By Povneet Dhillon
Recently, we have mourned the loss of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Charles Smith, Darrien Hunt, Kajieme Powell and Cameron Tillman – all men of color, all killed by the police. It seems impossible to count all the accounts of “use of excessive force,” all the “paid leaves of absence” and all the times that it seems we have not moved past the stark and startling injustices of the Jim Crow era. U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder expressed the frustration of our inability to facilitate discussion needed to promote positive racial relations in a powerful statement: “though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
During the Jim Crow era, society regarded people of color as the lesser class. This was epitomized in public spaces, which were segregated between Whites and people of color. As enforcers of the law, police officers were expected to maintain the borders at all costs. One disturbing story of how the Jim Crow justice system works comes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Christopher Lollie, a black father, made the mistake of sitting in an undesignated space. Mr. Lollie had just gotten off work and was waiting to pick up his children from school. A security guard walked past the other parents and told Mr. Lollie that he was sitting in a private “employee only” space. In an act of deviance evocative of—though perhaps not as memorable as--Rosa Parks, Mr. Lollie refused to leave.
Soon, a white police officer arrived, asking Mr. Lollie to identify himself. Mr. Lollie did not believe he had broken any laws. He did not see a sign labeled “employee only” above his chair, so he did not feel there was a reason to explain his identity.
After some back-and-forth, two other officers were called for reinforcement. It became apparent to Mr. Lollie that he was being harassed and he knew why. Attempting to deescalate the situation by appealing to the officer on a personal level, Mr. Lollie mistakenly called a white officer “brother.” The officer replied “I am not your brother” and began to reach toward him. Mr. Lollie then said, “please don’t touch me... I haven’t done anything wrong.” Ignoring his passive demeanor, the officers used force to subdue Mr. Lollie. Children could be heard screaming while Mr. Lollie desperately pleaded help.
A Jim Crow story long left in the past…?
I intentionally failed to mention two important facts in Mr. Lollie’s experience; it took place on January 31st, 2014 and the officers used a taser against him. This encounter shows how such a trivial matter has the potential of a human rights violation. Oppression through racial profiling has invaded our everyday lives, just as it did during the Jim Crow era. Take a look:
- The ColorLines and The Chicago Reporter found that African Americans were overrepresented among police shooting victims in America’s 10 largest cities.
- Black drivers are threatened or experience the use of force by a police officer at double the rate of white or Hispanic drivers.
- African American males are six times more likely to become incarcerated than white males.
The stats hold true in our nation’s capital as well. According to JPI’s report, titled “A Capital Concern,” nine out of 10 young people in Washington, D.C.’s Department of Corrections (DOC) and 96% of youth committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) are African American. Contrastingly, African Americans only make up 54% of D.C.’s total population. JPI has found that the arrest and incarceration rates of D.C. do not correlate with the crime rates. If police are given more resources, they will arrest more people for low-level and nonviolent offenses, disproportionately affecting people of color.
Many people do not realize that the few incidents of police brutality that have been reported by the media are not isolated occurrences. They often occur in areas “protected” by a police force with a history of enforcing Jim Crow etiquette or racial profiling. For example, Michael Brown was shot down in a city with a police force that reportedly stopped Blacks almost seven times the rate of Whites at vehicle stops. For more than the past ten years, the Ferguson Police Department has consistently stopped Blacks more frequently than any other race during vehicle stops.
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A recently popular solution to police brutality is requiring police officers to wear body cameras; which is the first -- but not the most crucial -- step to police accountability. Many incidents of police brutality, including Christopher Lollie’s and Eric Garner’s, have been videotaped by a nearby cell phone or surveillance camera. Many of these incidents have not resulted in investigations or discipline of the police officer. Body cameras do not solve the bigger issue of policing practices that do not meet the needs of all the communities they serve.
In order to ensure accountability and end racial profiling, which leads to police brutality, our law enforcement agencies need to embrace a community-based approach to policing. Police officers should be assigned to the same neighborhood every shift. This tactic will encourage officers to get to know community members and see beyond the color of their skin. Whenever possible, policing should be done on a personal level. JPI reported that when community policing was embraced in San Diego, there were no complaints of racial profiling, police misconduct or abuse. If officers in Los Angeles had taken care to know the members of the community they served then Ezell Ford, who was known by neighbors to have a mental illness, could still be alive.
One crucial aspect of community policing is civilian review boards that handle police misconduct reports. These boards should have the authority and resources to independently investigate misconduct complaints and discipline culpable police officers. Currently, some police forces have independent civilian advisory boards but they only recommend disciplinary action. Many areas have independently created programs, such as Cop Block, which consist of volunteers who attempt to raise awareness of police misconduct and put pressure on the individuals who are responsible. The problem is that these programs are not met with cooperation from law enforcement and police commissioners still retain the sole authority to discipline.
When the Department of Justice releases a report that 75% of stops in a major U.S. city had no lawful justification, it is evident that some U.S. residents are still living in the Jim Crow era. Each racial profiling incident has the potential to become a police brutality tragedy. Human rights cannot be left to chance. We fought for them before and we should prepare to fight for them again until Jim Crow is forever exiled.
Povneet Dhillon is wrapping up her fall research internship at Justice Policy Institute. This month, she is graduating from George Mason University with a B.A. in Criminology, Law and Society and a minor in Nonprofit Studies. She plans to pursue a career in justice-related advocacy in her hometown of Richmond, VA.