Can We Reimagine Policing In America?

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By Robert Davis, DMin, MDiv

From the slave patrols of the 19th century to patrolling neighborhoods in the 21st century, police have been one of, if not the most destructive and oppressive forces in the Black community. In the 21st century, we can expand that to say Black and Brown communities.

In July 2018 I was traumatized as I watched comedian D.L. Hughley tell of his first encounter with the police, on the television talk show, The View. He said, “My first experience with the police, I was 8 years old, on 135th and Avalon. I was a kid. I didn’t know right from wrong. I was a kid growing up. All I knew about the police was 1-Adam-12. So I’m walking down the street, me and my best friend, and the police screech up to us, and they go ‘where is such and such,’ and we go, ‘we don’t know.’ They said, ‘put your hands on the car.’ So we put our hands on the car, and the cars ran hot back then. And I said, ‘officer this is hot.’ He said, ‘if you take your…’ he said, ‘n-word, if you take your hands off this car I’m gonna blow your head off’.’ That is my first introduction, and then two months, I mean weeks ago, I see a Black kid in Chicago who gets handcuffed, and he pees on himself. And I said, ‘I’m 50 years, 50 years ago, and thousands of miles away, this kid’s gonna have the same kind of introduction to police that I do.’”

I had my own traumatizing experience with the police when I was around twelve years old. I was walking down Wheeler Rd. in Southeast Washington, DC. I took a shortcut through 8th St., a high drug strip in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many streets you could walk down that weren’t a high drug street. I remember a police car pulled up and the officers made me put my hands on the hood of the car. One officer stood to my right with his gun drawn while the other officer patted me down for drugs. I’ll never forget the Black officer saying, “nigger you bet not move,” and the White officer saying, “boy, I’ll blow your brains out.” There’s nothing more frightening than being a young black man and having a police officer point a gun at your head.

These types of stories, these abuses of power, and miscarriages of justice are too common in poor minority communities. As three police officers told me and my friends, as we walked home from school, “ain’t s**t friendly about us.”

For years we have tried to reform police practices. We have banned certain procedures, chokeholds, and held many, many cookouts with neighborhood kids. However, the general hostility of police towards minority communities remains the same, so has the disproportionate levels of policing and incarceration for similar crimes. The Hamilton Project found that “Black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates [16% for Blacks and 19% for White], but black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses. They further found, “At the state level blacks are 6.5 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes.”

I do not believe there is much that can be accomplished by way of reform. We are at a place in American history where we need to begin rethinking the purpose and function of the police. A more narrow scope is needed, not just additional reforms and training. As long as we recruit high school graduates, and ex-military personnel, and provide them with four to six months of police training, there is very little additional reforms will be able to accomplish. Under this current model, we will continue to have the same problems for the foreseeable future.

I believe our focus needs to shift. We need to think more about how we eliminate the need for policing as we currently know it. Imagine a world where police driving through poor communities looking for “criminals” is not needed or acceptable. We can achieve this if we shift our attention and resources from empowering police to empowering the community. I believe there needs to be a renewed focus on five aspects of public safety.

First, we need to focus on empowering communities by providing them adequate educational, housing, mental health, and economic and job opportunities. Research has shown that communities that have these resources have lower crime rates.

Second, we need to focus on empowering communities with laws, policies, and programs that significantly minimize citizens coming into contact with law enforcement and the criminal legal system. 

Third, we need to focus on empowering communities with strong independent oversight authority. We should also ensure that minority groups, as well as those with lived experience, are involved in the creation of curriculums and the training of law-enforcement.

Fourth, we need to focus on returning formerly incarcerated citizens to the community Safely, Quickly, and Restoratively.

Lastly, we need to focus on healing communities from harms created by past and current forms of policing and the criminal legal systems.

These five strategies—areas of focus—will look different city to city and community to community, but they help us begin the process of transitioning from a quasi-police state in poor communities to communities that can function and thrive without the imaginary need for strong police intervention. When I imagine and reimagine policing and public safety I imagine a world where police have a significantly less footprint. I imagine a world where policing, as we have come to know it, is no longer necessary. Can you imagine that?

The Reimagining Policing and Public Safety Task Force will release 112 Recommendations on Monday, May 24, 2021.

Dr. Robert Davis is the Executive Director of UnBoxed, a nonprofit organization that provides executive coaching and leadership training to help organizations create strong workplace relationship cultures. He also serves as Project Coordinator for the Denver Task Force To Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, and on the board of the Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care

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