In the Wake of Ferguson, What Will It Take to Reshape America’s Police?
While the election of Barack Obama as president may have seemed to some to herald a new era in American race relations, the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, made clear that one of the venerable flash points in race relations—the police (or in the case of Sanford, self-appointed police) killings of young black men—is very much still with us. Discriminatory police treatment of African Americans remains one of the hardiest perennials in American life, as the “stop-and-frisk” tactic that New York’s police force employed against young blacks until just last year made clear.
During the past half-century, police violence against African Americans—at once, both grotesque and routine—sparked two great Los Angeles riots and other instances of civil unrest. In recent years, the protests against these police killings have taken the form of movements to reform police practices and change the nature of police training, as well as the composition of the police forces themselves. These movements, however, have yet to engender a nationwide call for police reform. In the following conversation, Ben Jealous and Jamelle Bouie discuss what it would take to reshape America’s police departments and curtail the unprompted police killings that beset us still.
Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP, is a partner at Kapor Capital and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Jamelle Bouie, a former writing fellow and staff reporter at the Prospect, is a staff writer at Slate covering politics, policy, and race. —Harold Meyerson
Jamelle Bouie: I’m still very focused on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and St. Louis County, though it’s receded in the public mind somewhat. And not just the protests and the demonstrations, or the broader specter of police militarization. In all of my writing and speaking on the events there, I keep coming back to the experiences of the young men and women I spoke to. Everyone—everyone—could recall a recent encounter with the police, and almost everyone could point to a friend, or a cousin, or a spouse, or a sibling who was harassed by law enforcement. Even knowing the racial disparities in police contact, it was astounding to see, in person, a community all but occupied by police.
With all of that said, here’s my question: How normal is all of this? Compared to ten or fifteen years ago, are we looking at a worse relationship between young black people and police, or is this—as bad as it is—an improvement over the past? And related to this, one thing I noticed in Ferguson was the extent to which young women were as vocal about their encounters with the police as young men, which is a perspective we don’t always get in these conversations. In fact, I tend to think that the broader response to Ferguson and similar events would be different if the faces of the unrest were women.
What are your thoughts?
Ben Jealous: When I was a young man, it was Rodney King. When I was a young professional, it was Amadou Diallo. Now I’m raising my son and daughter, and it’s Ramarley Graham, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and so many other cases we only pay attention to for a moment—like John Crawford III, the father of two who was shot by police in an Ohio Walmart last month.
The sad fact is that this problem will not get better by itself. We must be both more aggressive and smarter in our advocacy. The situation in Sanford, Florida, improved because activists insisted on justice for Trayvon Martin and also insisted on a reorganizing of the police department, including firing the police chief.
In a broader sense, if we want to change the situation across the country, we need to be focused on removing not only officers with patterns of racial abuse, but officers who are abusive, period. While it may be interesting to talk about the odd Klan member on the police force in a small Southern town, the much greater and more immediate problem is that we have too many former schoolyard bullies working as police officers. We need to be focused on removing officers who have patterns of explicit and implicit bias, but we also need to be focused on ensuring that people who are prone to abusive and violent behavior do not become officers in the first place.
We also need to adopt, at long last, meaningful national standards for use-of-force training for all police officers. While departmental standards vary widely throughout the country, the most common standard is that officers are trained on use of force exactly once in their careers: for eight hours on one day at the end of their training at police academy. In England, on the other hand, all officers are trained at least regularly throughout their careers.
Regarding young women, I’m very glad that you raised the question and encourage you to dig more. In the 20-plus years that I’ve worked investigating patterns of police abuse and organizing communities to create a mutually beneficial relationship between communities and police, it has repeatedly struck me that we spend too little time talking about the ways in which our girls and young women are abused by the very officers who have sworn to respect and protect them. I think of the righteous battle against then-Mayor Bloomberg’s massive racial profiling program known as “stop and frisk,” in which dozens of young women had been stopped and physically mistreated by police in ways that can only be described as unnecessary and humiliating, and left many feeling as if they had been physically assaulted or sexually violated.
In New York City, we made a point of lifting up and giving voice to those women’s stories, and that made a difference. It’s important that concerned journalists search out and give voice to their stories too.
Protesters carry crosses with the names of black men who have been killed during a march to the Ferguson, Missouri, police station, Monday, October 13, 2014. Activists planned a day of civil disobedience to protest the shooting of Michael Brown in August and a second police shooting in St. Louis in early October.
Jamelle Bouie: One thing I want to zero in on: You said, “We need to be focused on ensuring that people who are prone to abusive and violent behavior do not become officers in the first place,” and that “we also need to adopt, at long last, meaningful national standards for use-of-force training for all police officers.”
An odd thing about the public dialogue on policing is how we treat weapon discharge. Obviously, there are times when an officer needs to use his or her weapon, but in most cases, using a weapon isn’t necessary. You could even say firing a weapon represents a failure of training—ideally, the typical officer would never have to unholster his or her sidearm. Instead, we tend to talk about officer shootings as some inevitable fact of life, like the sunlight or the wind.
