Viewpoint: Seize the moment for police reform

Karen Rubin
Karen Rubin, Columnist

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has galvanized the nation and the world. His murder was only one in a long, long list of murders and lynchings over decades. But this was a perfect storm that made its heinousness obvious to all: This was not the instant firing of a gun in a moment of fear, but a torturously long, drawn-out 8 minutes, 46 seconds, during which three other police officers stood around, onlookers pleaded for mercy, and the whole thing captured on video that was  shared over social media.

So while there were other unprovoked killings – Breonna Taylor, shot in her own Louisville apartment in the dead of night after police invaded with a no-knock warrant – this one was undeniable in demonstrating the ingrained culture that dehumanizes in order for such violence to occur, and the smug security of police, given the unparalleled power of a gun and a badge, that they would not be held accountable.

Enough is enough, protesters by the tens of thousands in hundreds of cities throughout the country and the world, chant, even putting their own lives at risk, not just from the baton-wielding, tear-gas throwing, flashbang-grenade hurling, rubber-bullet firing police dressed as an invading army, but from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The protests have come to suburbia and our hometown as well – most affectingly, one this weekend organized by Great Neck High School students which drew well over 500 people to Firefighters Park in Great Neck Plaza. (They withstood accusations on Facebook they were terrorists.)

They decried the structural racism at the heart of a police culture that has its origins in catching slaves, then morphed into an enforcement mechanism for white supremacy, along with so many other structural inequities that, by design, have kept African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities unequal in society.

While the elements of police brutality and criminal injustice are well-known, they are kept in force year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation by supremely politically powerful police unions.

Indeed, the most dramatic reform is to completely rebuild police departments – there are 16,000 of them. Some police departments have actually done this – Camden, NJ, for example – and it may be the only way to really root out the structural inequities as well as bias. Now Minneapolis’ city council has voted to disband its $193 million police department. What that actually means is that, like Camden, it intends to rebuild it in order to make it functional and appropriate in a country that supposedly is based on principles of “equal justice for all.”

They will likely scrutinize how police officers are recruited, hired and tracked for a record of police brutality (like Timothy Loehmann, who murdered 12-year old Tamir Rice). How are officers trained and what do they understand their mission to be? One trendy training program (as John Oliver disclosed on “Last Week Tonight”) is in the “art” of “Killology” where officers are instructed that if they are not predators prepared to kill, they have no business being police.

Not only are the problems well-known, but the solutions have been methodically investigated, analyzed, quantified and put in the form of recommendations – by the Obama administration after the Ferguson, Mo., riots that followed Michael Brown’s unprovoked murder by police. The task force developed a template for 21st Century Policing, including ending militarizing police. Obama’s Department of Justice under Eric Holder obtained consent decrees from the most vile police forces. But like the template to address a global pandemic handed to the Trump administration, it was immediately discarded and the consent decrees withdrawn.

George Floyd has created the rarest opportunity for reform, however.  With breathtaking speed for New York or any state government, major measures for a “Say Their Name” police reform agenda have already passed the Legislature allowing for transparency of prior disciplinary records by reforming 50-a, banning chokeholds, prosecuting callers for making a false race-based 911 report and designating the attorney general as an independent prosecutor in cases involving the death of unarmed civilian by law enforcement.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to go further to “seize the momentum,” correctly seeing this time as transformational to reinvent policing.

“This is a long time coming,” Cuomo said. “It is time to reimagine and reinvent policing for 2020…Police are public servants for that community – if the community doesn’t trust, doesn’t respect police, police can’t do their job.”

Democrats in Congress have also seized on this transformational moment as well, introducing the Justice in Policing Act,  which at the federal level would ban chokeholds; challenge “qualified immunity;” prohibit no-knock warrants; counter the trend toward militarization of police; require body and dashboard cameras; require independent prosecutors in cases of police brutality; establish a national database to track police misconduct; and (finally) make lynching a federal hate crime.

Others want more. There are calls to “defund police” – which like “They’re coming for your guns” and “Open Borders!” is a catchy slogan that fits on a sign that has been deliberately distorted by Trump and the Republicans and used to incite fear among (white suburban) voters, who are being told their neighborhoods will be overrun by criminals, gangs and rapists.

What “defund police” means is reassessing what functions the police do. Do we want protectors or warriors? Are police the best ones to address situations involving mental health, drug overdoses, domestic violence or school discipline? More accurately, people are calling for “divest-reinvest:” Take that money and invest in social workers, mental health professionals and guidance counselors, roles that the police have said they are not equipped to handle.

And it means investing in community programs that in themselves reduce crime. That’s what Cuomo is proposing in a Justice Agenda to root out the causes of criminal injustice, all on view in conjunction with the coronavirus epidemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color.  It goes to addressing the disparities in education, housing, health care, poverty.

But none of this will happen as long as Trump and the Republicans are in power.

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