We’ve Seen the Videos. We’ve Protested the Shootings. Now Let’s Address the Police Violence Problem.

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tags: racism, mass shootings, Ferguson

Michael McQuillan in 2015 and 2016 served on the NYPD Training Advisory Committee, chairing its Race Subcommittee. He teaches history in Brooklyn, New York at the School for Global Studies.

Militarized police forces plus racist myths of black threat and white supremacy cause the police violence in minority communities that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Detroit speech in 1966 called “the main problem in America’s race relations.”  Mandatory transparent use of body cameras with both institutional and implicit bias training programs, done proactively elsewhere as piloted in the Seattle Police Department, are minimum first steps needed to halt the horrific shooting pattern that on Monday killed Alton Sterling and on Tuesday Philando Castile.

Their deaths warrant protest and outrage.  “They damn well should and everyone should see them,” I thought when CNN reporter Nick Valencia warned that videos of the shootings are graphic.  While other correspondents and our elected officials obsess over whether protests will stay peaceful, we might well remember that the Constitution’s First Amendment makes clear that “the redress of grievances” is the goal of protest rights.  Where does hope lie at this point – to stop the killing, keep safe our citizens and restore trust in equitable police service and law enforcement?  Who will channel the energy of protest into effective police regulation and reform? 

Secretary Clinton, according to the New York Times, said that “Something is profoundly wrong when many of our citizens have reason to believe that our country views their lives as less precious than others.”  This recital of stereotype is sadly true but too little from a potential president.  The predictable defense by others that police officers face sudden life-and-death decisions on duty, and the clichéd assurance that the vast majority of police officers selflessly risk their own safety on our behalf denies that both sides – police officers and people of color – would benefit from our solving this problem.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on National Public Radio that the NYPD’s 35,000 member retraining programs “will serve as a national model.”  Service on its Training Advisory Committee, aiding in New York’s shift from lecture to scenario-based role play, the review of its Implicit Bias curriculum and steps toward reinforcing training insights and content for seasoned field officers and mentored rookies alike made me for once feel hopeful that long-term change could occur. 

But humility is in order.  There are indeed gallant and brave police officers; you and I pray they will risk danger to save us from it.  But will their colleagues, cynical or defensive, take seriously mandated training? Experienced officers are said to warn new arrivals to forget everything they learned at the academy.  Some feel unfairly blamed for the inappropriate actions of colleagues, others in uniting against outsiders who don’t understand the realities of crime response and crime prevention.  Even if they train in good faith, is that enough?  Shouldn’t New York put its own house in order by revising its use-of-force policies, broadening body camera requirements, banning the chokehold that on Staten Island killed Eric Garner, and adding institutional bias to its imminent implicit bias program before proclaiming its “model” worthy of replication?

President Obama observed that the Sterling and Castile deaths are part of a pattern, not isolated incidents, less a “black and Latino issue than an American problem.”  As Americans we on the Fourth of July rejoiced in our freedoms but democracy here is a lie if when the dead men are laid to rest we turn back to business as usual and leave fellow citizens vulnerable to the unsolved problem of police violence in minority communities.



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