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Racial Justice Can’t Begin Until Police Departments Reflect Communities They Serve, Panel Says

Even as U.S. crime rates drop to historic lows, residents of low-income neighborhoods continue to be over-policed and victimized by law enforcement, concluded panelists at a recent briefing.

Crime in the U.S. peaked in the early 1990s, but has fallen 51 percent from 1993 to 2018, notwithstanding a couple of years with spikes in violent crime, according to FBI data. Property crime has also dropped by 54 percent in the past 25 years.

But low-income urban cities, overwhelmingly populated by Black and Latinx residents, continue to be over-policed, largely by white males, many with known affiliations to white supremacist organizations. 83 percent of police officers are white males.

A summer of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — after the death of Minnesota resident George Floyd who was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin — has heightened public scrutiny on local law enforcement. The nation has been deeply divided by the choice of supporting either “law and order,” with armed militia inserting its might into peaceful protests, or de-funding the police, which President Donald Trump and others have equated with giving rise to anarchy.

Former FBI Agent Michael German, author of the report “Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement” released Aug. 27 by the Brennan Center for Justice, said ample evidence exists of police officers being affiliated with white supremacist groups.

Moreover, research organizations have uncovered hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials participating in overt bias, via racist and sexist social media activity, he said at the Sept. 4 briefing, organized by Ethnic Media Services. Officers rarely face repercussions for such activity, claiming they are protected by the First Amendment.

“The FBI believes this is a significant problem, and yet there is still no national strategy around far-right violence and white supremacy in the United States,” he said.

German said the problem was poorly understood because the federal government de-prioritizes such work, and state and local governments are unlikely to pick up the slack.

Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, which pioneered the concept of participatory defense in criminal justice proceedings, gave the example of San Jose, California, police officer Philip White, who was fired in 2015 for tweeting a series of racially charged messages. White targeted the Black Lives Matter movement, which was protesting the death of New York resident Eric Garner, who died in 2014 while being placed in a chokehold by former police officer Daniel Pantaleo. “I can’t breathe,” Garner said as he fell unconscious.

White tweeted out: “By the way if anyone feels they can’t breathe or their lives matter, I’ll be at the movies tonight, off duty, carrying my gun.” He was initially fired, but in 2016, following arbitration, White got his job back and is still on the force.

“The culture of policing is so steeped in racist practices. I don’t know how you change that,” said Jayadev, adding that the culture of policing is laced with white supremacy to the point where officers like White are not outliers, but instead accepted by their peers.

“Oh that’s just Phillip: he does things like that,” said Jayadev, characterizing White’s colleagues’ response to his tweets.

Moreover, racist officers are protected by their unions, he said, rarely facing the repercussions for their racist behavior.

In June, the postings of a private Facebook group comprised of active and retired San Jose police officers were exposed. One inflammatory post claimed: “Black lives really don’t matter,” whereas another post suggested a hijab could be used as a noose.

“Racism is embedded into an institution that has the ability to kill to harm to strip you of your liberty,” said Jayadev, commenting on the Facebook group incident.

The civil rights activist spoke about the concept of de-funding police. “This system of law and order that has existed as a result of and since slavery does not result in safety. If anything, it creates more harm and danger,” he said. “So take away that harm and then invent and create space for investments into other things that address the root causes of harm.”

Jayadev and Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, who founded Mothers in Charge after her son was killed in 2001 in a parking dispute, said some of the funds currently allocated to policing could instead be used to fund mental health and behavioral health services, which could be implemented in many situations in which police are currently deployed.

“When that call comes in, it doesn’t go to 911. It goes to a different number to a group of people that are equipped on how to de-escalate a situation and solve the issue without taking a life,” Jayadev said.

“They go to the home and and then they have someone that actually survives the encounter and actually gets the help that they probably called for,” he said.

Johnson-Speight spoke about the need for police departments to reflect the community they are policing.

“You can’t expect 83 percent of white men to understand the issues of minority communities,” she said, noting that police are recruited from throughout the nation. “How can it be community policing if you don’t understand, or if you’re not really involved in, the community?

“I think now because of George Floyd we have seen people around the country and around the world standing up against police brutality,” Johnson-Speidt said. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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