DELAYING POLICE REFORM DENIES JUSTICE By Robert Champagne
It is not often, that I find myself agreeing with the editorial board of the New York Times. However, their editorial of June 2 entitled “Police Reform” is the exception. Perhaps I have passed to the dark side, but it seems to me that MAPLE has a lot in common with the reform thinking expressed in this editorial. Let it begin here, in Massachusetts.
Three words scrawled on a sign held by a 3-year-old black boy at a Tampa protest against police brutality can’t put the matter any clearer. Yet to judge by the days of protests sweeping the country, this message still has not 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, then Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, and Amadou Diallo. The list goes on and on, and on, and on. These were 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.
It is in the name of all these men and women and countless more, who died at the hands of brutal or incompetent police offices, that thousands of Americans have taken to the streets, to express a rage born of despair. Despair that their government has failed to provide them with one of the most fundamental protections in the Constitution: the right to life, and 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 were not, police officers were often the target of the violence. Officers may have felt they were left without good options to respond to the threats at that moment, but how they respond does matter. It is 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 denied. 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:
- USE-OF-FORCE POLICIES: 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.
- TRANSPARENCY: 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.
- ACCOUNTABILITY : Police officers enjoy a web of protection 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.
- UNION CONTRACTS: 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.
- DEMILITARIZATION: 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. As we debated the baseline for MAPLE’s original charter, a majority of these reforms were present. As current and former leaders of this profession, it is time again to step to the front and lead. In doing so, we empower those in our command to embrace the values and adopt the cultural change.
( Note About The Author: Robert Champagne served as the Chief of Police for the City of Peabody MA for over 20 years. He has over 40 years experience in the police service and he is currently the Vice President of the Massachusetts Association For Professional Law Enforcement.)