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and exploring education policy, and specifically, how we train and evaluate teachers. If teachers were, say, graduating failing elementary school classes at the rate that police were shooting people—and if there were absolutely no accountability, as is the case with many police departments—we’d have a national outrage. In fact, we have a national outrage over teacher performance right now, even though teacher failure is likely less pervasive than police shootings.
All of that is to say I think you’re absolutely right. As with teachers, we need to recruit the right kinds of people. Nearly half the states don’t require psychological screening for police applicants, nor are there any national standards for police screenings. Given the degree to which good policing requires a sound head, this is just astounding. It would be as if we didn’t check teacher applicants for criminal charges, or let them lead classrooms without any certification. The same goes for national standards for use-of-force training—we require teachers to get regular certifications, we should do the same for police officers.
And yet, plenty of Americans can muster outrage for bad classroom performance, but shrug when it comes to police shootings and bad conduct. Do you have any thoughts on what’s behind this? Do you think there’s anything particular about the police that creates a certain complacency (or even hostility) around ideas for reform, at least among some parts of the public?
Ben Jealous: I’m not sure that I accept the premise of your question. Clearly, many more children are failed by schools every year than are killed by police. And while school failures and police misconduct are both tragedies, they are far from comparable.
Moreover, it’s important to always keep in mind that police officers do very tough jobs with very little recognition, and the majority of them succeed in helping to keep all of us safer. At one point in my life I sat with a 30-plus-year veteran of the force after the first time he had to shoot a suspect. Even though the suspect was in the midst of an armed robbery and the officer only wounded him, I saw the ways that the action tore into the officer’s soul and forced him to second-guess himself. This officer was a former Green Beret who had succeeded in not having shot anybody since the Vietnam War. Watching him react and seeing the toll that it took, I know that his decision to shoot was not one he made lightly.
That said, the issue here is a distinct minority of officers who are prone to use deadly force. Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, who co-founded the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, has researched why police officers act aggressively toward black men. He showed that while racism is an important factor, officers can also be influenced by what they perceive to be threats to their masculinity. In fact, he showed that more than 80 percent of incidents involving police use of deadly force were triggered by this kind of perceived threat. Predilection toward this kind of behavior is the kind of thing you can detect prior to giving someone a badge and a gun. As you said, we should make psychological screening a standard procedure in police departments across the country.
I do agree with your conviction that we need a true national movement on this issue if we’re going to eliminate the scourge of unnecessary police killings and other forms of abusive policing. I’ve been part of many local efforts across the country, but as the tragedies in Ferguson; Sanford, Florida; Beavercreek, Ohio; and so many other places remind us, this problem is national in scope and will ultimately require a strong federal response to solve at scale.
Jamelle Bouie: Understood. I don’t think I was trying to directly compare failed children to police shootings, as much as I was trying to say that both are public problems stemming from public institutions, and that if we had a similar level of failure among teachers as we do among police, we’d see national concern, if not panic.
In any case, Dr. Goff’s study is interesting, especially in what it implies about the role of racism in determining perceived threats to masculinity. If an individual has internalized ideas about black criminal aggression, then even if this person isn’t outwardly prejudiced or holds consciously negative attitudes toward blacks, he might react more harshly to a black person challenging his authority than a white one.
I have one last question, and it relates to your final point: What kind of strong federal response would it take to make headway on this problem? Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department has been admirably aggressive on these issues—it’s investigating the shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Beavercreek, Ohio—but that’s just one part in a broader effort. What else can the federal government do?
Ben Jealous: Three things come to mind.
First, Congress should treat this recent spate of police shootings and the ongoing trends as a national emergency and pass national standards for use of force, and use-of-force training.
Second—and perhaps more achievable given the current state of Congress—the DOJ and the White House should examine all possibilities of achieving those same ends through their existing powers. The DOJ should also issue best practices guidelines on the selection and retention of local, state, and federal-level law enforcement officers—guidelines that would include the sort of screening or personality testing that we spoke about earlier, which would work to weed out those who harbor any form of bias or other personality problems that might contribute to their abusing or even killing any of the fellow Americans they are supposed to protect.
Third, there are other, broader steps that the federal government can and should take to re-orient police officers more generally. It could increase federal support for community-oriented policing. It could create the type of sentencing commission used by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to reduce his state’s addiction to incarceration. If we want to get more specific, the DOJ could publish a report called “The Case for Less Incarceration,” which would essentially retract the misguided “The Case for More Incarceration” released by George H.W. Bush’s Justice Department in 1992. The report would embody the philosophy of reform embraced in recent years by the governors of Texas, New York, and Georgia, each of which is on a path toward less incarceration, smaller prisons, and, let’s hope, a different relationship between the local and state police departments, communities of color, and poor communities in general.
The DOJ’s “pattern or practice” investigation in St. Louis is an important first step, but the time has come for us to recognize that this problem isn’t particular to a given city or metro area at a specific point in time. It’s a problem that has plagued our nation for a long time. Any true solutions will need to be calibrated to the actual scale of the problem at hand.