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Police and Communities: Council Perspectives

Read messages from CCJ’s President & CEO and CCJ Senior Fellow Thaddeus Lateef Johnson, a former Memphis police officer who teaches criminology at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

 

A Real Chance for Change

Adam Gelb

President & CEO, Council on Criminal Justice 


Over the past quarter century, countless initiatives and measures have sought to reduce police violence and improve police-community relations: psychological screening of recruits, enhanced training and supervision, community policing programs and liaison officers, police athletic leagues, civilian oversight boards, body-worn cameras, and much, much more. Yet the killings continue, with men of color the disproportionate victims. So far, the most potent tool seems to be a civilian witness bearing a smartphone.
 
There have been angry but peaceful protests before. Looting too. But this time feels different, in scale and intensity. The convergence of the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd has pried off the sutures binding America’s deepest wound – and has rightly elevated racial justice to the forefront of the nation’s conscience.


Now more than ever, we carry a collective and urgent responsibility to really listen to people with expertise, particularly those whose lives and communities have been affected most by the machinery of the system. We must also consult research, including this new comprehensive volume and these econometric studies that reveal some promising strategies and challenge some long-held assumptions.

 
The Council on Criminal Justice’s mission is to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and build consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all. The Council will raise the quality and diversity of the conversation, and ultimately elevate the impact of reforms that will flow from this year’s catastrophic events. Working together, we will make progress toward a society and a system that is fair and just, regardless of the color of your uniform or the color of your skin. 

 


 

Law Enforcement Must
Step Up

Thaddeus Johnson, PhD

Senior Fellow, Council on Criminal Justice 


As a black man who spent 10 years on the police force in a predominantly black city, I’ve walked in both sets of shoes. I understand how challenging policing is, so when officer-involved shootings occur, I tend to give the uniformed person the benefit of the doubt. But Minneapolis was different. There was no talking around it. Derek Chauvin and his partners had to be fired, and maybe even convicted.

The tide of protest and violence surging through our nation’s streets isn’t about one black man dying beneath the knee of one white man. It’s about trust in our government. It’s about the fact that everyone is created equal. It’s about decades upon decades of pain and injustice. George Floyd's murder represents a tipping point, because the tinderbox had long been lit. With frustrations already brewing given the tanking economy, the pandemic, and the Ahmaud Arbery killing, this “perfect storm” was inevitable. 

Swift and decisive action is needed if police and government leaders hope to regain the trust of our communities. Here’s one example – the six officers facing charges for using excessive force during protests in Atlanta, where I live. Is it fair? Do I think that’s the right decision? I’m not sure. It’s possible these officers might have had one bad moment, one misjudgment. But we must get something done now. We can’t get this wrong. The future of our nation depends on it.  

Police officers are not to blame for all of society’s ills, but if we can’t trust them to keep us safe, where do we turn? It’s up to law enforcement to regain our confidence. Given the depth of the damage, officers – even those who have done no wrong – must show that they’re willing to seek forgiveness, to make things right. Much like a cheating spouse, they need to prove that they’re worthy of another chance.  

There are no simple answers here, far from it. But I do know that law enforcement must adopt a zero-tolerance approach to the mistreatment of citizens. I also know that police must fundamentally change their mission from that of warrior to guardian, and move beyond traditional metrics like arrests, citations, and seizures. We can recruit the best officers and provide them with world-class resources, but if the training and rewards structure continue to perpetuate old cultural traditions, and if institutional barriers continue to shield bad officers from accountability, then our efforts to reform policing in America will fail. 

It's naïve to believe that police culture will change overnight. And yet of all the times in my life, I feel the most hopeful now. This is a watershed moment in our nation’s history. Black people are fed up. White people are fed up. Our leaders are fed up. Good officers are fed up. The world is finally fed up! Change is on the horizon.

 


Photos by Gayatri Malhotra. For interview requests or media related questions, please contact Jenifer Warren at jwarren@counciloncj.org or 916-217-0780.