American Police Must Own Their Racial Injustices

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Americans rarely discuss racial injustice. When they do, many people treat the subject like an exorcised demon, a distant past without present-day legacies. But Americans still live in a country characterized by racial hierarchy that infuses its institutions and organizations. Lawmakers, reflecting the will of a sizeable portion of the public, set the laws that made slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration possible. Schools, hospitals, businesses, and municipal agencies implemented those measures. And law enforcement exacted the consequences for disobeying them. 

Police have been central to American racial injustice since our nation’s founding, when nascent police forces enforced slave codes. Today, the wars on crime and drugs continue to produce disproportionate and destructive enforcement in black and brown neighborhoods. Communities’ of color deep distrust of law enforcement is multi-generational and well-founded. And as the recent “living while black” incidents show, many white people still view police as instruments of control over those communities, especially African American ones.

The effects of racially disparate policing remain imprinted on us as a people. Today, however, some police departments and leaders have moved to the front lines of America’s racial reckoning by explicitly recognizing historical racial injustice and committing to collaborative change in the communities most harmed by the structural racism their institutions have been so crucial in shaping.

Unlike popular community policing efforts, these reconciliation processes, particularly the police acknowledgement of harm, may meet a deeper need for moral alignment on historical and contemporary challenges

As we cover in our recent report, some police agencies and communities are engaged in unprecedented efforts to engage with and remedy fundamental historic harms and ongoing sources of mistrust. After reviewing dozens of examples of reconciliation endeavors, and from our work advising six cities—Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Birmingham, Gary, and Stockton, California—on piloting full reconciliation processes, we believe reconciliation offers something that other reform efforts don’t: a path towards mutual respect that enables sustainable improvement to public safety practices.

Our definition of reconciliation, developed at the National Network for Safe Communities and the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, is “a process whereby police and community engage in joint communication, research, and commitment to practical change to foster the mutual trust essential for effective public safety partnerships.” This process has four core elements: acknowledgment of harm; listening and narrative sharing; fact-finding; and policy and practice change. 

This work begins when police leaders engage residents by acknowledging the decades of harm caused by institutional flaws, and committing themselves and their departments to improvement that is largely guided by their partnership with harmed parties. Holding listening sessions with law enforcement leaders and community members and collecting local narratives—similar to testimony collected by truth and reconciliation commissions around the world—allow these two groups to air experiences and feel the moral weight of a collection of individual stories. To ground a healing process, communities also create authoritative records of the local history that has led to the need for reconciliation. Ultimately, these narratives and facts should not only help identify core areas for policy and practice change, but encourage mutual commitment to those changes. 

In the six pilot sites of the National Initiative, police and communities are embarking on reconciliation processes as part of a systemic rethinking of public safety. The Stockton Police Department, in particular, has demonstrated what reconciliation can look like in practice. Since 2016, Police Chief Eric Jones has held dozens of “listening sessions” with historically marginalized groups, including local Black Lives Matter activists, Latino community and East Asian immigrant groups, LGBTQIA leaders, organizations serving people returning from incarceration, and at-risk youth. 

These sessions begin from a tailored acknowledgment of the harms perpetrated by the police department against the specific community; participants are then invited to share their experiences that inform their perceptions of police. For example, in listening sessions with the city’s large Filipino community, the chief began by recognizing the segregation his department enforced to keep Filipinos within the city’s “Little Manila” neighborhood. Acknowledging these structural harms often leads to community participants speaking candidly about the issues that impact them, a crucial step in helping develop actionable measures for improvement.Stockton’s Police Department uses these sessions to identify both situations that require individual follow-up and consistent themes that can be built into the department’s policy, practice, training, and socialization. A series of listening sessions with family members of homicide victims, for instance, revealed persistent failures by the department to update families on the progress of their loved ones’ cases; as a result, homicide detectives and their supervisors are now directed to provide regular updates and track their communications.

The SPD also established a relationship with historian Elizabeth Hinton, author of “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” to integrate her research on the department’s history into SPD training. The department gave Dr. Hinton rare access to decades of police administrative files, and though her research is ongoing, she has already shared some crucial findings with the department’s executive team. Her research on the department’s heavy-handed response to the city’s 1968 uprising is being incorporated by the executive team into mandatory training on the SPD’s history and into current-day protest policing policy. 

