required to try de-escalation before resorting to the use of force. They should not be allowed to choke people. Officers should be required to stop other officers from using excessive force.
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When the police do use deadly force, the public should be able to know about it. That means getting rid of provisions like Section 50-a of New York’s civil rights law, which prevents the release of police personnel and disciplinary records and allows bad officers to continue abusing their power with impunity.
Police officers enjoy a web of protections against the consequences of their behavior on the job. From the legal doctrine of qualified immunity to state and local police indemnification laws, it is nearly impossible for a plaintiff to get any justice, even when an officer unquestionably violated his or her rights.
Across the country, powerful police unions negotiate favorable contracts that shield the police from investigation and discourage citizens from bringing complaints. The contracts make it easier to hire, and harder to fire, officers with documented histories of bad behavior. Cities are under no obligation to agree to these terms, and they shouldn’t.
LEVERAGE FEDERAL FUNDING
Following the beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Congress empowered the Justice Department to oversee local police departments. That led to scores of investigations and long-overdue reforms in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. But the federal government also has other tools. It can deny grants to police departments that fail to impose strict use-of-force policies or refuse to discipline officers who engage in misconduct.
When you have a grenade launcher, even peaceful protesters look like enemy combatants. It’s no surprise that as police departments have stocked up on military-grade equipment, they have acted more aggressively. The Obama administration restricted the flow of certain types of equipment, but President Trump lifted those restrictions in 2017.
Most of the above reforms can happen right now, as departments around the country have shown. And when they do, the police and citizens begin to see one another as collaborators rather than antagonists. In Camden, N.J., where the police recently adopted some innovative reforms, officers marched alongside protesters. In Louisville, on Monday when it was revealed that the police who shot and killed a man overnight were not recording with body cameras, the police chief was fired.
But in too many police departments there is a culture of impunity. Until that culture is changed, there will continue to be rightful rage at its existence. Rather than just condemning or applauding protesters, Americans should listen closely to what they’re demanding.
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