Author’s Note: BANR Writer Kerra Bolton calls for a citizens’ assembly on policing in the wake of an increase of fatal police shootings. Part 1 provides a short history of policing in the United States. Part 2 outlines a restorative approach to policing and why she believes a citizens’ assembly on the topic is necessary.
That was the verdict a Louisville, KY grand jury recently gave a police officer in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.
Taylor, a Black woman and emergency room technician, was sleeping when three officers barged in her apartment in March. Serving a “no-knock warrant” that allowed them to enter, the officers fired 32 shots, killing Taylor.
Her death has been a rallying cry against police brutality and racism in the United States. The case captured the covers of O (Oprah) Magazine and Vanity Fair. Only one of the three officers was indicted in Taylor’s death. The indictment was not for Taylor’s death, but for endangering her neighbors with his shots. Her family received a $12 million settlement. But no amount of money can bring her back.
This is no isolated case. According to Statistica, there is an increasing trend of fatal shootings of Black Americans in recent years, a nonpartisan data provider.
Out of the 661 U.S. civilians shot by police so far this year, 123 were Black. The rate of fatal police shootings among Blacks was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, with 31 fatal shootings per million.
The time has come for a citizens’ assembly on policing.
A Historic Problem
Such startling numbers reflect not a crime problem, but a historical one.
Modern policing in the United States began in the 1830s. Northern and southern police departments began with different approaches but ultimately arrived at the same place by the 1950s, according to Dr. Gary Potter, a Criminal Justice professor and researcher at Eastern Kentucky University’s Police Studies program.
Northern cities created formal police organizations when “watchmen” and volunteers proved unreliable by getting drunk or falling asleep on the job. Professional police organizations sprang up in Boston (the first in 1838), New York City (1845), Chicago (1851), and Philadelphia (1855). Police officers were publicly-supported, full-time employees, with continuous employment. Departments had permanent, fixed rules and procedures and were accountable to a central governmental authority.
Southern policing was an outgrowth of “slave patrols,” created in the Carolina counties in 1704. Slave patrols chased, captured, and returned enslaved Blacks to plantation owners. They also terrorized, punished, and lynched Blacks to discourage revolts and as a form of vigilante justice for perceived offenses.
Following the Civil War, the slave patrols morphed into police departments deployed to control newly “freed” Blacks now working as sharecroppers in a cruel, agricultural caste system. Southern police also enforced “Jim Crow” segregation laws, established to deny Blacks access to human and voting rights.
An amalgamation of northern and southern policing models developed as a response to six million Blacks’ movement from the rural South to urban cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970, known as the “Great Migration.” For example, midwestern cities such as Detroit recruited police officers from the South because they knew how to “handle” Blacks.
Public outcry after decades of corruption led to a series of reforms in the 1950s. Additional bureaucracy and an emphasis on military-style organization discipline in police departments lit the fuse for militarized policing in Black and brown communities in decades to come.
A Relationship Problem
Policing’s historic roots has generated a climate of fear in which Black and brown citizens feel terrorized by the people who legally swore to protect and serve them.
A verdict like that in the Taylor case entrenches the notion that police officers are allowed to kill and maim unarmed citizens without being held accountable. Residents become more reluctant to provide information leading to the arrest of those who actually commit crimes. No one is safe when residents are afraid of the police, who continue to use deadly force to solve community problems.
“Defund the police” was a wildly misunderstood refrain uttered by some activists during the aftermath of George Floyd’s death earlier this year.
Simply put, it is a policy strategy that allocates fewer funds to police departments while increasing funds to community service providers. It enables those who are trained to respond to behavioral health and non-violent emergencies to which officers are currently called. For example, why are people with guns called upon to conduct a “wellness check” on elderly, non-responsive citizens?
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are among activist organizations calling for a series of reforms. Suggested changes include a ban on the use of knee holds and chokeholds as an acceptable practice for police officers and ensuring officer misconduct information and disciplinary histories are public record. Citizens’ Review Boards would hold police departments accountable while building public confidence.