Blog: Moving beyond police reform to addressing structural racism

Stephen Menendian

Assistant Director and Director of Research

June 10, 2020
By Stephen Menendian

A global protest movement focused on racial inequality has opened the window of opportunity to address systemic and structural racial inequality, and the aperture seems wider than at any point since perhaps Reconstruction. Already the protest movement has a growing and notable set of achievements, including announcements from both Minneapolis and Los Angeles to repurpose municipal funds away from police departments and for other needed services.

The recent ongoing protests were triggered by the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. Responding to a 911 call, Chauvin pinned Mr. Floyd to the ground during an arrest. Even after Mr. Floyd complained that he couldn’t breathe and repeatedly pleaded for the officer to get off of him and pedestrians urged officers to listen, officer Chauvin refused to move his knee. As seen in a video shot by a bystander, three other officers stood by as Mr. Floyd went unconscious, who later died of asphyxiation.

It wasn’t until May 28, three days later, that the Minneapolis police department fired the officers involved, and four days for the county authorities to finally charge Derek Chauvin with murder and manslaughter and arrest him. In the intervening time, protests expanded across the nation, and have grown beyond ever since.

Unfortunately, this pattern – a violent police encounter usually involving an unarmed Black American, followed by protests and calls for change – is hardly new. It has occurred repeatedly in recent years, following the deaths of, among others, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and so many others.

Nor is it a relatively recent phenomenon either. It goes back decades, from the Cincinnati uprisings in 2001 following the death of Timothy Thomas, to the  LA uprising following the savage police attack on Rodney King in 1992, to the ‘long hot summer of 1967,’ where similar police encounters involving brutality and misconduct triggered uprisings in more than 100 American cities. In fact, this spasm of protest prompted President Johnson to appoint a special commission, known as the “Kerner Commission,” to investigate and propose recommendations to avoid such events from occurring again.

The Kerner Commission’s monumental analysis of the causes of the uprisings in 1967 provides a deeper insight into the cycle of protest and reform, and helps us understand why they continue: despite the more than 100 recommendations relating not simply to policing, but to unemployment, housing, education and welfare, few were ever implemented. Although the Kerner Commission devoted an entire chapter just to policing and reforming the police, its scope was much larger. It understood that reforming the police was merely the first step towards alleviating the conditions that it recognized as the underlying cause of the uprisings.

As the Kerner Commission explained, decades of racial segregation, discrimination and inequality were baked into our educational, housing, and health care systems. Racial disparities in well-being formed the background conditions and the “reservoir of pervasive and deep grievance and frustration” that were, in view of the Kerner Commission, the true “causes” of the civil uprisings. The Commission called these facts an “explosive mixture.”

Today, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these persistent inequities, as Black, Latinx and Native Americans have not only been disproportionately affected by the virus itself, in terms of infection and deaths, but also by the economic fallout, working in jobs or industries that are more difficult to perform remotely or more likely to be deemed “essential” workers. Nationally, Black Americans are approximately 2.4 times as likely as white Americans to die from Covid-19. Like the Great Recession, we expect that the current economic crisis will have a severe racially disproportionate impact.

But as the Kerner Commission noted, the protests and ensuing uprisings “developed out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked.” In addition to the fallout from the pandemic, recent events such as the shocking murder of Ahmaud Arbery in a Georgia suburb, the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville following a bungled execution of a search warrant, and the encounter of Christian Cooper, a birder, in Central Park with Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman who falsely claimed that Mr. Cooper was threatening her and called the police, are a reminder that white racism is alive and well. These events were captured on cell phone video, or else the consequences for the perpetrators might have been very different.

While these were the true, underlying causes of the protests, the police encounters, often resulting in the death of Black Americans, were what the Kerner Commission called the “precipitating incident.” The murder of Mr. Floyd is disturbingly similar to that of Eric Garner, who pleaded for air, stating “I can’t breathe” before he was killed. And like Mr. Floyd, both Michael Brown and Eric Garner were suspected of non-serious “crimes.” Michael Brown was confronted because he was suspected of stealing a package of “cigarillos” from a local convenience store, while Eric Garner was harassed and confronted for selling homemade cigarettes. And Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by an officer after a foot chase following a traffic stop.

Similar incidents were described by the Kerner Commission:

  • 19-year old Martin Chambers was shot and killed in the back by Tampa police officers following reports of a robbery from a local camera store.
  • In Harlem, a white off duty police officer shot and killed 15-year old James Powell. The officer claimed that the boy attacked him with a knife, although other witnesses claimed the boy was unarmed.
  • In Los Angeles, a California Highway Patrolman pulled over 21-year old Marquette Frye for reckless driving, and a scuffle broke out that led to six days of rioting.

