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Can the American Police Force be Saved in an Anti-Black Culture?

Baltimore Protest-Image by Bruce Emmerling

By Lincoln Rice*

The Academy Award-winning film Green Book (2018) tells the story of African American jazz pianist Don Shirley touring the Deep South with an Italian American driver and bodyguard in 1962. During the tour, they have several negative experiences with law enforcement in the South. Near the end of the film, they are pulled over yet again. The viewer is meant to be concerned that another incident may occur, when it becomes evident they are in the North and the police officer is just there to help. This is supposed to be based on true events, but a story that portrays the African American experience with Northern police as a respectful and safe experience for American blacks is a work of fiction.

The public execution of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department is an example of the black American experience with police at its worst. But hostile and inappropriate police actions toward African Americans are a daily affair all over the United States. Unwarranted body searches, car searches, constant traffic stops to point of harassment (especially in white neighborhoods), being charged with crimes and often thrown in prison for nonviolent offenses at rates that should be a source of national embarrassment, etc.

Weeding Out Bad Cops

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

In public discussions about police reform, there is often talk of weeding out the bad police officers. The true concern is if there are any good police officers. To some that might seem like hyperbole. But try to remember how often you have heard of a police officer making a public statement against another police officer.

On April 30, 2014, 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton was murdered by a police officer in a downtown Milwaukee park. The murder occurred after a local coffee shop employee had complained of a black man sleeping in the park near the café. After mounting public pressure and protests, police officer Christopher Manney was fired. Manney appealed his firing, but lost the appeal. At his appeal hearings, the room was flooded with police officers in support of Manney. Additionally, following each organized public protest, black activists were often pulled over and harassed by Milwaukee police officers.

If the so-called good police officers are protecting the bad police officers, I must ask if there are any good police officers. It is good to hear of police officers joining protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but I hope that these same police officers will hold their peers to account in the coming years.

A Proposal for Authentic Police Reform

If the American police force is to be saved, it would require radical changes. As a first step, I would suggest implementing requirements similar to Article 5 of the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Though the American Catholic bishops still have a long way to go in regaining trust in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, I believe the zero-tolerance policy that they adopted toward predator priests should be adapted to police officers. The charter states, “Even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor—whenever it occurred—which is admitted or established after an appropriate process… the offending priest or deacon is to be permanently removed from ministry.”

I would recommend that every officer with a credible allegation of professional malfeasance should be dismissed and not allowed to be a police officer anywhere in the United States. As with the bishops’ policy, this police policy would be retroactive. Any previous complaints would be reopened and examined. Derek Chavin, the officer who murdered Floyd, had 18 prior complaints on his record. Former Milwaukee police officer Manney had six former complaints against him, including a very public incident where he threw a clown to the ground outside city hall and beat him. The incident was caught on film and had previously aired on the local news. If we lived in world with zero tolerance against police misconduct, George Floyd and Dantre Hamilton would be a live today.

Concurrent with a zero tolerance policy toward police misconduct (“misconduct” seems to be a totally inadequate term!) would be a mandatory reporting policy for police officers who witness the inappropriate acts by another police officer. This policy would also be retroactive, but police officers would be given a brief grace period to file reports on any previous misconduct they had witnessed. Afterward, any police officer who refused to reported police misconduct would be fired and not able to serve as a police officer in the United States. There can be no tolerance for police misconduct or for those who turn a blind eye.

Municipal Budgets Need to be Reprioritized

In 2017, I attended a retreat at the Su Casa Catholic Worker in Chicago where the black-led #LetUsBreathe Collective guided a mostly white gathering of Catholic Workers through various anti-racism exercises and candidly related the harsh racist reality of policing in the City of Chicago. They noted that approximately 50% of Chicago’s budget was dedicated to the police department, particularly when counting the millions of dollars the city pays out in lawsuits resulting from police misconduct.

Image by Betty Martin

Once I returned to Milwaukee, I examined our own city budget and discovered that the City of Milwaukee also dedicates nearly half of its operating budget for the police department. With the great needs facing our communities and the repeated instances of police harassment (and sometimes murder) of black citizens by the Milwaukee Police Department, these financial priorities are terribly misplaced. In the wake of the probable recession that may follow the COVID-19 pandemic, serious budget decisions will need to make by local governments.

My last recommendation would be not to replace the thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of police officers who would be fired if the above zero tolerance policy was put into effect. Communities could preserve other necessary resources by this defunding of police departments. With smaller police departments, communities could reassess what current policing and hopefully envision police forces that will serve the entire community and contribute to human flourishing for all. These recommendations are just a first step on a long journey toward building a more just society.

*Lincoln Rice earned his PhD in Christian Ethics at Marquette University in 2013. He has taught at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has published articles and books on the topics of black liberation theology, Catholic Worker thought, and social ethics. His book Healing the Racial Divide (2014) argued for a renewal of Catholic racial justice theology that integrated theology, the social sciences, and the African American experience.

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