The Ugly Truth About Police Reform in the Age of Trump

Police know how to ease racial bias and excessive force cases. But some choose not to.

April 30, 2018

Even by today’s intense standards, last week was a remarkably disheartening one in the annals of policing. It began with new questions in Washington and New York about whether federal prosecutors working for Attorney General Jeff Sessions will ever bring civil rights charges against the police officer who killed Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014. Then we learned the extent to which Denver taxpayers have funded police settlements in brutality cases that help frame the departure of the city’s police chief. A reformer, Chief Robert White clashed sharply with Denver police union officials, a story and struggle as old as policing itself.

On and on it went. On Wednesday, Twitter was ablaze with the story of Virginia man who claims he was harassed by the police for giving a homeless man change outside a 7-Eleven. On Thursday, a Wisconsin prosecutor inexplicably chose not to charge two cops who broke down a mentally ill man’s door and Tased him to death in the shower. And on Friday Herman Bell, the former Black Liberation Army soldier, was released from prison in New York to the howls of cops everywhere furious that parole would ever be granted to a man serving time for the murder of police officers.

It was a week, in other words, in which the nation’s grand divide over policing was in full view. But it wasn’t until Saturday that I came across a thoughtful essay about the nature of policing in Huffpost that pares the problem down to its nub. It was written by Ronald Davis, a veteran cop who spent eight years as police chief in East Palo Alto, Cal., before joining the Obama administration’s Justice Department. “I am a black man, a black father, and a black cop,” Davis wrote as he tried to reconcile the gulf that exists between those who lament police brutality in all its racially disparate ways and those who excuse it. Davis wrote:

I believe the vast majority of police officers do not engage in police brutality, but when tragedies such as the killing of unarmed black people occur, I question why so many of the victims are people who look like me. I’ve been racially profiled by the police. I’ve experienced discrimination in both my personal and professional life. I can’t help but to wonder if these shootings, regardless of their legality, stem from implicit bias, our society’s fear of black men, racism or a combination.

Notice that Davis isn’t wondering whether racial bias exists in policing or whether it has disastrous effects on communities of color. He isn’t pretending that it’s just a coincidence that so many unarmed black men are gunned down or harassed by police. He’s just wondering about the contents of the grim brew of prejudice at work. What he has figured out, after 30 years as a cop, is that “real reconciliation” between police and the communities they serve “can only occur when it starts with the truth” and that “selective ignorance” over policing does no one any good. About that “truth,” Davis wrote:

We must learn the history of policing in this country and the role police have played in enforcing discriminatory laws. The truth is, significant racial disparities still exist in our policing and criminal justice systems. Many of the systems and practices in policing that exist today were designed in the 1950s and ’60s to enforce discriminatory laws and oppress black Americans who are still being and feeling oppressed at this very moment.

Despite the efforts of good officers, the continued use of these draconian operational systems and practices allow structural racism to remain and spread, and it allows racist officers to operate with impunity. And yes, we must accept that there are, in fact, some racist police officers. We must also acknowledge that the vast majority of cops are not racist and they honor the law enforcement profession.

What Davis probably also acknowledges, privately if not publicly, is that police unions and the insular, defensive, self-defeating mentality behind them still are one of the most significant obstacles to the sorts of reforms that he and so many other Americans would like to see. Unless and until all those “good apples” in police forces stand up for reform, unless and until all the officers Davis says “honor the law enforcement profession” root out the union obstructionists in their midst, we are doomed to endure the daily drip of excessive force cases aimed primarily at black suspects.

This is especially true with a White House run by a president who sees value in fueling a false “American carnage” motif and a Justice Department run by an attorney general bent on restoring the failed law-and-order policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Their goal, their policy, is to widen the gulfs that exist, not just between the police and their communities but between rank-and-file cops and police officials. Imagine being Ronald Davis and earning wisdom through decades as a cop only to see the lessons you’ve learned, the lessons you’ve earned, ignored or undermined by men like Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions.

Here’s another truth for Davis. To their credit some police departments are reforming themselves in spite of the actions of the federal government. And to their shame some police departments are seeking and finding succor in the Trump administration’s approach to criminal justice. To this latter category of police officials, the nation’s low violent crime rate doesn’t matter. The relatively safety of our cities doesn’t matter. The low rate of police deaths by gunfire doesn’t matter, either. What matters is that there is still an “us” and a “them” and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that continues to be deadly to both the guilty and the innocent. 

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: ThinkStock)