America's Reckoning: Rising From The Abyss Of Police Violence

As we pause to mark the two-year anniversary of the policing shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent uprising that catalyzed a new generation of protest against systemic police violence, our nation is facing a moment of reckoning.

The fissure between police and communities of color, combined with easy access to firearms, has since widened into an abyss engulfing the lives of civilians and police alike.

The mass murder of Dallas police came less than 24 hours after the nation witnessed in real time the tragic death of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, during a routine traffic stop. Mr. Castile's death occurred just a day after release of graphic footage showing the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and was shortly followed by a deplorable attack on police in Baton Rouge. Since then, there have been several other controversial killings both of police and of people of color at the hands of police.

The latest in this dismal stream of violence involved a 23-year-old African-American woman shot to death in Baltimore in a reported armed standoff with police as they attempted to arrest her for traffic violations; her six-year-old son was also shot during the exchange of gunfire. That the Baltimore officers charged in the in-custody death of fellow Baltimorean Freddie Gray were just acquitted of all charges underscores the lack of accountability that continues to fuel the rage and despair of Black and brown communities that suffer excessive use of force by police at disproportionate rates.

This mounting crisis in police violence comes at a time when the nation stands particularly divided on issues critical to our collective identity and safety--gun control, immigration, criminal justice and the deep and enduring racism that continues to plague American society.

Police officers have expressed fear, anxiety and resentment of the increasingly negative views of their profession. Meanwhile, Black and Latino communities are reeling from what looks like an unending succession of videos that reveal the latest instances of violence in a long history of police brutality. Many now feel bereft about unwarranted police killings of people of color and the lack of accountability. And, there are likely to be more killings -- on both sides--if we do not accept this moment of reckoning as an opportunity to evolve together in national thinking about policing.

Despite the seemingly incessant cycle of grief, we have made some progress in the past two years and there is a way forward out of the abyss. But we must start with truth. It is imperative that our discourse on solutions to violence by and toward police is rooted in fact not fear. At his party's recent convention, Presidential nominee Donald Trump claimed that the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50% in the past year. In fact, there has been a steady decline in the number of police deaths (excepting vehicular deaths) in nearly every year since 1973.


"Reform is needed at all levels of the criminal-justice system for real transformation."

Recent proposals to amend federal and state hate crime laws to include law enforcement are based on similarly misguided rhetoric. Elevating the profession of law enforcement to protected status reserved for historically persecuted groups will not solve the problem. Nor will the proliferation of "officer's bills of rights" that only further obscure officer misconduct from scrutiny. These responses only serve to reinforce police privilege and impunity. They do nothing to build trust and bridge the widening gap between communities and police.

Instead of "a war on police," there is a fierce battle to redefine the nation's moral core that should enlist both police and the communities that rely on them for safety. The heinous acts of disaffected gunmen who have shot and killed police officers should not be allowed to derail important efforts to reimagine police-community relations, an essential civic relationship.

Reform is needed at all levels of the criminal-justice system for real transformation and the nation already has many tools to make critical change a reality. Community-oriented policing, for example, has helped improve police departments in Dallas, Texas, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Camden, New Jersey. In each city, de-escalation training, which instructs officers how to resolve threats without the use of force, has reduced levels of police violence and killings.

Police use of body-cameras has also proven effective in decreasing violence and civilian complaints in such cities as Rialto, California and Orlando, Florida. Reinforced by training on stemming implicit bias throughout the criminal-justice system, we can begin to see tangible differences in how law enforcement interacts with communities of color. To be sure, there is still more work to do to address privacy concerns, equipment malfunction and misuse, as well as public access to footage, but police-worn cameras and dash cams can aid in deterring excessive use of force. While these reforms, especially the use of police-operated cameras, are not a panacea and require strict monitoring and a legal framework to ensure against further violations of civil and privacy rights, they can be tools of both accountability and prevention.

The U.S. Justice Department announced in late June, that its entire staff, more than 28,000 people, will undergo mandatory implicit bias training next year. Using a curriculum based on the latest social science, these trainings will occur on three levels to address implicit bias in line personnel, management and supervisory staff, and at the executive level. This will help all federal agents recognize and address any unconscious bias that can lead to racial discrimination in criminal prosecutions and sentencing.

This type of critical and responsive instruction should not only be extended to state and local law enforcement, but become a condition for receiving federal funding. In addition, we must also collectively address the eroding state of mental health services head on by investing in a responsive system and not expect police to fill that void.

Transparency, accountability, and vision are desperately needed to shape our path forward. For this reason, data collection of police encounters involving use of force must be mandatory, uniform, and sufficiently disaggregated to discern patterns of misconduct. Some police departments, including the Dallas PD and police departments in California, have begun robust data collection efforts. The real measure of success will be when these and other reform efforts are the national template, not an outlier.

Although the Dallas and Baton Rouge police killings were not connected with the scores of peaceful protests across the country, it is inescapable that the fates of those actively seeking change though policing reform, victims of failed policing policies, and those who have chosen to dedicate their lives to law enforcement are inextricably linked. In order for law enforcement to succeed, communities need to be able to trust and rely upon their protection, fair treatment and respect.

Law enforcement, in turn, needs to feel that their authority is not simply validated through force but, through integrity and engagement. The Dallas police officers displayed just this as they supported and protected protestors.

The long-term solutions to this policing crisis require action by state and local law enforcement which are duty-bound to meaningfully respond to a nation at a crossroads. The symbiotic relationship between the safety and respect of police and the communities they serve was recently recognized in the donation by former star athlete Michael Jordan, who donated one million dollars to both the International Association of Chiefs of Police's Institute for Community-Police Relations, which launched in May to execute recommendations made in the report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the organization I help lead, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which launched a Policing Reform Campaign in 2014 and has worked on criminal justice reform since its inception in 1940.

The honor of law enforcement is marred with each body that is killed at the hands of racist or biased police. That honor is becoming irredeemable for a generation of Black and Latino youth reared on steady diet of violent images of terror in their communities visited by the police.

Lawlessness and anarchy are enabled by easy access to firearms that, in the most unfortunate instances, can be turned against law enforcement. We all lose under these conditions. Violence -- of any kind -- is tantamount to moral surrender.

Solving the conundrum of how police interact with communities of color requires collaboration, sustained action, and dogged determination to emerge on the other side of this crisis more unified in our vision of policing, police, community and the sanctity of life.

A nation divided cannot stand. Indeed, the events of this summer have brought us to our knees. We can and must rise up.