What happened in Minneapolis continues to reverberate in our collective consciousness. Many people smarter than I, better qualified to speak about it than I, and who write better than I are discussing the present situation, mostly in terms of systemic racism and all its horrors. Still, I feel it’s my civic duty to write. Ending racism, more specifically white supremacy, must of course be the ultimate goal. But I also think there are concrete policy steps that would go a long way towards that end. We have to stop the bleeding, both figurative and literal. I believe the following four steps should be taken. The first two could be done immediately, the second two would take more time but are absolutely doable.
End the use of chokeholds. I believe there are some police departments who have already made this policy. If there is some way to mandate this federally, so that no police officer can use neck restraint techniques, ever, how many lives could be saved? More and more police departments and law enforcement agencies have abandoned the practice of high speed chases because the risks so vastly outweigh the benefits. Better to let a suspect get away than risk a fatal crash. Why couldn’t this logic be applied to chokeholds?
End no-knock warrants. If a person’s home is his or her castle, then how should he or she be expected to respond if people come crashing through the front door, unannounced, with guns? The shocking death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville happened because a no-knock warrant was executed on her apartment, which as it turned out was the wrong place. When the police crashed in her boyfriend shot at them thinking it was a home invasion robbery. One officer was shot in the leg and Ms. Taylor was killed in a hail of returned fire. These warrants actually put police officers at unnecessary risk as well. My next door neighbor happens to be a police officer in the Metro-Dade County SWAT team. He explained to me that here, at least, a house is surrounded and they announce their presence once before crashing in. Florida and Oregon are the only two states that don’t allow no-knock warrants. It’s time for the rest of the country to follow suit.
These first two policies could and should be enacted immediately, with the stroke of a proverbial pen. The next two would be more complicated to effect, but are no less vital.
3) Create higher standards for when police officers can use deadly force. In case after case after case police officers have killed civilians with no other repercussion than paid administrative leave. Why? Because they only had to claim that they were in fear for their lives. This is how Philando Castile was murdered, also in Minnesota by the way. During a traffic stop in which he was probably racially profiled, Mr. Castile informed the police officer that he had a firearm in his car with a concealed weapons permit. The office panicked and killed Mr. Castile in front of his girlfriend, who remained miraculously calm throughout. Unfortunately, this standard of needing only to believe that there is a threat was codified by the Supreme Court in two separate cases from the 1980’s (Tennessee v Garner and Graham v Connor). In short, the court upheld that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. An officer need only have “objectively reasonable” belief that there is a threat. It’s very hard to overturn a Supreme Court decision. Ironically, one glimmer of hope comes from arch-conservative Justice Clarence Thomas. He has recently stated that stare decisis, which is the tradition of upholding prior court decisions, should be abandoned if the prior decisions were plainly wrong. This has sent chills down the spines of people who champion reproductive rights, but perhaps these two decisions from the 1980’s could be reviewed. Barring that, there’s always the Constitutional amendment route. But that takes a lot of work. People who support the police may say that this change in policy would leave police officers sitting ducks, but I doubt it. My response to that notion is this: I’d rather obey and respect a police office because I know he’d die for me than because he can kill me.
4). End the War on Drugs. It is pretty widely agreed among historians and sociologists that US drug policy, from its inception in the 1920’s, has been used as a cudgel to keep minorities oppressed. It is no accident, for one easy example, that the plant formerly known as hemp or cannabis came to be known as marijuana. In this way it came to be associated with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and ergo undesirable. In 1972 President Nixon upped the ante by declaring the War on Drugs. For Nixon this was a way to extend the reach of his power by targeting not only minorities, but also quashing political dissent. Drug use, mostly cannabis and psychedelics, was common in the so-called counter-culture which opposed the Viet Nam War and called for greater Civil Rights. Continuing the war by any means necessary and undoing the Civil Rights work of Lyndon Johnson were key goals for Nixon, so he sicked the FBI on his enemies. He even created a new wing of the FBI, the DEA. In the ensuing four, now almost five, decades drug use in the United States has increased every year and the prison population has exploded, disproportionately with black people. In the past decade or so we have slowly begun to right our course for various reasons. Cannabis has been legalized or decriminalized in all but eight states. And, embarrassing as this is to say, now that methamphetamine and opioid abuse are affecting more and more white people, mirabile dictu, society at large is coming to see drug addiction as a health problem and not a criminal one. Great. Better late than never, I guess. So let’s end the War on Drugs once and for all. It won’t be easy, because there are vast government bureaucracies devoted to the War on Drugs. And let’s not forget the Corrections industry, both public and private. What would they do with themselves? I’m not trying to be snarky but many many people would be out of jobs. A plan for transitioning should be in place, but it’s absolutely worth doing.
None of this will make racism and white supremacy go away. That’s a long work in progress. But I believe if these four steps were taken then it would at least be harder for racists to act out their racism under the aegis of public policy. Change the behavior, and hopefully the attitudes may change too. They say change can come from the outside in. We hope.