Stockton is also leading the way in creating sustainable models for changing law enforcement practice. Chief Jones collaborates with a Community Advisory Board to review policy on an ongoing basis and implement changes driven by community experiences and input.  Recognizing the applicability of the reconciliation framework to the larger justice apparatus, the SPD also organized the Stockton Alliance for Equity (SAFE) Coalition—a body charged with “Reducing Harm and Exposure to the Criminal Justice System.” It’s made up of representatives from the local criminal justice system, including officials from the offices of the district attorney, the public defender, the county sheriff, and probation. The group has been meeting regularly to achieve this goal for more than 18 months, and in that time has set up a new drug diversion program, sought to enhance services and reduce justice-involvement for the homeless, and is currently developing a mass warrant amnesty program.  

Even when cities aren’t embarking on “full” reconciliation processes that incorporate the four core features mentioned above, implementing elements of reconciliation can open them to a philosophical shift on how to produce public safety. For example, in 2015, Montgomery, Alabama, Police Chief Kevin Murphy made a historic apology to Congressman John Lewis for the department’s role in the attacks on the Freedom Riders; he coupled that with a new mandatory police training curriculum on the history of race and policing in Montgomery. 

In Los Angeles, the Police Department, working through the Watts Gang Task Force, offered Watts residents an opportunity to hear LAPD officers acknowledge local residents’ pain, the department’s failure to quell violence, and its role in creating a toxic police-community relationship. This process ultimately led to an unprecedented Community Safety Partnership (CSP), which has been credited with helping transform the neighborhood. Shootings, homicides, and officer-involved shootings have declined steeply, while new partnerships have been established to provide services, alternatives to criminal justice involvement, and more. 

In Las Vegas, police layered reconciliation thinking onto a public safety strategy, resetting law enforcement focus to the specific kinds of violence the community wanted to stop in a long-neglected area of the city. Rockford, Illinois police owned past failures in small group meetings with black clergy and, in turn, achieved buy-in for a collaborative strategy to shut down an open-air drug market. 

As local progress continues, the need for reconciliation processes is also filtering up to national law enforcement organizations. In 2016, at the annual convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, then-President Terrence Cunningham apologized for “the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.” Cunningham’s successor, Louis Dekmar, gained prominence based on his apology for a lynching more than 70 years prior. 

Leaders of other institutions that have helped craft and enforce racialized harm—whether in medicine, housing, education, or otherwise—have been far less vocal. But police aren’t leaders of this work because it’s easy for them: quite the opposite. Reconciliation in general is challenging, often unpopular, and largely intangible work. The connotation of the word itself can rankle: many communities understandably object to calling this work “reconciliation,” as it can imply a return to a state of trust that never existed. Although the idea of apologizing for wrongs may seem obvious, police departments have been set up to be particularly ill-suited to do so. Most modern police departments emphasize quantitative measurement, minimize liability, tightly control information, and struggle with cultural divides between executive leadership (which may be more progressive) and rank-and-file and unions (many of which tend to be more reactionary and resistant to change). 

Jerry Wiley, a former captain of the Birmingham, Alabama, Police Department who is active in reconciliation work there, notes that it’s particularly hard for police to square blame with their self-perception and good intentions. “Almost all police departments have some sort of conflict with their underserved and over-policed communities. Admitting these harms, especially if they are recent—within the past decade and therefore during the tenure of many current command staffs—is much more difficult,” he explains. “When that acknowledgment is made, the fences of distrust between the community and police begin to be torn down.” 

Individual police officers are often unfamiliar with the history of their department or institution, especially as it concerns race relations. Most training academies don’t teach the darker sides of policing history, so America’s general amnesia about racial oppression means those who become police officers often have little knowledge of the checkered record of their profession. 

The Trump administration’s break with the criminal justice reform movement, coupled with its practice of stoking racial resentment, may make the prospect for these efforts seem even more bleak. Every new incident of excessive force and police shooting make clear that reconciliation is far away for many of the thousands of American police agencies.

Nonetheless, some local law enforcement agencies are still taking on racial reconciliation processes because they recognize their necessity. When they do, they won’t find a cure-all for the problems that still plague American policing: over-enforcement of petty offenses, under-protection of the highest violence areas, and failure to oversee and discipline abusive officers. These all require intentional, persistent focus. But cities can find in reconciliation a method for establishing a foundation for eventual transformative change. And as law enforcement has been at the front of enforcing racial injustice, perhaps it can now stand at the front of communal healing.

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