A contributing factor to the outrage that engenders protest is the lack of swift accountability and the perception (and reality) of injustice. If not for the protests, would the county attorney have brought charges against ex-officer Chauvin at all? It is difficult to know with certainty, but given the track record of past events, skepticism is warranted.

Consider these facts: St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch refused to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. An Ohio grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed 12-year old Tamir Rice. And a New York Grand Jury also declined to indict officers who killed Eric Garner. Last year, the Department of Justice also announced it would not bring charges in that case.

It took months for Cobb County prosecutors to bring charges against the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, after the first two prosecutors recused themselves due to connections the men had with local law enforcement. There is good reason to believe that charges never would have been brought but-for the video and public pressure that followed.

Even when charges are brought against police officers, justice is frustratingly elusive. Three trials have been held for police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, resulting in two acquittals and a deadlocked jury. The end result has been zero convictions. These cases collectively illustrate why protestors (and many non-protestors) are so angry. Not only do the police appear to act with impunity, but even when they are charged, justice seems out of reach.

Police misconduct in responding to the protests simply underscores the scale of the problem. Perhaps the most documented example of this is the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson police department, and its response to the protests there. As was the Detroit police in 1967, the Justice Department report said of the Ferguson PD, that the use of dogs, snipers and tactical vehicles designed for the military "inflamed tensions and created fear among demonstrators." Infamously, local police arrested Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowry and two HuffingtonPost reporters. Similarly, the Minneapolis police arrested a CNN reporter the week before last while he was reporting live on television, a clear violation of their rights, as the Minnesota Governor admitted afterward.

The most urgent thing we must do is change the structure of policing as we know it, including the criminal justice system. In a report last year, Richard Rothstein and I examined progress against the Kerner Commission’s recommendations for changes to policing, and tried to imagine what recommendations a contemporary commission might offer today.

Among the obvious policy changes, we need to adopt stricter guidance on the use of police force, raise the standards for the use of force, and strengthen accountability mechanisms, including grievance procedures and civilian oversight of the police. The US has an epidemic of police violence compared to other nations. The problem is not only gun violence, it’s also other techniques such as chokeholds and knee restraints, like those that resulted in the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd. There needs to be better guidance and stricter limits on the use of such force, especially lethal force.

California considered a bill that would prohibit the use of deadly force except “where it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death to the officer or another person.” Seattle implemented a similar standard, restricting the use of deadly force to situations in which an “officer fears an imminent threat of injury or death.” Since implementing this standard, the Seattle Police Department has had fewer incidents of civilians killed by police officers.

We need much greater accountability, both within police departments and in courts of law. There are almost no instances of complaints of police abuse or violations being handled in independent, specialized agencies as imagined by the Kerner Commission. Instead, most complaints are handled by “internal affairs” offices, whose processes are as opaque as they are vague. There are no national or state standards governing the internal affairs process. Occasionally, civilian review boards work alongside police departments, but they rarely have independent investigatory powers. Police departments nurture a culture of impunity that protects bad behavior and discourages other officers from reporting bad behavior and supervisors from taking corrective action.

The lack of accountability was one of the main issues raised in the Department of Justice’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. As the report observed, “Ferguson’s internal affairs system fails to respond meaningfully to complaints of officer misconduct. It does not serve as a mechanism to restore community members’ trust in law enforcement, or correct officer behavior.” On the contrary, the investigation found that the system repeatedly failed to investigate allegations of misconduct, dissuaded citizens from lodging complaints, and retaliated against those who did.

Policing needs top to bottom re-structuring if we are to prevent the abuse, harassment, and misconduct that is too often the trigger for civil unrest. But even if we succeed in that, the background conditions that give way to these uprising may find new triggers. Ending police violence and misconduct against Black Americans will not remedy the underlying structural conditions that generate racial inequality and gross disparities in nearly every facet of American life.

Restructuring the police won’t remedy the persistent health inequities or environmental hazards that have made the coronavirus so lethal in too many communities of color. Nor will focusing solely on the police change persistent under- and unemployment levels that has made our recent economic downturn so much more deeply felt by Black and brown families. Nor will it make voting safer, less burdensome or more convenient since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. And it also won’t stop discrimination in housing and real estate markets, which steer people of color into segregated neighborhoods.

Structural racism is not simply a byproduct or a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Many of the features of structural racism are contemporary, post-Civil Rights Movement era developments, like mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, gentrification and displacement, reverse redlining and the widening wealth gap. Schools and neighborhoods are more segregated today than a generation ago.

Until a broader, transformative policy agenda is put on the table, and pursued, similar protests and uprisings can be expected in the future. The next trigger may not be a police encounter, but it could be a Katrina or a Flint or perhaps the prosecution of the next Kelly Williams-Bolar. Until we address structural racism, not simply reform the police, we have failed to solve the deeper, underlying problem.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering and Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.