Even as demonstrations over police brutality against African Americans continue across the nation, many activists, civic leaders, and politicians are seeking ways to move from protests to actions that will promote systemic change in American race relations.
“For far too long, we’ve allowed those in power and the system itself to really do what it does without pushing back on it,” says Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, a national network focused on eliminating violence related to African American men and boys. “I think the moment now is different... There’s more people who are saying that they see the injustice and they’re fighting against it.”
Deaths due to lethal use of force by police are not new. But incidents that once may have been largely out of sight to the general public now gain worldwide attention thanks to cellphone video recordings that go viral on social media.
“Those things have always occurred,” says Keturah Herron, a member of Black Lives Matter and a policy strategist with the ACLU of Kentucky. “Now we as a nation are starting to see these things for ourselves and so people are just sick and tired of it.”
According to a recent Washington Post investigation, police shoot and kill about 1,000 Americans every year. African Americans account for 23 percent of those killed by police, even though they comprise only 13 percent of the population. A study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports that African Americans have a fatality rate 2.8 times higher than whites when it comes to lethal use of force by police.
But not all deaths result from the discharge of a police firearm. The sight of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes outraged many Americans, including those in law enforcement.
“It runs counter to everything that any decent, law-abiding human, not to mention law enforcement officer, stands for,” says retired Louisville Metro Police Department Sergeant Mike Shugart. “The moment that officer did that and the officers around him just stood by, they were no longer officers. They became criminals.”
Challenges Faced by Police
Shugart contends many police officers are poorly paid for the work they are asked to do, which he says includes enforcing bad public policy that has been in place for decades. For example, he says officers are often called to deal with people suffering from a mental health issue that are a threat to themselves or others.
“That role should be left to a psychiatrist or a social worker, somebody with expertise in that area,” says Shugart, “and not just another one-week training that you foist upon the police and then expect them to execute flawlessly.”
Russell M. Coleman, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, says the commonwealth spends less per capita on law enforcement than any state in the union. He says cutting police funding will result in less training for officers and fewer ancillary programs associated with police departments that are designed to improve community safety.
“This notion of defunding or eliminating police, I can’t think of a more dangerous, risky concept to the very neighborhoods we’re seeking to protect,” says Coleman.
“You cannot address root cause, you cannot get into some of these deep-seated issues if you don’t have the basics of a safe neighborhood,” he says.
Coleman contends it is possible to support law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement, and that the conversation between the two sides need not be adversarial. He says he understands the concerns of minority groups who say they experience over-enforcement by police in their neighborhoods yet still feel less protected.
“They feel that law enforcement can be too robust,” says Coleman. “It’s very much a cudgel and not a scalpel.”
Louisville has seen a 120 percent increase in shootings and a 33 percent increase in homicides over this time last year, according to Coleman. He says many of those incidents occur in minority neighborhoods.
Herron says that’s not surprising. She says an uptick in crime is common in communities where people struggle under a lack of access to jobs, grocery stores, health care, and quality education. Instead of putting armed resource officers in public schools, which she says can leave children of color feeling threatened, Herron says state lawmakers should allocate that money to building better schools in African American neighborhoods.
Another challenge for Louisville, says Coleman, is that many police officers don’t live in the neighborhoods they police. That lack of personal contact can lead residents, especially younger ones, to have negative views of police. He says officers should be incentivized to live in the districts to which they are assigned. He also wants the city to launch a “focused deterrence effort” that would target police activities to the 1 percent of people who commit the most offenses.
Options for More Accountability
Herron puts police accountability at the top of her reform agenda. She says officers with a record of misconduct should not be allowed to keep their jobs.
“When we do identify those officers who are doing things that they should not be doing, how do we make sure that we’re able to get rid of them?” says Herron.
But under Kentucky law, police who leave departments under a cloud of misconduct or possible indictment are able to keep their state professional standards certification, according to Louisville Metro Council President David James, who served on the city’s police force for 30 years. That means those officers can still find work in another department.
“That happens quite regularly, unfortunately,” says James.
He calls for a change to that law, and for creating an inspector general as well as a civilian review board empowered to investigate police misconduct and hold officers accountable. He also wants officers involved in critical incidents to undergo drug tests, and a change to ordinances that allow police departments to delay releasing body camera video and 911 recordings.
Last week the Louisville Metro Council enacted a ban on no-knock warrants. The new law named for Breonna Taylor, the former Louisville EMT killed by police while executing a no-knock warrant in March, also requires officers to wear and activate body cameras during the execution of a warrant. No body camera video was recorded during the raid in which Taylor was killed.
“That’s a first step, that’s not the only step,” says Trinidad Jackson, violence prevention activist and researcher at the University of Louisville School of Public Health. “We must dissect the entire way that the warrant system works.”
Jackson calls for more research on how warrants are granted, the proportion of warrants taken out against African Americans versus people of other races, and the destruction of property and the loss of life that occurs during the execution of warrants. He says that data can inform better policing techniques going forward.
Expanding Beyond Policing
But James says the focus on police is not enough. He says the entire justice system has “major flaws.”
“I don’t think that we should only look at what the police are doing, but we should also be looking at what the criminal justice system is doing: the courts, the prosecutors, and the defense attorneys,” says James.
Smith says the scope of reform needs to be wider still, and include all the ways that communities can be made safe.
“It’s not about jails, detention centers, and police,” says Smith. “It really is around how do we support affordable housing, how do we make sure all of our kids get quality education, how do we make sure people have a pathway to employment with a livable wage.”
Smith says Metro Louisville could fully fund the city’s Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, implement intervention programs designed to prevent violence before it erupts, and support grass-roots organizations that already do good work in struggling communities.
Academia can also help, says University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi. First she says higher education must acknowledge its own checkered past on issues of racism.
“One of the frustrations for those of us in higher [education] is that sometimes our talk is much more impressive than our actions,” says Bendapudi. “There’s so much more that we can and must do as institutions of higher education.”
She says colleges and universities can better explain terms like white privilege and Black Lives Matter, which she says some people misinterpret as racist. Schools can also do more to educate students and the public about the root causes of structural inequities that contribute to systemic racism. Finally, she says it is not enough for a person to proclaim that he or she is not racist. She says people must be anti-racist.
“Call out racism,” she says. “Look at every single action that you take and say, ‘What can I do to make things better?’”
From his perspective, Jackson hopes more white Americans will become vocal in calling for racial equity and justice.
“I’m looking for that energy in the streets to translate into daily living activities,” says Jackson. “I want to see [white people] voting for and engaging in policy that is really centered around the liberation of some of our most structurally marginalized racial and ethnic demographics.”
Coleman contends these issues aren’t just of concern to people in Louisville and Lexington, where the largest protests have occurred in the state. He says these topics should be important to all Kentuckians.
“The need to have these conversations exists across our commonwealth,” says Coleman. “For folks sitting in rural areas outside of Louisville, please engage.”